Posted tagged ‘Mistranslation’

Translation 25. International Air Traffic Control and the Need for Good English

30 December 2010

International air travel is an everyday area of activity where misinterpreting, mistranslating and misunderstanding of language can have serious or tragic consequences.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has finally fixed 11 March 2011 as the date by which international communications between air traffic controllers and foreign aircraft must take place in English, especially in landing and take-off operations. [See here.]

Although it is difficult to find online documented examples of incidents where poor English communication between the control tower and pilots has caused danger or contributed to plane crashes, here are two cases for consideration.

On 25 January 1990, AVIANCA Flight 052 from Medellín (Colombia) to New York crashed near busy JFK Airport after circling in a long queue of aircraft during very bad weather conditions and, finally, running out of fuel. 73 passengers and crew were killed and many of the 85 surviving passengers were seriously injured. Ironically, the survivors owe their lives to the fact that at the crash site there was no outbreak of fire because there was no fuel left to ignite.

According to Wikipedia’s account of the accident and the subsequent inquiry, “The NTSB’s report on the accident determined the cause as pilot error due to the crew never declaring a fuel emergency to air traffic control as per International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines.” However, in the 6th part of a documentary re-enactment (in English) of the fatal journey, it is suggested that, in addition to the very bad weather conditions and the queue of circling aircraft with which traffic controllers had to deal, one of the contributing factors was that the Colombian First Officer used the English word ‘priority’ instead of ‘emergency’ to New York Air Traffic Controllers.

A second example, in which a Russian traffic controller’s English was clearly inadequate in an extended emergency, comes from the Moscow Times of 11 November 2010. This report on new ICAO regulations on the use of English contains an online link to an 8-minute “You Tube” audio recording of the embarrassing misunderstandings by the Russian air traffic controller of a Mayday call from a Swiss pilot following a “bird strike” on takeoff. (The initial crucial word not understood was “Mayday”.)

The article is written by Oksana Gavshina, Anastasia Dagaveya, and Vladimir Filonov.

English Language to Rule Skies

“Pilots and air traffic controllers at airports serving international flights will only speak English starting in March.

Russian pilots and air traffic controllers at the country’s international airports will be required to conduct all conversations in English starting in March 2011, and the practice could eventually be extended to domestic flights.

English could become the only language for communication between traffic controllers and pilots for non-military Russian flights, said Alexander Neradko, head of the Federal Air Transportation Agency.
Currently, both Russian and English are used for radio communication at the country’s international airports, while the rest only use Russian.

Neradko said it was difficult for dispatchers to accept incoming flights in two languages, posing a safety risk. The conversations are held on one frequency, meaning that they are heard by all pilots, who need to know what nearby planes are doing, he said.

In March, all international airports will switch to English. At the same time, pilots and staff will be required to demonstrate Level 4 conversational skills according to the six-level scale of the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO.

The organization had planned to introduce that requirement in 2008, but a three-year delay was requested for several countries, including Russia, to train pilots and flight control staff.

In Russia, knowledge of “radio-exchange terminology,” a standard set of commands and phrases, is all that is needed now, Neradko said.
The new ICAO standards would require a knowledge of English comparable to that of graduates from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, he said, adding that companies were ready to make the change.

Level 4 under the ICAO system is roughly equivalent to the knowledge of a high school student who scores a B- or C+ in English, said Sergei Melnichenko, deputy head of the language school Kompleng, which has a program for aviation professionals.

The current level is adequate for standard flights, he said. But in an emergency, more fluency is needed to give advice and make quick decisions, requiring at least Level 4 knowledge, Melnichenko said.

In March, a Swiss Air flight taking off from St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport struck a flock of birds, causing vibrations in both engines and forcing the pilots to issue a Mayday signal. The air traffic controller was unable to understand the problem for several minutes until a pilot on another plane explained the situation in Russian.

An eight-minute audio recording of the incident, including further miscommunication once the plane had safely landed, was eventually posted online. Aviation officials have confirmed its authenticity.” [The article continues.]

Mistranslation 19. Two Unusual Cases of Successful Literal Translators: Pedro Carolino and Basil Thomson

30 June 2010

In those language pairs where literal translation is possible, competent translators learn very early in their studies to discriminate between appropriate literal translation between the two languages (where the result is acceptable in the target language and fully conveys the meaning of the original text) and inappropriate literal translation (where the target language version is linguistically inappropriate or fails to convey the meaning of elements in the original).

Literal translation in this second sense usually leads to serious misunderstandings or gaps in the communication but it also has the potential to make people laugh! Given this potential, it is not surprising that inappropriate literary translation (like malaproprisms and similar genuine language errors) may not all be the result of ignorance but may be deliberately confected to amuse others. The two egregious cases chosen for description represent both types and they have provoked much laughter over a considerable amount of time (140 and 50 years, respectively): they may perhaps be dubbed celebrity literal mistranslations. The first was written by the Portuguese citizen Pedro Carolino, equipped with great initiative, chutzpah and ignorance of English. The second less well known example of published literal translations, on the other hand, was deliberately confected to amuse his fellow Argentine citizens by Basil Thomson.

Pedro Carolino

On the face of it, Pedro Carolino seems to have been an opportunist out to make money in the nineteenth century language tuition field. In 1855, he published (or self-published) O Novo Guia da Conversação, em Português e Inglês. This appears to be his adaptation of José da Fonseca’s 1853 O Novo guia da conversação em francês e português, and, indeed, the latter’s name is also on this first edition, but perhaps more as a courtesy.

The volume became famous in Europe for its constant and colossal language errors, which were based mainly on Carolino’s sheer ignorance of English and his daring literal translations of the Fonseca items into “English” using a French-English dictionary (à coups de dictionnaire!). In 1883, the exotic English part of his original Portuguese-English Conversation manual was published separately in Britain and USA as English as She is Spoke. Well over a century later, it is still in print, in English, as a work of humour.

My 1970 edition (London, St George’s Press), which bears only the name of Pedro Carolino, is subtitled “Extracts from The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English”. In his Introduction, James Millington comments: “…it has been reserved to our own time for a soi disant instructor to perpetrate – at his own expense – the monstruous joke of publishing a Guide to Conversation in a language of which it is only too evident that every word is utterly strange to him.” It is Middleton who offers the conclusion that, to produce his bizarre language teaching offering, Carolino had used the Portuguese-French phrase-book and a French-English dictionary mentioned above. [The contemporary US edition was published by Dover.]

Interested readers are invited to log on to to see the various editions of English as She is Spoke at present available, including a Kindle one (but “not available” when I looked yesterday).
(Update: A better informed correspondent has kindly sent me the link to a FREE download of English as She is Spoke but note Gutenberg’s Advice: “Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook.”)

Here are a few samples of Carolino’s ignorant genius. (Speakers of French and Portuguese will detect many literal translations from French and a few from Portuguese which underlie, and inspire! – the curious book.)

From the Author’s Preface:
“A choice of familiar dialogues, clean of gallicisms … ”
“We expect then, who the little book (for the care of what we wrote him, and for her typographical correction) that may be worth the acceptation of the studious persons, and especialy of the Youth, at which we dedicate him particularly.”

From “Familiar Phrases”:
“Go to send for.
“Have you say that?”
“At what purpose have say so?”
“Put your confidence at my.”
“At what o’clock dine him?”
“Apply you at the study during that you are young.”

From “Familiar Dialogues”:
“With a gardener”
“It delay me to eat some wal nuts-kernels; take care not leave to pass the season.”
“Be tranquil, I shall throw you any nuts during the shell is green yet.”

From “Anecdotes”
“A man one’s was presented at a magistrate which had a considerable Library.
“What you make?” beg him the magistrate. “I do some books,” he was answered.”

