Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


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.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Academics, linguists, and pundits have come to widely different conclusions about the bellicosity of the Iranian president's tone, ranging from a historical reference to an outright declaration of war.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

At issue is the translation of the statement that American news agencies accepted in their coverage of the speech. Academics, linguists, and pundits have since weighed in on how to translate the Persian idiom Ahmadinejad chose—bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shaved—and have come to widely different conclusions about the bellicosity of his tone, ranging from a historical reference to an outright declaration of war. (The consensus now supports the original translation, according to the New York Times.) Yet hundreds of articles appear in major news outlets every day that cite foreign-language speeches, interviews, and documents—with most translations provided by inexperienced, inexpensive translators, or by reporters themselves.

Professional translators like those used to review the Ahmadinejad speech are far too expensive for a foreign correspondent's budget. Stephanie McCrummen, a Washington Post staff reporter based in Nairobi, told Gelf she frequently uses local translators—a teacher, a master's student, an NGO worker—to help translate her on-the-street interviews, though she noted that "the quality varies greatly." These translators charge from $100 to $150 per day, and are frequently called "fixers" because they help set up interviews and "otherwise negotiate these societies logistically," McCrummen said.

Major newspapers and magazines' reliance on amateurs to accurately translate their sources, and many reporters' inability to check the work, can be alarming. "I was shocked when I first arrived in Egypt during college to intern at a major newspaper and found that the vast majority of correspondents here did not speak Arabic," said Zvika Krieger, a freelancer currently living in Cairo.

Krieger's colloquial Arabic skills have allowed him to check the translations he sometimes uses for his articles. He recalled a recent interview with a high-ranking official in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who supplied his own translator. Krieger could tell that the translator's rendition did not match the original responses. "While the Muslim Brotherhood official used pretty simple language and formulations, the translator rephrased everything using grandiose academic terms, making the Muslim Brotherhood leader seem like someone who reads Foreign Affairs every month," Krieger told Gelf. Although the translator didn't change the basic meaning of the official's words, such discrepancies can shape writers' perceptions and their resultant articles.

Editors also must confront the issue when handling articles that use translated sources. Without access to the primary sources, they have to seek other clues. "When I know that quotes in pieces I'm editing are translations, I keep an eye out for 'false friends,' that is, words that are often mistranslated into English," June Thomas, foreign editor of Slate, told Gelf. "I was once an ESL teacher, so I have a sense of these." (Examples of false friends include the use of "assist" rather than "attend" in Spanish, or "actually" instead of "currently" in most Romance languages.) Thomas said that publications vet their writers to check that they're able to translate for themselves or, failing that, to hire a capable interpreter.

Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chavez's fiery rhetoric challenges translators.

Slang poses special challenges. A few years ago, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took to occasionally referring to President George W. Bush as pendejo. "It really means 'asshole,' but a lot of publications would soften it to something like 'jerk,' which of course prompted the anti-Chavez crowd to accuse the media of going soft on Chavez," Foreign Affairs Senior Editor Daniel Kurtz-Phelan told Gelf.

Adding unintended meaning to a speech or comment is also a potential translation pitfall, especially when reporters include the words of controversial speakers such as Ahmadinejad or Chavez. Associated Press reporter Frank Bajak described a controversy in the AP newsroom over how to translate Chavez's latest favorite saying, "Patria, socialismo, o muerte!" "Socialism or death" was an easy translation for the first two-thirds of the rallying cry, but patria provoked discussion. "'Fatherland' is out of the question because to me that has Nazi connotations," Bajak said. He voted for the neutered translation "homeland," but the Venezuela bureau ultimately went with "motherland," to convey the Spanish gendered noun form.

Journalists' burden is to convey sources' meaning accurately, whether by translating, choosing how to excerpt a quote, or how to paraphrase. Marc Lynch, an assistant professor at Williams College and an expert in Arabic media, told Gelf that reporters must figure out "how to convey when a statement is made with a wink and grin versus dead serious, for instance, or who is a great orator and who is putting the audience to sleep," regardless of whether they are using a translation or are writing in the same language that their source speaks. Yet as media sources become increasingly important in international affairs—witness the resonant reactions to Ahmadinejad's speech, or the backlash to Newsweek's inaccurate report of Guantanamo guards' mistreatment of the Koran—readers should realize that every article rests on a fallible chain from source's mouth to final editing.

Related in Gelf

David Goldenberg on how false sources can undermine journalists.

Sarah Raymond

Sarah Raymond is a writer in Boston.

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- 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

Sarah Raymond is a writer in Boston.

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