Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The afterlife of translational error

In the translation of political communications, the bungling of a single idiom can upset state relations, disrupt negotiations, or risk international… incident. In 2005,  news agencies reported that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking at a “World Without Zionism” conference, claimed that the nation of Israel should be “wiped off the map” – in fact, on closer scrutiny, this seemed to be an example of inaccurate translation. (See this 2006 article in The Guardian, in which Jonathan Steele succinctly explains the facts and interpretations involved: “So there we have it. Starting with Juan Cole, and going via the New York Times' experts through MEMRI to the BBC's monitors, the consensus is that Ahmadinejad did not talk about any maps. He was, as I insisted in my original piece, offering a vague wish for the future.” See also this WashPo fact-checker analysis.)

The matter of the map-wiping misunderstanding would simply be a cautionary tale, if at the time it hadn’t led to hostile rhetoric on all sides of Iran-Israel (-US) relations… and if it didn’t continue to make the rounds as an unquestioned piece of historical evidence, proving that Iran’s intentions have always been bellicose. Most recently:
  • April 25, 2012: Carlo Strenger in the Huffington Post: "Iran's clerical regime makes sure to promise every other week that Israel will be wiped off the map"
  • May 16, 2012: Myron Kaplan, in a piece concerning disinformation and "C-SPAN's Israel/Jewish Problem": “For example, on Oct. 26, 2005… [Ahmadinejad] vowed that ‘Israel must be wiped off the map’” (published on the website of  CAMERA: the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America)
  • May 17, 2012: A wire piece from AFP, hosted on Google News: “Ahmadinejad has repeatedly stated in recent years that Israel will one day be ‘wiped off the map’ and cast doubt on the magnitude or actual occurrence of the Holocaust.”  
Even when a journalist acknowledges that “Iran’s leaders have sometimes been quoted inaccurately or out of context,” it is hard to know to what extent this translational error has poisoned the well – as when the just-quoted author, Shmuel Rosner writing in the NYTimes Latitude blog earlier this month, goes on to note: “[T]hey’ve had plenty of opportunities to set the record straight and haven’t seemed to want to.”


In most literary acts of translation, the stakes of a wonky rendering are aesthetic. As in, for example, this discussion in The New Yorker of L'Etranger; should the first sentence "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte" be brought into English as "Today, Maman died", or, "Momma died today"? It matters, a bit, beyond the simple matter of the meaning, because we are to understand something about cultural and colonial tensions in Algeria at that historical moment, given  the characterization of the protagonist as more or less estranged from feeling. There is, however, a significant difference between "politics of translation" and "the translation of politics", to the end that you don’t often see a book reviewer arguing on the grounds of a translation of Camus that war between (e.g.) France and America is inevitable.

When the words being translated are uttered by the heads of state, the potential outcomes of an error can be frightening. And the possibilities are especially fraught when, an error in translation being noted and corrected, the original mistranslation continues to circulate in the culture, where it continues to insinuate all the wrong things to people who are looking for translated evidence to corroborate their prejudices and pet fears.

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