Basil Thomson

The second successful practitioner of inappropriate literal translation was an expatriate Englishman who had settled in Argentina in 1949 and worked as a journalist for the English language Buenos Aires Herald (until1979 when he was expelled by the military junta). In addition to his (serious) news dispatches, Thomson published a number of columns in which he set out to offer his bilingual middle and upper class Argentinean, Anglo-argentine and Celtic-argentine readers the pleasure of laughing at the frequent inappropriate literal translations from Spanish in the English narrative of a character whom he called Ramon (no accent). These columns (“Ramon Writes”) were highly successful from 1949 to 1977 and were finally published in book form by the newspaper in 1979, ostensibly to raise funds for a charity but possibly as a tribute to Ramon, aka Thomson, after his harassment and expulsion by the military régime. (Ramon Writes, Buenos Aires Herald, 1979)

Although aimed at a much smaller audience than that achieved in the lifetime and perhaps a century after the death of Pedro Carolino, Basil Thomson’s deliberate liberties with literal translation may still be enjoyed by speakers of Spanish, in particular Argentinians.

Here are some samples of Basil’s work. It should be noted that the English sounds so peculiar not only because of inappropriate words and phrases (and specially coined English words) but also because of double negatives and Spanish patterns of word order for clauses and sentences. Some readers will also recognise echos of the fabled exotic English of some expatriate Latin Americans.

On page 10, Thomson describes how Ramon was born. After rejecting the idea of writing a dictionary of entertaining “Irish-Argentinianisms”, “I put myself in the place of a fairly advanced and confident but careless student and expressed myself as I imagined he would. This involved thinking in vernacular Spanish and writing in English.”

The compilers chose this extract as their favourite one. I have added a few glosses.
“I supplicate you that you pass of high [ignore] so much discourtesy of my part for not writing these past four months.

What passed was that I had planned to go to that one in person and because of that I desisted. It had of object my visit to see if I could accommodate myself in some ministry or gobernation after they happened the events that are of public dominion.

But in vespers of [on the eve of] absenting myself there writes me a friend of the faculty to tell me that my voyage would be to the divine button because the things have not changed themselves nothing: the milics have copated themselves everything.

As you can await, I felt myself disillusioned, because I give myself count [realise] that this life of camp [country] doesn’t fall me well, and of commerce I do not want to occupy myself. For me, who coursed three years of studies of public traducer there should always exist entry into the official life. With the patience of always, I will wait.” (p. 12)

Just one more:
“At my arrival I went to visit a known one who is familiar of another, who is vinculated with a man who knows all the world. He gave me a letter of presentation and I presented myself and was received very amiably. This man he gave me a card, we took the coffee together and he redacted a letter for me directed to the secretary of redaction of one of the principal pregonators of the country.

“I won’t molest you with the all the letter but it was something formidable. It said that I desire to associate myself with the profession and, it being possible, to incorporate myself to the paper “of your dignified direction”. And a lot more, ending as usual, with “with my motives expressed I make propitious the opportunity to salute you attentively without any other particular.”

(This work is listed as Out of Print by and on there is only one copy available, for $32. First come, first served!)

Mistranslation and Misinterpretation, 12. Medical-legal Consequences

4 November 2009

In English-speaking countries like USA, Canada and Australia, where there is a long tradition of immigration from non-English-speaking countries, the existence of large numbers of immigrants from many countries has led to the setting up of extensive and expensive interpreting and translating services to assist them in their new country. Anecdotal evidence that the systems are subject to great pressure and do not always work well, as well as of the potentially serious consequences of not using interpreters in medical situations involving non-English-speaking citizens, is contained in excerpts from the following reports.

“Unfortunately, cases in which language barriers cause compromised quality of care and preventable medical errors may become increasingly common in the United States. Almost 50 million Americans speak a primary language other than English at home, and 22.3 million have limited English proficiency (LEP), defined as a self-rated English-speaking ability of less than “very well.” The last decade witnessed a 47% increase in the number of Americans speaking a non-English language at home and a 53% increase in the number of LEP Americans.”

“High-profile cases are accumulating of medical errors due to language barriers. Lack of an interpreter for a 3-year-old girl presenting to the emergency department with abdominal pain resulted in several hours’ delay in diagnosing appendicitis, which later perforated, resulting in peritonitis, a 30-day hospitalization, and two wound site infections. A resident’s misinterpretation of two Spanish words (se pegó misinterpreted as “a girl was hit by someone else” instead of “the girl hit herself” when she fell off her tricycle) resulted in a 2-year-old girl with a clavicular fracture and her sibling mistakenly being placed in child protective custody for suspected abuse for 48 hours.
Misinterpretation of a single Spanish word (intoxicado misinterpreted in this case to mean “intoxicated” instead of its intended meaning of “feeling sick to the stomach”) led to a $71 million dollar malpractice settlement associated with a potentially preventable case of quadriplegia.(15)”
(From Note: It is necessary to register with as a health practitioner or as “Consumer/Other” before accessing their professional articles.)

The brief mention of that latter case offers an example of the dangers of not using a qualified interpreter in medical situations. It also gives an insight into the idiosyncrasies of the American system of litigation. Further details are available here.

“Providing adequate translation is also a safety issue and a potential liability issue, Flores said, noting a successful $71 million Florida lawsuit in the case of a teenager who was left a quadriplegic.
“He was an 18-year-old who went to a sporting event at his high school, wasn’t feeling well and walked over to his girlfriend’s house. Just before he collapsed he said, ‘Me siento intoxicado.’ The paramedics came along, and the girlfriend didn’t speak a lot of English, and the mother of the girlfriend didn’t, either. They mentioned that word, and the paramedics said, “Oh, yeah, intoxicado, that means intoxicated. So they took him to the emergency room.
“He ended up going to the intensive-care unit because he had gone into a coma, and for 48 hours they were working him up for drug abuse. Then they finally did a CT scan, and it turned out he had actually had a brain aneurysm and that it burst, and he got a huge intracranial bleed,” Flores said.
Intoxicado, in fact, can mean nausea.
“That is one example of why, if you spent $30 for an interpreter, you wouldn’t have had to spend $71 million to settle a lawsuit,” he said.”

Translation 8. Fluency in foreign languages. The case of Dr Condoleezza Rice

22 March 2009

Three days after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s momentary embarrassment about the Reset button on 9 March 2009 (see my brief earlier blog), the official American mistranslation of the name on the diplomatic gift to the Russian Foreign Minister was still garnering media news. Joseph Curl, of The Washington Times (not to be confused with the more prestigious Washington Post) reported, in an article titled ‘State, media ‘button’ lips over Russian gaffe’, that he had tried in vain to get an explanation from the State Department of how such an error could have been made. Towards the end of his article, Curl reports the concern of Roger Aranof (of the organisation Accuracy in Media) that no media representative had asked a question at Press briefings after the unfortunate linguistic gaffe. He quotes Aranof as saying, “If this had happened in the Bush administration, to President Bush in particular or even to Condi Rice, it would have gotten a whole lot more publicity and ridicule by the mainstream media.” To which Curl adds this comment, “Then again, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would likely have caught the mistake – she’s fluent in Russian.” (

The latter is the latest of hundreds (probably thousands) of echoes in the media and on the Internet of the assertion that Dr Condoleezza Rice (Hillary Clinton’s predecessor as Secretary of State) is “fluent in Russian”, or an “expert in the Russian language”, and speaks French, German and Spanish (at unspecified levels). To my knowledge Rice has neither claimed nor disowned this significant ability. Furthermore, during her recent four years of intense exposure as Secretary of State to the news cameras and microphones at international meetings and official discussions with foreigners, I cannot recall her saying anything on camera in Russian.

Preliminary comment on fluency, in foreign or non-native languages

Simple references to fluency in a foreign language (FL) and the epithet ‘fluent in language X’ are basically vague and subjective judgements. Both words derive from the base meaning of ‘to flow’ (fluid, etc.) They refer to a person’s proficiency in a language, often depending on the linguistic background and proficiency in foreign languages of the person making the judgement. As commonly used to describe people, especially in the Anglophone media and by persons who do not speak or read foreign languages (including many journalists), both terms are very complimentary and tend to imply a high degree of FL proficiency and also tend to relate to proficiency in comprehending and using the spoken FL. However, there are other important fluencies: proficiency in reading and writing. In intellectual and professional life, notably in the academic world, the latter pair of proficiencies are of much more practical and professional use and it is these language aspects which are emphasised on graduate language courses leading to a relevant PhD speciality, for example Russian (or, formerly Soviet) studies. The main foreign language career need of graduates will normally be to read and assess written texts in the foreign language; spoken proficiency is therefore often a minor consideration and tends to be at a lower and more practical conversational level. This is a well known fact of academic life.

