Mistranslation and Misinterpreting. 11. An International Interpreter and His Powerful Client in the Media Spotlight.

A further case of an interpreter reaping his or her 15 minutes of fame occurred in September 2009 when a flamboyant enfant terrible of international diplomacy, Libya’s President Muammar Gaddafi, rejected the use of the official U.N. interpreting services and insisted on using an interpreter from his own entourage. The resulting marathon speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York (recorded by media cameras and microphones) and the effect on the interpreter, however predictable, can only be decribed as bizarre. Although the anonymous Libyan interpreter emerges with honour from the unfair ordeal, the didactic value of the incident may ensure use of this priceless footage as future interpreting course material. This is how The (British) Times Online reported the extraordinary incident on 25 September.

“Muammar Gaddafi’s personal translator broke down towards the end of the Libyan leader’s meandering 94-minute UN speech and had to be rescued by a U.N. Arabic speaker.

The Libyan translator matched the “Brother Leader of the Revolution” word-for-word for 90 minutes before collapsing from exhaustion, just after Mr Gaddafi denounced the popular Ottawa Treaty outlawing landmines. […] The translator broke down as the man once denounced by Ronald Reagan as the “mad man” of the desert embarked on a tirade about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an explanation of his call for a single-state solution called “Isratine”.

According to the New York Post, the Libyan translator shouted: “I just can’t take it any more.”

Rules specify that UN translators provide live interpretation only for 40 minutes at a time, and they are accustomed to seamless handovers. But Libya insisted on using its own translators for both English and French rather than one of the 25 world-class Arabic translators at the UN.

Libyan diplomats said that Mr Gaddafi would be speaking a dialect only his own staff could understand. In the event, he spoke standard Arabic.

Mr Gaddafi spoke six times longer than the 15-minute limit set by the UN General Assembly. But he did not come close to Fidel Castro’s record of four-and-a-half hours, set in 1960.”

The dramatic dénouement is a credit to the high level of professionalism of U.N. interpreters:

“The Libyan translator was bailed out by the UN’s Arabic section chief, Rasha Ajalyqeen, who stepped in without missing a beat. Ms Ajalyqeen provided English translation for the remainder of the speech, but sometimes appeared to be chuckling to herself at Mr Gaddafi’s extravagant and rambling language.”

(See the full Report here)

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