Lost In Translation?

By

Translation is a subject I happen to know a few things about. For many years I was president of one of the country's most prominent multilanguage communications companies whose clientèle included more than a fair number of America's best—known multinational corporations.

Among the things I've learned is the difficulty of rendering an expression, particularly an idiom, exactly from one language into another, especially if the two languages involved are not closely related linguistically. A good translator with a thorough fluency in both source and target languages as well as a bit of literary ability will come up with a translation that accurately —— although not necessarily literally —— conveys the meaning of what was said in the original.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that, as noted by correspondent Ethan Bronner in today's New York Times, that:

EVER since he spoke at an anti—Zionism conference in Tehran last October, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has been known for one statement above all. As translated by news agencies at the time, it was that Israel "should be wiped off the map." Iran's nuclear program and sponsorship of militant Muslim groups are rarely mentioned without reference to the infamous map remark. 

According to statements of not only news agencies but our own government spokespeople, this is a fair rendering of what Ahmadinejad said and what he meant; and it has been widely reported as such without noticeable dispute.

Another truism about translators is that the egos of most urge them to criticism of anyone else's work; there is a powerful feeling that they could have certainly nuanced the rendition a little bit better. Couple this with a political axe to grind, and it is small wonder that the Times could find a few linguists willing to dispute the generally accepted translation of the Iranian president's remarks.

No surprise, then, that the two chosen by Bronner to present a contrarian view of the "standard" translation being used by the media and government are, as he describes them:

"Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan and critic of American policy"

and

"Jonathan Steele, a columnist for the left—leaning Guardian newspaper in London"

Both argue that Iran's president didn't really make a substantive threat and that his remarks were misinterpreted. Thus, concludes Bronner, "If Mr. Steele and Mr. Cole are right, not one word of the quotation — Israel should be wiped off the map — is accurate." And to what point does the Times feature Bronner's out—of—left—field "news" report? That, too, is made clear by the author:

But is that what Mr. Ahmadinejad said? And if so, was it a threat of war? For months, a debate among Iran specialists over both questions has been intensifying. It starts as a dispute over translating Persian but quickly turns on whether the United States (with help from Israel) is doing to Iran what some believe it did to Iraq — building a case for military action predicated on a faulty premise.

. . . which leads Bronner to conclude:
 
 ...it is hard to argue that, from Israel's point of view, Mr. Ahmadinejad poses no threat. Still, it is true that he has never specifically threatened war against Israel.

So did Iran's president call for Israel to be wiped off the map? It certainly seems so. Did that amount to a call for war? That remains an open question, demonstrating once again that there seems to be no lengths to which the Times will not reach to create and spread the Pinch Propaganda lines against Bush, the War in Terror, and the security interests of the State of Israel.

Richard N. Weltz   6 11 06

Translation is a subject I happen to know a few things about. For many years I was president of one of the country's most prominent multilanguage communications companies whose clientèle included more than a fair number of America's best—known multinational corporations.

Among the things I've learned is the difficulty of rendering an expression, particularly an idiom, exactly from one language into another, especially if the two languages involved are not closely related linguistically. A good translator with a thorough fluency in both source and target languages as well as a bit of literary ability will come up with a translation that accurately —— although not necessarily literally —— conveys the meaning of what was said in the original.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that, as noted by correspondent Ethan Bronner in today's New York Times, that:

EVER since he spoke at an anti—Zionism conference in Tehran last October, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has been known for one statement above all. As translated by news agencies at the time, it was that Israel "should be wiped off the map." Iran's nuclear program and sponsorship of militant Muslim groups are rarely mentioned without reference to the infamous map remark. 

According to statements of not only news agencies but our own government spokespeople, this is a fair rendering of what Ahmadinejad said and what he meant; and it has been widely reported as such without noticeable dispute.

Another truism about translators is that the egos of most urge them to criticism of anyone else's work; there is a powerful feeling that they could have certainly nuanced the rendition a little bit better. Couple this with a political axe to grind, and it is small wonder that the Times could find a few linguists willing to dispute the generally accepted translation of the Iranian president's remarks.

No surprise, then, that the two chosen by Bronner to present a contrarian view of the "standard" translation being used by the media and government are, as he describes them:

"Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan and critic of American policy"

and

"Jonathan Steele, a columnist for the left—leaning Guardian newspaper in London"

Both argue that Iran's president didn't really make a substantive threat and that his remarks were misinterpreted. Thus, concludes Bronner, "If Mr. Steele and Mr. Cole are right, not one word of the quotation — Israel should be wiped off the map — is accurate." And to what point does the Times feature Bronner's out—of—left—field "news" report? That, too, is made clear by the author:

But is that what Mr. Ahmadinejad said? And if so, was it a threat of war? For months, a debate among Iran specialists over both questions has been intensifying. It starts as a dispute over translating Persian but quickly turns on whether the United States (with help from Israel) is doing to Iran what some believe it did to Iraq — building a case for military action predicated on a faulty premise.

. . . which leads Bronner to conclude:
 
 ...it is hard to argue that, from Israel's point of view, Mr. Ahmadinejad poses no threat. Still, it is true that he has never specifically threatened war against Israel.

So did Iran's president call for Israel to be wiped off the map? It certainly seems so. Did that amount to a call for war? That remains an open question, demonstrating once again that there seems to be no lengths to which the Times will not reach to create and spread the Pinch Propaganda lines against Bush, the War in Terror, and the security interests of the State of Israel.

Richard N. Weltz   6 11 06