Assessing fluency (proficiency) is a much more complex matter. The European Union (or Community) of 27 nations, which conducts so much of its voluminous political and economic business in multiple languages (at astronomical expense), offers a very sophisticated table of degrees of expertise with a (foreign) language. There are 6 grades, from A1 (elementary) to C2 (near native ability). (

For the specific needs of the U.S. Government, five levels of spoken (S) and reading (R) skills are described in the classification issued by the United States Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. State Department:

2: Limited working proficiency

2S Able to satisfy routine special demands and limited work requirements.

2R Sufficient comprehension to read simple, authentic written material in a form equivalent to usual printing or typescript on familiar subjects.

3: General professional proficiency

3S Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations.

3R Able to read within a normal range of speed and with almost complete comprehension.

4: Advanced professional proficiency

4S Able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels.

4R Nearly native ability to read and understand extremely difficult or abstract prose, colloquialisms and slang.

5: Functional native proficiency

5S Speaking proficiency is functionally equivalent to that of a highly articulate well-educated native speaker.

5R Reading proficiency is functionally equivalent to that of the well-educated native reader.

Note: This official document, understandably, does not mention Level one: Elementary proficiency, which could be summarised as basic tourist ability in the foreign language. ( )

It should be emphasised that the differences between each of those grades of proficiency are exponential (rather like earthquake grades on the Richter Scale). One does not move up a numerical notch without substantial effort. For example, a Conference Interpreter would need grade 5 proficiency. (The more detailed prescriptions in Chapter 4 of U.S. Aid Handbook 28 ( give a better idea of these different skill levels.)

Bearing in mind those rigorous standards and the increasing dominance of English as the principal international lingua franca, it is not surprising that citizens and officials from English-speaking (‘Anglophone’) countries have had a poor record in foreign language skills, especially in contrast with citizens of European countries. In USA, Secretaries of State, including the present incumbent, Clinton, have tended to follow this convenient pattern of not bothering (and not having to bother) with proficiency in foreign languages (Rice is an exception to this pattern, like her European-American predecessors Albright, Schultz and Kissenger and President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski.


A survey of the available Internet evidence about Dr Rice’s Russian proficiency revealed the following.

Dr Rice’s three university degrees are in political science. In her undergraduate degree, language courses are sometimes mentioned vaguely in biographical comments but the number, type and levels are not specified. I have found no specific reference to “Condy” Rice studying Russian (although she must have done this). In the Wikipedia article on her (which doesn’t mention fluency in Russian), Dr Rice is described as an expert on the Soviet Union (and indeed she served as such under President George H.W. Bush). Also mentioned by wikipedians is her PhD in Political Science written at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver (a dissertation focusing on military policy and politics in Czechoslovakia.

In view of all the complimentary references to fluency, the failure to find any concrete facts on Dr Rice’s Russian studies was frustrating. After all, to be fluent in a language, a university course in Russian 101 (and, preferably, 201) would be a good basis, but this is unlikely to get you very far along the path of being proficient enough in the language to converse on social, political and diplomatic themes in international gatherings – although it is also true that, in the social events connected with international meetings, English is the lingua franca – which is part of the reason why many “Anglo” diplomats and politicians do not feel the need to invest considerable effort necessary for attaining fluency in a foreign language. Nevertheless, some knowledge of the interlocutor’s language can create or strengthen empathy between officials of two nationalities. (A very notable recent “Anglo” exception to this rule of thumb is Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia, whose fluent command of Mandarin has been recorded several times on TV and radio News and has achieved star status and much kudos for him in China.)

Further Internet searches for specific references to Condoleezza Rice speaking in other tongues, especially Russian, reveal only a few clues, but these are quite useful.

Several parts of the following much-quoted Fox News report on 21 April 2005 (attributed to Associated Press) add pieces to the fluency puzzle. Here Dr Rice is responding to Russian callers’ questions on a Russian radio talkback programme. While it is not clear if the questions are in Russian (or translated for her) or in English, it is patently clear that her monosyllabic ‘ Da’ and ‘ Nyet’ before answering in English do not prove fluency or confidence in Russian. The italicised bracketed […] comments below are my observations on the language proficiency (or fluency) displayed.

“Rice Says in Russian She’ll Run for President” (,2933,154104,00.html)

“One day you will run for president?” Rice was asked on Ekko Moskvy Radio.

“President, da, da,” Rice readily replied. That, as nearly everyone knows, even if they are not fluent in Russian as Rice is believed to be, means yes. [“believed to be”]

“Nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet,” Rice quickly added, taking herself out of the race as fast as she’d gotten into it. [Alternatively, perhaps she had misunderstood the question, if it was asked in Russian. But that possibility would undermine the whole Fox ‘scoop’.]

“The former academic, whose specialty was Soviet studies, is fluent in Russian – usually. Moments before, in response to a series of friendly questions from listeners, Rice had begun her answers by saying “Da”. Her mood was clearly upbeat as she assured one listener, in Russian, that “the United States and the American people respect the great culture of Russia, respect the great people of Russia, and we know that Russia has a very good future ahead of it.”

[Such a platitudinous diplomatic mantra is easy enough to memorise beforehand and even to have written in one’s notes. Russian 101, or 201.]

“She told another listener, in English, “The United States is not an enemy of Russia.”

[This is puzzling because the Russian version would only require minimal Russian 101 level knowledge: five (or six) Russian words for nine English words. Why not make the effort?]

“And when a Russian girl asked how she could become like Condoleezza Rice, she replied in English, “I don’t want to talk about myself.”

[Another easy short sentence delivered in English, when the listener would have been delighted and impressed to hear it in Russian.]

“She did, but only when the caller pressed. I enjoy very much what I do now. I have great friends and family,” Rice said.

[Simple words, requiring little ‘fluency’, but still delivered in English.]

“Rice also acknowledged in her reply, switching to Russian, that the Russian language “is very difficult…. It is difficult to speak without mistakes.”

[More Russian 101– four words: Russkiy yazyk ochen’ trudniy, plus another four words for the important final admission: Trudno govorit’ byez oshibok. Surely it should not be ‘trudno’ for a fluent person.]

“And she proved it a few minutes later by accidentally applying for the job of U.S. president.”

[Maybe. Maybe not. See my comment above on the possible misunderstanding.]

In another report on that same occasion (21 April 2005), which was a golden opportunity to speak directly with the people of Moscow and establish a rapport with them, prior to President Bush’s visit to Moscow in connection with the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, Condoleezza Rice gave answers to email questions in “a freewheeling, hourlong interview on radio that included the geopolitical and the personal as she tried to reassure listeners that the United States was not working against their country.” At the end of the programme she “ventures briefly into Russian”, says she is out of practice but was still described politely by a listener as speaking “fluently”. [“out of practice”]

(Tyler Marshall and David Holley

In what may be yet another (blunter) European account of the two incidents, supplementary details are added:

“Rice BUSTED. Dr. Fraud can’t speak Russian after all.” (Friday, 22 April 2005 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) (

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried out her rusty Russian in a Moscow radio interview Wednesday, only to get caught out by a question on whether she might run for president. “Da (Yes),” Rice answered in Russian, before realizing her misunderstanding and hastily adding “Nyet” (No) — seven times.

“It’s too complicated to answer!” Rice, in Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin, started out in English. “It is an opportunity for me to come back to Russia, a place I love very much. I love the culture and the language.” “She then switched into Russian, but quickly hit trouble. “Apparently meaning to say that she would like to do her next interview in the language of her host, she chose a verb that sounded more like “to earn money” than the Russian for “to do.”

All the indications in the above exchanges are that Rice is not fluent in spoken Russian, or chose not to be fluent on these occasions even though her rapport with her Russian listeners (and, indirectly, that of the U.S. Government and President, whom she was representing) might have been enhanced.

