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.
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pundits have come to widely different conclusions about the bellicosity of the Iranian president's tone, ranging from a historical reference to an outright declaration of war.
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 chosebayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavedand have come to widely different conclusions about the bellicosity of his tone, ranging from a historical reference to an outright declaration of war.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 documentswith 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 translatorsa teacher, a master's student, an NGO workerto 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.
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 affairswitness the resonant reactions to Ahmadinejad's speech, or the backlash to Newsweek's inaccurate report of Guantanamo guards' mistreatment of the Koranreaders 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.