March 1, 2007

What the Press Loses in Translation

Foreign correspondents often rely on local amateurs—or their own language skills—to interpret the statements of their sources for readers. Confusion sometimes ensues.

Sarah Raymond

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not a quiet man. In the past 18 months, he has organized conferences of Holocaust deniers and sent public letters to the American people. Yet one brief phrase caused more debate than any of his other controversial statements: that Israel "should be wiped off the map." That comment, from an October 2005 speech, is not an unusually inflammatory remark for this outspoken leader, but it has since provoked gigabytes of blog discussion and still influences Western foreign policy.

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


- Media
- posted on Mar 06, 07
Journalist Jim

Wow! That's both enlightening and a little disturbing that news organizations take it on themselves to reword statements by foreign leaders so they seem less offensive. The delicate art of foreign language translation aside, if President Bush made a public statement calling somebody an 'asshole,' it would rightly be trumpeted by every media outlet around the world. I don't think it's the responsibility of news outlets to couch the language of foreign leaders in terms their audiences might find more palatable or politically correct. American political leaders carefully craft public policy statements (we hope), examining the nuances of each word to ensure the desired message is transmitted. Perhaps foreign leaders don't, but it is certainly not the job of the Associated Press or the New York Times to do it after the fact.

- Media
- posted on Mar 06, 07
Anna Saharov

I found the same thing in Russia. Not only was much of the American media wholly dependent on their tranlators, but translators who worked for the KGB during the Soviet Union, seeming to undermine the goal of 'objectivity.'

- Media
- posted on Mar 06, 07
Gabriel Sama

Funny how even on this very interesting piece about missunderstandings derived from translations there is a slight translation mistake. Pendejo means asshole for Mexicans, but it is used much more lightly in countries like Venezuela and Colombia, where it means dumbass or jerk. A spoiled kid in Venezuela is a pendejito, while calling that a Mexican child would be extremely insulting. I know because when, as a Mexican, I heard my Venezuelan parents-in-law call each other pendejo I was dumbstrucked until I realized it meant something completely different for them (not that I am interested in defending Mr Chavez).

- Media
- posted on Mar 06, 07

As a translator for the City of New York and Federal Government Agencies, I find myself in situations where I have to rethink and study words many times before translating them. It is interesting to see how words change the meaning and flow of an article or opinion when translated to another language. The word "pendejo", means asshole in Mexico, jerk in Venezuela and stupid in other Latin America countries. One must be very, very careful before translating such words for an audience who has a different meaning for them.

- Media
- posted on Mar 15, 07
Sarah Raymond

Thank you all for your fascinating comments. Gabriel Sama and Renella, I appreciate your insights about the nuanced implications of the word "pendejo" in different Latin countries. It's a problem that English-speaking reporters face even when dealing with English language sources: In 1989, Gerald Seib wrote a great article for the WSJ about translating Bush 41's speeches, in which he explained:

"Even the English sometimes have trouble with Mr. Bush's English. When the president recently challenged the Soviets to make deep conventional-arms cuts, he declared: 'Here we go, on the offense.' But the British, notes Ian Brodie of the London Daily Telegraph, pronounce the word offense with an accent on the second syllable -- and use it to mean a crime, rather taking the initiative in a sporting event.

'So,' Mr. Brodie reports, 'the Daily Telegraph doctored Bushspeak.' The
English translation: 'Here we go on the offensive.'"
( -- subscription required)

Is it disturbing that a reporter would change a source's words, even when there's no clear language barrier? Perhaps, but I think it's part of a journalist's job to guarantee an article's truth, even if that means compromising some accuracy.

- Media
- posted on Dec 19, 08

that is the problem of translation so the translator has to be bicultural to be able to translate such a terms and expressions

Article by Sarah Raymond

Contact this author