Decidedly more barbed is the following comment by John H. Brown, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer (1981-2003), who obviously has an axe to grind. In ‘10 Percent Intellectual: The Mind of Condoleezza Rice’, Brown, in a section on Speaking in Tongues, comments:

“An important insight into how well Dr. Rice is able to understand societies distant from American shores is her putative knowledge of foreign languages, which has been hyped no end by her political supporters. “In addition to English, she speaks Russian, French, German, and Spanish,” gushes the Race 4 2008 website, […] Her lack of proficiency with Russian was ridiculed in April 2005 by Pravda (admittedly an anti-U.S. publication) …

“As for Rice’s knowledge of French, which she studied at an early age, she herself admitted in 2006 that while she could understand a conversation with President Jacques Chirac of France in his native tongue, “I can’t speak it, because I was never very good at French.”

The mention of a poor speaking ability may offer an important clue in the Rice case. It is worth repeating that many people (including PhD candidates and graduates) find speaking a foreign language much less vital and more troublesome than reading or understanding it. It is, in fact, not only possible but acceptable for an academic expert on, say, Spanish literature, not to be fluent in spoken Spanish.

At the end of a later interview (12 October 2007), on Russian RTR TV, with Sergei Brilev, also in English, the following exchange takes place following a discussion of aspects of foreign policy and nuclear missiles.

SECRETARY RICE: […] We share great global threats. We share common threats. I was a student of the old relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States. We really didn’t have much –

QUESTION: How do you call yourself these days — a Sovietologist?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, we’ve dropped that term, clearly. I’m very pleased that I also had firm grounding in the study of Russia. And I think for all of us, we see a tremendous evolution from the time when really about the only thing we had in common with the Soviet Union was we didn’t want to annihilate each other. And so all of our interactions, our military interactions, had that character to them. We had to be suspicious of each other. We were each other’s great enemy. We were each other’s great threat. That isn’t the case today.” [Italics added]

A fluent Russian speaker could have delivered that last important non-technical message in Russian but the interesting thing to note about Rice’s English response here is that, although some might take it for granted that this “study of Russia” included an equally firm grounding in the Russian written and spoken language, Dr Rice chooses not to mention her Russian language studies at all.

More closely relevant to Rice’s observed behaviour are the reported statements of Glenn Kessler (a Washington Post political columnist) at the launch of his 2007 biography of Rice (The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy). Kessler, who covered many of Rice’s foreign visits and had sometimes flown in the same plane, mentions her once-weekly classes with a State Department Russian interpreter. (This indicates an imprecise level or type of Russian competence. Was the tuition in Russian conversation or was it devoted to the comprehension and translation of written texts?)

Kessler is also reported here as revealing the following ‘gossipy’ detail about a conversation held during a closed meeting between Rice and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel: “‘In their private meeting, Merkel, a fluent Russian speaker who had trained as a physical chemist in the former East Germany, teasingly tested Rice’s rusty Russian,’ he writes [in his biography], citing Wolfgang Ischinger, Germany’s ambassador to London who formerly was Germany’s ambassador to the U.S.” If we assume Ambassador Ischinger’s account of the incident to be true, it would indicate to linguists (but not necessarily to those who are not familiar with levels of competence in languages) that the Russians and others were aware that Rice was not fluent in spoken Russian. Such a level would not enable her to talk confidently and interestingly to her official Russian interlocutors, nor to understand them on highly technical diplomatic and political topics. (The above assertions are taken from a 7 September 2007 report by the Russian News and Information Agency (RIA Novosti) on Kessler’s book launch speech)

There is some circumstantial Internet and media evidence that Russians have long been aware of Rice’s lack of fluency with their language and, perhaps, of her sensibility about this topic. It may even have become a private ‘in’ joke for them. For example, consider the end of the Moscow U.S. Embassy’s transcript of a wide-ranging interview in English with Dr Rice in Moscow, on the Russian TV station NTV, on 20 April 2005. (The same date as the previous three radio accounts!)

MR. PIVOVAROV: Madame Secretary, it’s widely known that you speak fluent Russian.

SECRETARY RICE: [In Russian.] (Laughter.)

MR. PIVOVAROV: Do you ever use it when talking to Russian officials, and does it help you?


MR. PIVOVAROV: Do you use it in talks with Mr. Putin?

SECRETARY RICE: [In Russian.] (Laughter.)

MR. PIVOVAROV: Last question. You already met with our channel last time when you were in Moscow one year ago; and when my colleague asked you maybe you could play something on the piano, you said, next time probably. Is this the time, Madame Secretary?

SECRETARY RICE: Next time. (Laughter.) [In Russian.]

MR. PIVOVAROV: Madame Secretary, thank you very much.

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you. (end transcript)

Mr Alexei Pivovarov’s sudden change of topic may not be entirely innocent. Dr Rice’s unrecorded replies in Russian to simple questions which invite basically Yes/No answers are unlikely to prove the sort of fluency for which she is constantly lauded in the Western media. Quality of accent would be clear, but that is easier to acquire than fluency in a language. In fact, her answers to the four questions could quite easily have been along the following Russian 101 lines. Such basic responses in any language are always greatly appreciated by speakers of the ‘foreign’ language, who are only too happy to praise the foreign speaker, just for making the effort.

Da. Ya znayu. (Yes, I know.)

Nyet. Eto nye nuzhno. (No. It isn’t necessary.) OR: Inogda. Da. (Sometimes. Yes.)

Konechno! (Of course!)

V sleduyushchiy raz. (‘Next Time’ – which was her instinctive first reply, in English.)

[These imaginary answers were composed with my elementary knowledge of spoken Russian, somewhere within the FSI’s Grade 1.]

So, was Dr Condoleezza Rice really fluent in the Russian language as well as being an undoubted expert in Russian and Soviet affairs? On the basis of the pieces of evidence presented above, mainly from the media, and her own diffident remarks and repeated hesitancy to speak ‘fluent’ Russian on Russian radio and TV, a reasonable estimate might place Condoleezza Rice’s proficiency in spoken Russian not much higher than Grade 1 (with a possible Grade 2 Reading ability) on the U.S. FSI scale (or its equivalent on the European Union scale). On the other hand, the impression given to the public by the barrage of media and official accolades of her ‘fluency in Russian’ (for the sophisticated needs of someone in her position) is that Rice’s proficiency was equivalent to the more demanding Grade 3 of the Foreign Service Institute scale, the one described as ‘General professional proficiency’ .

Since Dr Rice herself appears to make no claims of fluency in the Russian language, could this conundrum be the result of over-zealous Public Relations work by Dr Rice’s assistants and spin doctors?

(A later comment is available here.)

Mistranslation 7. U.S. Expertise in the Russian Language

9 March 2009

Hectares of print and cubic metres of ether have already been filled by reports of Hillary Clinton’s staffers’ gaffe in mistranslating into Russian the word for ‘Reset’, on a mechanical button which the U.S. Secretary of State publicly presented to her opposite number, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, as a symbolic gesture of , well, ‘glaznost’, perhaps, between the two nations. (Geneva, 6 March 2009)

As she presented Lavrov with the tiny box, Clinton made a self-conscious remark typical of public speakers (especially “Anglos”) who know little of foreign languages and are constantly dealing directly with foreign dignitaries who speak perfect English: “We [!] worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” Since the word printed on the button was Peregruzka, Lavrov replied, gently: “No. You got it wrong. … This means ‘overcharge.’” [ Or ‘overload’] The Russian Foreign Minister went on to explain that the word needed was Perezagruzka. With a nervous throaty guffaw, Secretary Clinton instantly delivered her ‘spin’, both evasive and aggressive: “Well, we won’t let you do that to us, I promise.” The incident ended very amicably indeed.

(See, for example:

(For the record and for language buffs, both of those words are derived from the basic Russian noun gruz, which means load or weight.)

In one blog on this mistranslation, I read the acerbic comment that although George W. was frequently pilloried for his less than perfect command of English, he had at least chosen as Secretary of State a person who was an expert in the Russian language. This set me thinking, and then searching. Hundreds (probably thousands) of Internet articles on Dr Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton’s predecessor, repeat over and over again that she is “fluent in Russian”, an “expert in the Russian language”, and speaks French, German and Spanish (level unspecified). And yet with her 4 years of exposure to the news cameras and microphones at international meetings and official discussions with foreigners, I cannot recall ever having heard her say anything on camera in Russian. Since this may be because I haven’t been paying much attention to this peripatetic lady, I delved a little deeper, especially into her biography.

The extensive results of my delving are worth sharing in a separate  article.  Just posted.

Mistranslation and Related Matters 6

10 December 2008

Professor Victor Mair offers an instructive example of a recent language blooper

The following apology does not exactly exemplify Mistranslation, but it does contain an excellent example of the sort of ‘spin’ frequently deployed by officialdom and individuals in damage control mode over egregious language-based errors.

“Dear Colleagues,
The cover of the most recent German-language edition of MaxPlanckForschung (3/2008) depicts a Chinese text which had been chosen by our editorial office in order to symbolically illustrate the magazine’s focus on “China”. Unfortunately, it has now transpired that this text contains inappropriate content of a suggestive nature.
Prior to publication, the editorial office had consulted a German sinologist for a translation of the relevant text. The sinologist concluded that the text in question depicted classical Chinese characters in a non-controversial context. To our sincere regret, however, it has now emerged that the text contains deeper levels of meaning, which are not immediately accessible to a non-native speaker.
By publishing this text we did in no way intend to cause any offence or embarrassment to our Chinese readers. The editors of MaxPlanckResearch sincerely regret this unfortunate error and would like to offer an unreserved apology to all of their Chinese readers for any upset or distress they may have caused.
The cover title has already been substituted in the online edition, and the English version of MaxPlanckForschung (MaxPlanckResearch, 4/2008) will be published with a different title.”

This and the whole embarrassing translation mishap is brilliantly reported by Victor Mair at:

Thanks, Victor!
(And with acknowledgements to Ronnie R. for the timely tip.)

FYI, here is how the formidable Language log collective presents its top quality blog:
“Language Log was started in the summer of 2003 by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum. For nearly five years, it ran on the same elderly linux box, with the same 2003-era blogging software, sitting in a dusty corner of a group office at the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Other more or less regular contributors include Arnold Zwicky, Benjamin Zimmer, Bill Poser, Heidi Harley, Roger Shuy, Geoff Nunberg, Eric Bakovic, Sally Thomason, Barbara Partee, and John McWhorter. And an additional cast of dozens have blogged here from time to time.
On April 5, 2008, the original server suffered a terminal illness, and was replaced by a new machine in an actual server room with professional support, thanks to Chris Cieri, Chad Jackson and others at the Linguistic Data Consortium. The blog posts between 7/28/2003 and 4/6/2008, in the ugly but beloved old format, can be found here.”

Mistranslation 5

17 July 2008

More on ‘Blame the Translator / Interpreter’

In ‘Misinterpretations 3’ and ‘Mistranslation 4’, the distinction was drawn between real errors by interpreters and translators and those alleged by the administrative staff in the service of Heads of State, political leaders and other prominent persons in constant public view. The available evidence suggests that an admission – or accusation – of translator / interpreter error has become more or less standard bureaucratic procedure when a celebrity or an organisation needs to be rescued from the consequences of an unfortunate slip of the tongue or careless adlib picked up by the media. The ploy is also used to divert responsibility from insensitive and inappropriate statements (especially, as we have seen previously, by reckless public speakers). Also to be noted, especially in international politics, is the use of the ‘spin’ tactic of unjustly blaming interpreters or translators for something they did not say or write simply in order to replace one firmly stated public position with a substantially revised one to suit the (sometimes changing) circumstances. In all of these cases, the hapless self-effacing interpreter or translator is used by the apparatchiks as an expedient means of saving face for others. It is considered part of the job by some employers.

In later commentaries on mistranslations and interpreting errors (real and fabricated) in this series, similar examples of bureacratic ‘spin’ will be offered from the world of religion and spiritual matters. The following additional notes form part of the main collection of official (secular) manipulation of interpreting and translation as reported in the media and on the Internet.

A distracting faux pas in a meeting of national leaders was widely reported on 14 June 2008 in the Australian media. Readers of the Melbourne Age and The Australian learned that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was spared the diplomatic consequences of expressing his publicly stated wish to Australian PM Kevin Rudd that he hoped the Australian government’s advisory against travel in Indonesia (following the massacre of tourists by terrorist in Bali in 2002) would soon be lifted. The Age claimed that Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda defused the incident by blaming the interpreter for adding the comment:

“The Indonesian interpreter is also in for an interesting time, after translating Dr Yudhoyono’s response on whether Australia should lift its travel warning. Dr Yudhoyono, the interpreter said, had told Mr Rudd he “would welcome the lifting of the travel warning”.

A presidential adviser dashed to catch Australian journalists before they left the palace. “The President didn’t say to lift the travel warning,” he said. “We leave it to the Australian Government to consider.” Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda then rang Australian ambassador Bill Farmer, asking him to tell Mr Rudd about the misquoting.”

The Australian reported as follows:

“Asked yesterday whether current advisories warning of possible terrorist attacks ought to be downgraded, Dr Yudhoyono said the bombers had been caught and security had improved.

Mr Rudd appeared to bristle when the translator said the Indonesian President believed the warnings should be revised.

“In Australia we have an independent body called the National Threat Assessment Centre,” Mr Rudd said. “The National Threat Assessment Centre comes to its own conclusions.”

Dr Yudhoyono’s spokesman said later there had been a mistranslation and within minutes Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia, Bill Farmer, that Indonesia believed travel advisories were entirely a matter for Australia.

The confusion took the spotlight off business conducted at the summit, including the signing of the Australia-Indonesia forest carbon partnership and Dr Yudhoyono’s invitation to Mr Rudd to join him in chairing a meeting scheduled for Bali later this year to discuss governance issues.” (The Australian, 14 June 2008)

The account in the Brisbane Courier-Mail expanded on the details of the alleged mistranslation, with even more emphasis on the unfortunate interpreter:

“An interpreter’s mistake caused a minor diplomatic incident on the first day of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s two-day visit to Indonesia.

The interpreter, a stand-in for an ill colleague, translated Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as saying he was looking forward to Australia lifting its travel advisory warning tourists against visiting Indonesia.
“I can understand that it is the responsibility of a government to protect its citizens. But I do look forward that this advisory will be lifted,” the interpreter quoted Dr Yudhoyono as saying.
But Dr Yudhoyono had instead said that as the situation in Bali had returned to normal following terror bombings in 2002 and 2005 which killed more than 230 people, including 92 Australians, he looked forward to seeing more Australian tourists arrive.
A spokesman for Dr Yudhoyono explained the mistake to media immediately after the joint press conference between the two leaders at the presidential place.
Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda rang Australian ambassador Bill Farmer within an hour to convey the message to Mr Rudd that Dr Yudhoyono’s meaning had been lost in translation.”

A similarly embarrassing public remark by former South Korean leader Roh Moo-hyun to George W. Bush in November 2007 was technically erased in a similar way when a White House spokesperson blamed a “loss in translation” for the following incident (reported at

“George W. Bush sat in a leather chair beside South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun and told reporters about the “friendly and frank” closed-door meeting they had just finished.

But the diplomatic niceties started to go awry when Mr Roh, known for his maverick nature, took his turn to speak.

Mr Roh’s comments had already gone on much longer than Mr Bush’s when he leaned towards his counterpart and posed him a question in Korean.

A puzzled look spread across Mr Bush’s face as he peered around Mr Roh to hear the translator explain what had been said.

“I think I did not hear President Bush mention the – a declaration to end the Korean war just now,” the translator said on Mr Roh’s behalf. “Did you say so, President Bush?”

It sounded like the South Korean president was pressuring Mr Bush to make a promise to replace the 54 year-old armistice between the US and North Korea with a formal peace treaty. […]”

(to be continued)

Mistranslation. 4

23 June 2008

Mistranslation, Errors in Interpreting, and the Interpreter as Scapegoat or Professional Patsy

The true nature and problems of language translation and interpretation are not widely understood by the public or even by many clients of those who practise these solitary occupations. One of the aims of this series of short articles is to help clarify this unsatisfactory situation (in particular, to illustrate the important difference between the tasks of translators and interpreters).

Although the term ‘mistranslation’ is self-explanatory, the words interpret and interpretation are in common general use in reference to the explanation of meaning, ideas and theories. For this reason, the term ‘misinterpretation’ is ambiguous and unhelpful for our present concerns. From now on, therefore, the term ‘Interpreting Errors’ will be used to describe instances of unfortunate oral conversions of one language to another (or the unamended transcripts of such conversions).

As indicated in the earlier brief blog, ‘Mistranslation 3’, reports of errors by interpreters (or, less often, translators) occur in many circumstances, but are particularly noticed in national and international settings, where they attract media headlines and strong but usually ephemeral public attention. When the interpreter is responsible for the error, this is a fair procedure – although the media and the public might do well to pause and consider the intense pressure this (necessarily) obscure professional is always under. When zealous or unscrupulous bureaucrats and PR people (at many levels, especially in the international arena) are involved, a closer look at the context of such ‘errors’ is needed before blaming the interpreter because there is increasing evidence that such institutional professonals frequently earn their money by taking advantage of the interpreter’s anonymous existence and professionally necessary inconspicuousness as a facilitator of communication between two parties. In many cases, their motive is simply to rescue their official protégé from the consequences of an unfortunate slip of the tongue or careless adlib, or to produce spin to divert responsibility from insensitive and inappropriate statements. Of even more concern, especially in international politics, is the increasing use of the clumsy tactic of unjustly blaming interpreters for something they could not possibly have said in order to replace one firmly stated (but unattractive) public position with a substantially revised one. In all of these cases, the interpreter is used as an expedient means of saving face for others.

It is worth repeating that the public, which is largely unaware of the problems and principles involved with translating and interpreting, should be aware (as the interpreter always is) that one of the interpreter’s professional duties is to remain anonymous and to act as an impersonal conduit of his client’s words. He/She is well (and sometimes painfully) aware that this professional commitment entails the risk of being blamed for anything without a right of reply. Taking advantage of this condition which interpreters accept as part of their duties,their employers sometimes abuse the relationship to further their own careers. In the high stakes of politics and diplomacy, especially in international politics and in military matters, an interpreter may be used in order to stall or buy time. Increasingly in this world of instant worldwide communication and media attention, today’s PR personnel and spin doctors have come to rely on interpreters as convenient scapegoats and sacrificial lambs for ‘interpreting errors’ which are not their fault.

Unlike errors of interpreting, examples of crucial mistranslations are not difficult to find, especially since they are almost always based on documents. Take for instance the following incident, revealed in detail by a Duke University Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Hae-Young Kim (Guardian Weekly, 15 May, 2003). In one stage of the cat-and-mouse struggle between USA and North Korea over the subject of nuclear weapons, Kim reveals that confusion was caused by the mistranslation of a Korean auxiliary verb. According to Kim, a statement by the North Korean Government was first quoted by South Korean news agency Yonhap that it had “come to have nuclear and other strong weapons” but the US TV channel CNN later quoted a South Korean official as suggesting a different [and more pugnacious] interpretation: that North Korea was “entitled to have nuclear weapons”. Kim underlines his point by adding that the situation was “the result of mistranslations from Korean into English, and stems from ideological or political motives rather than linguistic differences”. (,5500,955964,00.html)

Other grave mistranslations have been suggested as causes of the outbreak of war between USA and Japan in 1941 and the unnecessary loss of life at the 3-month battle of Monte Cassino in 1944.

Alleged interpreter errors occur most frequently in order to cover up the indiscretions or errors of those Heads of State, Presidents, and other high national representatives who are incautious (or brazen) in their public statements or whose off-the-cuff remarks are captured by the voracious international paparazzi (for example, ex-President Vladimir Putin, President Lula da Silva and ex-Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz).

In a report on the former Prime Minister of Turkey, Mesut Yilmaz, we are told:

Why does Yilmaz have to make such statements? Can’t he keep quiet for a change? Only recently he said he was being misquoted by the newspapers and thus would not speak so openly with journalists.

In Antalya he landed himself in more trouble a few days ago when he called German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, “a former friend and a current enemy”. Later Yilmaz aides tried to limit the damage by saying the prime minister was misunderstood but the TDN reporters from our Antalya office who were on the scene reported that Yilmaz had, in fact, made such a statement and that there was no misunderstanding. ( – 3 April 199eight)

During his two terms as President of Russia, Vladimir Putin built up a ‘tough man’ image, which prospered among his humiliated compatriots, anxious to recapture past glories and reputation. Part of his cultivated media image was his fearless macho character. An example was captured fortuitously and duly reported in the New York Times on 20 October 2006 by Steven Lee Myers.

President Vladimir V. Putin has a penchant for making pithy, acerbic, sometimes coarse comments. On Wednesday, a microphone inadvertently left on during a brief appearance with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel captured his views on the sex scandal involving Israel’s president.

According to journalists and officials in the room and published accounts by Agence France-Presse late Wednesday and Kommersant and The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, Mr. Putin was heard saying, “Say hello to your president,” to Mr. Olmert, referring to President Moshe Katsav, who could face criminal charges that he raped and assaulted two former employees. Mr. Putin added, “He really surprised us.”

The microphone was quickly turned off as reporters were ushered from the room, but the news organizations reported that Mr. Putin went on.

“We did not know he could deal with 10 women,” he said, according to those in the room and the Post and Agence France-Presse accounts, apparently referring to the complaints by several women that Mr. Katsav harassed them or worse.

Kommersant’s version – citing the remarks in Russian – was cruder. “He turned out to be quite a powerful man,” the paper’s reporter in the official Kremlin pool, Andrei Kolesnikov, quoted Mr. Putin as saying. “He raped 10 women. I never expected it from him. He surprised all of us. We all envy him.”

To CBS News we owe the following example of then President Putin’s undiplomatic language, which was first attributed to “poor translation” [note ‘translation’ = interpreting] and then ignored by the European media, as being too embarrassing for a Head of State.

“During a post-European Union summit news conference, Putin also said Chechen rebels want to kill all non-Muslims and establish an Islamic state in Russia.
Putin became agitated Monday after a reporter from the French newspaper Le Monde questioned his troops’ use of heavy weapons against civilians in the war in Chechnya. Chechnya is predominantly Muslim.

“If you want to become an Islamic radical and have yourself circumcised, I invite you to come to Moscow,” Putin said.
“I would recommend that he who does the surgery does it so you’ll have nothing growing back, afterward,” he added. Circumcision is a tenet of Islam for all males.
Because of poor translation, Putin’s remarks were not immediately understood by either the 450 journalists present at the news conference Monday or by senior EU officials. The Russian president brought his own interpreters, and even the native Russian speakers were unable to keep pace with Putin’s rapid-fire delivery.”
(‘Cutting Comments From Putin. Russian President Makes Bizarre Circumcision Remark To Reporter’, BRUSSELS, Belgium, November 12, 2002,

The institutional “Blame the translator/interpreter” subterfuge is at its most transparent and cynical where the two versions offered have nothing in common. Here are two egregious examples.

The first example of gratuitous blame attributed to an interpreter is taken from an Associated Press bulletin issued on 17 October 2007. (

It describes a UN meeting called to consider the Syrian reaction to an air attack by Israeli warplanes on a site in northeastern Syria near the border with Turkey on 6 September 2007. The subject of the dispute is a single crucial word: nuclear.

A UN document released by the press office provided an account of a meeting Tuesday of the First Committee, Disarmament and International Security, in New York, and paraphrased an unnamed Syrian representative as saying that a nuclear facility was hit.

The U.N. document, which summarized minutes of the meeting but was not an official record, paraphrased the Syrian representative as saying “Israel was the fourth largest exporter of weapons of mass destruction and a violator of other nations’ airspace, and it had taken action against nuclear facilities, including the 6 July attack in Syria.” [Bold type added]


After several hours, U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said the exact words of the English interpreter were: “An entity that is the fourth largest exporter of weapons of mass destruction in the world, an entity that violates other countries’ airspace, and that takes action against nuclear facilities, including the attack on 6 July this year on a nuclear facility in my country – that entity has no right to lie, which it has done consistently.”

But after six hours, the U.N. said it was still studying whether that was the correct translation from the original Arabic words spoken by the Syrian representative.

U.N. officials in New York could not immediately be reached for comment on whether its press release had accurately paraphrased the Syrian official.

The farcical nature of this rearguard diplomatic manoeuvre was revealed six months later following lingering controversies and the release of more accurate information. David Albright and Paul Brannan’s article ‘Syria Update III: New information about Al Kibar reactor site’ announced that “Today, the United States is releasing new information which provides dramatic confirmation that the Syrian site attacked by Israel on September 6, 2007 was a nuclear reactor. The information, including images taken inside the reactor building before it was attacked, also indicates that North Korea helped to build the reactor, which resembles closely the one at the Yongbyon nuclear center in North Korea. ISIS first identified the site in a series of reports beginning October 24, 2007 and continuing on the 25th and 26th., which showed the razing of the site following Israel’s attack. Commercial satellite imagery of the site is available in these reports and subsequent ones. […]”

(Institute for Science and International Security ISISREPORT 24 April, 2008,

The second example:

On 28 November 2001, Voice of America reported on UN-sponsored talks in Bonn about the critical Afghan situation

The Northern Alliance has also opposed a multi-national force proposed by the U.N. to guarantee security in Afghanistan and protect such things as aid shipments. But Mr. Qanooni says such a force would be acceptable to the alliance if it is part of a comprehensive peace package.

On 30 November, in an article titled ‘Hopes for peace rise with new translator’, Toby Helm of the UK Telegraph reported a very curious official “correction” of an Afghan interpreter’s alleged error:

Mr Younis Qanooni, the head of the Northern Alliance delegation to talks in Bonn, restated his case as follows: “Our official stand,” he told reporters “is that once a transitional mechanism is established, and the need for international force is inevitable, we are not opposed to the arrival of an international force.”

These two statements are so different that, as reporter Helm says, “an about-turn … opened up common ground with other Afghan groups” and “the prospect of a peace deal between rival Afghan factions rose sharply yesterday after the Northern Alliance reversed its position on two key issues, blaming an interpreter for “distorting” its earlier statements.

It is abundantly clear to any reader of these crude manipulations that the interpreter had absolutely nothing to do with what was a strategic change of direction by the Northern Alliance. (But one cannot help wondering about the interpreter’s subsequent career.) (

Inside evidence that this expedient scapegoating of interpreters has become an unashamedly accepted tactic is cheerfully offered by a former White House Press Secretary for ex-President Bill Clinton, Dee Dee Myers. As an invited guest at the 1994 Conference of the American Translators Association, she cheerfully offered the following response to a question based on a quoted example of General Wesley Clark’s adroit but ephemeral deflection of a serious Kosovo war allegation by citing translation error (“a question of the use of indefinite articles and some other things in the translation itself”).

“Now, do people blame interpreters or do they spin…? Well, whatever’s going to get them out of a jam the quickest! Sometimes both, and in the case of your Wes Clark example, I think that’s the answer. On the one hand, you’ve created a situation where you’ve been pointing fingers at the Serbs, and you’re going to have to spin your way out of that, trying to figure out a way to continue to paint them as the bad guys. And you’ve obviously been caught in quite an unfortunate mistake, so you’re going to blame the interpreters—and interpreters, as all of you I’m sure know, are kind of defenseless. They really can’t step forward and say “I didn’t make a mistake” or “I repeated what the President said, he changed his mind.” When it comes to protecting yourselves, you are at the end of the food chain, and I’m sure many of you have been in circumstances where things like that have happened. Ultimately, making the official—whether it’s the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury—look good and protecting them from blame is the overriding mission. So you’re powerless against those forces that are working to protect the principle—even if he or she is at fault.”

(With acknowledgements to the translation journal Accurapid for its report on the fruitful ATA 40th Annual Conference, November 4-6, 1999, St. Louis Missouri, ‘Translators and the Media: A Public Forum to Examine the Image of Translation and Translators in the Popular Media’. See:

(to be continued)

Mistranslations and Misinterpretations 2

11 June 2008

Commercial, Medical, Legal and Scientific Consequences of Mistranslation

My earlier blog on mistranslations and misinterpretations introduced the topic of the political misunderstandings and damage which may be caused by mistranslations, or alleged mistranslations, and media involvement. More evidence will be presented on these important issues in later articles. Other serious consequences may result from mistranslations in fields like commerce and advertising, law, medicine, science and technology. In these cases, the damage caused by the errors may at times lead to litigation.

Commerce and Advertising

A commonly told but false mistranslation story asserts that the car manufacturer Chevrolet was embarrassed by the poor sales in Mexico of its model named Nova (No va = ‘It doesn’t go’, in Spanish). The vital website investigates and arbitrates on this and many other plausible and far-fetched urban legends. Nevertheless, mistranslations of product names or ‘How to Use’ instructions into other languages can cause serious commercial problems and expense, as Microsoft discovered in 1996. A furore arose in Mexico over a number of offensive definitions which had somehow survived the translating and editing processes and appeared in Microsoft’s Spanish language Thesaurus, equating, for example, indígena [native person, or (Mexican) Indian] with native, savage, and cannibal; Westerner with white, civilised; and lesbian with perverted. The outcry was so strong from the media representing Mexico’s 100 million inhabitants that the software giant was obliged to insert profuse apologies into Mexican newspapers and magazines, offering a hastily prepared update (minus the offending terms). The full page Spanish advertisement in the magazine Proceso (7 July1996) mentions terms like “serious errors”, “incorrect connotations which are offensive” and “we apologise for these errors”.

Although I cannot vouch for the following two examples, chosen as the most feasible of a somewhat mixed bunch posted on a translation website (, se non sono veri, sono ben trovati. The first I hand over to Chinese (Mandarin?) translators for checking. The second one, also in need of verification by someone who has seen the original, at least appears linguistically feasible.

“In Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.” Also, in Chinese, the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan “finger-lickin’ good” came out as “eat your fingers off”.
When Parker Pen marketed a ball-point pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to say “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” However, the company mistakenly thought the Spanish word “embarazar” means “to embarrass”. Instead the ads said that, “it won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”.”

Legal aspects

On 13 November 2007, during the long-running media pursuit of the case of the missing English girl in Portugal, reporter Fiona Govan filed a report on ‘Madeleine McCann: Possible translation errors’ in the UK Telegraph. (

“Inconsistencies in the statements given by the McCanns and the group of friends who were dining with them at the time of Madeleine’s disappearance may have been caused by errors in translation, it emerged today.
Portuguese detectives investigating the case of the missing four-year-old have admitted that they are reassessing the original witness statements to look for inaccuracies in their translation.”

Evidence of the possible consequences of gross misinterpretation by unqualified court interpreters provided in an Internet forum report of an article in The Scotsman (30 October 2007).
“SCORES of convicted foreign criminals could walk free because of the appalling quality of official translators in Scottish courts, a leading linguist has warned.
Alena Linhartova, who has interpreted in Scotland for 20 years, said people were effectively being “pulled off the street” to translate in a growing number of court cases.
This has called into question the reliability of evidence and raised serious doubts about whether foreign nationals, particularly from eastern Europe, can expect a fair trial in this country.”

Misinterpretation in medical situations

An article promoting the need for more funds to employ professional interpreters in US hospitals offers an example of the potential high cost of mistranslations in medical lawsuits. The following case is alleged to have been brought by a patient. (The result of the case is not given.)

“A $71 million lawsuit against a Florida hospital began when medical staff misinterpreted a patient’s symptoms. When a patient explained that he felt nauseous (‘intoxicado’, which has several meanings), they assumed he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The patient was eventually diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and became quadriplegic.” (

Science and Technology

Almost unbelievable is the following excerpt from an account by CNN television of a 1999 Space exploration disaster caused by what appears to be a failure to translate basic English technical specifications into metrical terms. (

“WASHINGTON (AP) — Failure to convert English measures to metric values caused the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter, a spacecraft that smashed into the planet instead of reaching a safe orbit, a NASA investigation concluded Wednesday. […]
An investigation board concluded that NASA engineers failed to convert English measures of rocket thrusts to newton, a metric system measuring rocket force. One English pound of force equals 4.45 newtons. A small difference between the two values caused the spacecraft to approach Mars at too low an altitude and the craft is thought to have smashed into the planet’s atmosphere and was destroyed.”

Armand A. Gagnon, of Champollion Translations ( offers the following historical example as ‘One of the Greatest Mistranslations of all Time’:

“Back in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had observed the planet Mars through his modest 19th Century telescope and in his astronomy book, mentioned the “channels” (dried waterbeds) on the surface of the red planet. In his native Italian, “channels” is canali. When the wealthy Bostonian amateur astronomer Percival Lowell read a translation of Schiaparelli’s book and canali was translated as “canals” in English (implying a network on Mars created by intelligent beings), a life-on-Mars mania and madness then ensued well into the 20th Century. …”

Yet another anecdotal lesson is offered in an informative essay to prospective clients on the website of another translation agency. The context of the article is a warning about the significant (and inconvenient) errors which may result from a translator’s inadequate knowledge of the many differences (often subtle) between British and American English. The lesson would apply to translation from and into English. (Source:

“To publish any kind of household appliance manual and constantly refer to the “earth” instead of the “ground” in talking about electrical connections could lead to a product liability suit. I am aware of a lawsuit that occurred when a transformer blew up in the United States that had been manufactured in Europe, because the instruction manual had been translated in China into what the Chinese fondly believe to be English (which English, we do not know) and the instructions for attaching the surge arrestors were so poorly translated that the surge arrestors were wrongly attached and the whole device blew up, at a cost of five million dollars to the owners of the transformer.”

(to be continued)

See also: Mistranslations. Introduction

This later blog article on fluency in foreign languages may also be of interest to some readers.

Mistranslations and Misinterpretations are unfortunate but with Media assistance, volatile. Introduction.

28 April 2008

First, a clarification of a common misunderstanding (especially rife in the American media):

Translators translate written documents, usually with time to revise or correct their work before it is seen by others. Accuracy at all levels, especially those of vocabulary and style, is of prime importance. Film and video/DVD subtitlers, for example, are specialised translators who need adequate time to prepare and technically present their work, which will be seen on the screen by audiences. Furthermore, because a permanent written record of translations will be available for examination and comparison with the original written form in the source language, translation is not only a highly responsible job but needs the expensive backing of a substantial indemnity insurance policy.

Interpreters, on the other hand, offer a spoken service, performing ‘live’ (at various levels) by offering a spoken ‘translation’ from one language to another. They need, apart from a thorough knowledge of two languages at the highest level, a good speaking voice, quick wittedness and strong self-control. (This does not imply that we translators are dull-witted or even dull. The jobs are simply different and suit people with different temperaments and gifts.)

On a daily basis, on TV and radio, the voiceover comments we hear in English when (for example) a non-English-speaking politician or celebrity is being filmed for the daily (or hourly) News are usually (but not necessarily) done by an interpreter, on the spot (and often in the spotlight). Face to face interviews of any sort (including those most commonly seen on News programmes), need instant interpretation, whether in a private meeting or an international conference. For more ‘leisurely’ documentaries, subtitled or voiceover translations of interviews in a foreign language may be the result of either interpretation or translation, depending on the circumstances. (As a slightly cynical rule of thumb, the more often the English-speaking interviewer nods his or her head in the TV interview without comment in the foreign language while the foreigner is answering the media interviewer’s English question (which has been interpreted by someone else before the interviewee answers), the more likely that the segments of the foreign language will have been translated and subtitled or voice-overed by a local qualified translator or interpreter during or after the interview.)

Both of these professions are demanding, but the interpreter obviously has the more unenviable and stressful (but better paid) job, even in a medical or court assignment for a single client. It is indeed a very great responsibility to bear. When the work is at the most intense and public level (for example, in international diplomacy, in politics or in commerce), the consequences of a momentary lapse, even by a very seasoned professional, can be catastrophic, therefore the pressure and remuneration are correspondingly heavier. (In such exalted interactions, the further hazard of an interpreter (or a translator) being used as a scapegoat by unscrupulous or desperate politicians and Heads of State who have made an error or a misjudgement will be dealt with in a later essay in this series.)


For now, two international incidents resulting from unfortunate interpreting or translating lapses will highlight the worst hazards, especially in our anxious world which now has to cope with insatiable media appetites and instant international communications (not to mention the general lack of comprehension of what translation and interpreting really entail).


On 26 October, 2005, the President of Iran gave a speech at a student conference in Iran. He was reported in the English language press as having said that “Israel must be wiped off the map.” In an already tense atmosphere, international shock was deep, peace was threatened and the reverberations can still be felt from time to time when the translation is repeated. But it appears that the alarming translation was incorrect.

The Iranian journalist-author of a (balanced) biography of Ahmadinejad, Naji Kasra, takes this blood-curdling English statement and explains (p. 140) that the President’s intent could not have been genocidal because the Persian words used by Ahmadinejad (quoting from the late Ayatollah Khomeini) were “Een rejimeh eshghalgareh Quds bayad az safeyeh rouzegar mahv shavad.” The writer translates these, literally, as “This Jerusalem-occupying regime must disappear from the page(s) of time.” [Bold type added.] Kasra adds further linguistic commentary on the Persian sentence, stating that ‘shavad’ means “must become” and ‘mahv’, “the crucial word […] can mean ‘disappeared’,’obliterated’, ‘vanished’” and “that it does not uniquely imply violence.” The word (mahv), he explains, could also be used for the moon being shrouded by clouds or a man “disappearing into a thick crowd” and “does not imply action on the part of a third party”. For those reasons, Naji rejects the translation “must be wiped off” (which he says would be ‘bayad mahv kard’) and its ultra-violent associations, while admitting that the pronouncement was indeed extremely hostile.

(From: Naji, Kasra, Ahmadinejad. The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader, London & New York, I. B. Taurus, 2008, pp. 139-141)

ADDENDUM: For a more detailed report on the context and complex international reverberations of this mistranslation – and of its unfortunate origin at the “Islamic Republic News Agency” – see

2. (As a salutary ideological counterbalance)

Melanie Phillips, the prominent and sometimes controversial British correspondent for The Guardian, published a short report on 29 February 2008: ‘The Mother of all Mistranslations’. The subheading was ‘Israel warns of Gaza ‘holocaust’.’ The report began: “Israeli leaders are warning of an imminent conflagration in Gaza after Palestinian militants aimed rockets at the southern city of Ashkelon. The deputy defence minister said the stepped-up rocket fire would trigger what he called a ‘bigger holocaust’ in the Hamas-controlled coastal strip.”

Phillips continued: “This reported remark by deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai caused widespread shock and absolute horror. For an Israeli minister to use the word ‘holocaust’ to describe a limited war of Israeli self-defence, when for Jews of all people the ‘Holocaust’ means one thing: genocide – and this at a time when the calumny of the ‘Jews as Nazis’ is rampant around the world, putting Israel and the Jewish people at risk – was simply beyond belief.”

“It was indeed without any credibility – because Vilnai never said it. It was an appalling mistranslation by Reuters, the source of the BBC story.”

Her explanation was simple: “Reuters had translated the Hebrew word ‘shoah’ as ‘holocaust’. But ‘shoah’ merely means disaster. In Hebrew, the word ‘shoah’ is never used to mean ‘holocaust’ or ‘genocide’ because of the acute historical resonance. The word ‘Hashoah’ alone means ‘the Holocaust’ and ‘retzach am’ means ‘genocide’. The well-known Hebrew construction used by Vilnai used merely means ‘bringing disaster on themselves’.”

Phillips underlined the serious consequences of such a basic translating error: “But this grotesque mistranslation has given Hamas a propaganda gift which they lost no time exploiting. Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said of Vilnai’s comments: ‘We are facing new Nazis who want to kill and burn the Palestinian people.’ At a time when the rockets continue to rain down on the southern Negev and Israel is being forced to contemplate stepping up its incursions into Gaza because of the truly genocidal assault upon its citizens by Hamas, such a mistranslation is more than an unfortunate slip. In the present explosive atmosphere, it can lead directly to an enormous escalation of violence by the Palestinians.”