Interpretations Can Leave Room For Interpretation

Hosni Mubarak gave a speech in which it was anticipated he would announce his resignation. Instead,  the 82-year-old Egyptian president repeated his intention to remain in  power until the presidential elections in September. i i

Hosni Mubarak gave a speech in which it was anticipated he would announce his resignation. Instead, the 82-year-old Egyptian president repeated his intention to remain in power until the presidential elections in September. AlJazeeraEnglish/YouTube hide caption

itoggle caption AlJazeeraEnglish/YouTube
Hosni Mubarak gave a speech in which it was anticipated he would announce his resignation. Instead,  the 82-year-old Egyptian president repeated his intention to remain in  power until the presidential elections in September.

Hosni Mubarak gave a speech in which it was anticipated he would announce his resignation. Instead, the 82-year-old Egyptian president repeated his intention to remain in power until the presidential elections in September.

AlJazeeraEnglish/YouTube

People in the United States and around the world watched and heard Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak speak Thursday night.

But depending on your knowledge of Arabic — or more likely the interpreter on the network you were watching or listening to — you could get very different ideas of what Mubarak was saying.

In terms of English interpretations, the person NPR used told it one way, the CNN person said it another way and the Al-Jazeera intermediary recited it yet another way.

Most of the interpreters who are currently working in the language combination of Arabic and English, says Shuckran Kamal, a senior Arabic translator at the U.S. Department of State, "are native speakers of Arabic whose knowledge of English fails to meet the level of linguistic knowledge and sophistication required ... Most of the interpreters who are currently working in this language combination — specifically Arabic into English — and who are native speakers of English do not have the linguistic and cultural knowledge of Arabic to interpret correctly and accurately at this high level of diplomatic interpreting."

She adds, "This is a problem for which an easy and a quick solution does not seem to present itself readily."

Everyone agrees on the essentials. A portrait in black and white — charcoal suit, white shirt and black tie that matched his hair — Mubarak delivered his address from his palace in an affluent Cairo neighborhood and announced that he was turning some powers over to his vice president, Omar Suleiman. But despite widespread belief — in his country and in America — that Mubarak, 82, would step down, the president said he would not resign but would stay in office until September.

The Perils of Misinterpretation

A bad interpreter or translator can lead to serious medical and political problems and make life dangerous. Or, at least, miserable.

Here are a few examples:

  • In compiling an information book for Russian-speaking inmates at Lincoln Prison in the United Kingdom, someone realized that the "exercise yard" had been mistakenly termed the "execution yard." (BBC, 2010)

  • Lawyers for a handful of key defendants at Guantanamo Bay — charged in conjunction with the Sept. 11 attacks — said the court reports of the detainees' words were so poorly rendered, half of what defendants stated in the hearing room was mistranslated. In one instance, "Osama bin Laden's driver" was misinterpreted as "Osama bin Laden's lawyer." (Translation Times, 2008)

  • When Peter Uiberall was named the chief interpreter for most of the first Nuremberg trial, he discovered that other interpreters had been rendering the German word ja always as "yes." While ja can mean "yes," it is often just a placeholder — like "um" or "well" in English — for a speaker who is searching for the right word. So when a German witness or defendant was questioned about possibly incriminating activity or knowledge, his hesitation, or ja, was taken as an unconditional admission. (Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, 2008)

The differing interpretations of Mubarak's speech on the various news channels did not ameliorate the fluid and befuddling situation.

And the confusion continued into Friday until Mubarak left Cairo and Suleiman announced the leader was no longer in charge.

Lost In Translation

"I was switching between Fox News and MSNBC to compare how the two channels were covering the crisis in Egypt from two different perspectives," says Khaled Huthaily.

Huthaily is an interpreter and translator — an interpreter interprets speech, a translator translates writing — and an assistant professor of Arabic and educational linguistics at the University of Montana.

"When Hosni Mubarak started delivering his speech," Huthaily says, "I switched to Al-Jazeera in Arabic to make sure I get the information directly from Mubarak's — not the interpreter's — tongue. I knew something would be lost in translation."

Interpretation and translation are complex processes, Huthaily says.

"Those who are in the field know this very well," he says. "Interpreters are human beings who can, and do, make mistakes, especially when they are on the spot." (see box)

During the speech, the instantaneous interpretations were sometimes hard to understand. The word "perils" sounded like "pearls." Murky phrases such as "Egypt will exit from this exit" were scattered throughout.

One moment that was clear: According to an interpreter, Mubarak was saying on a split screen that "Egypt will be back on its feet" at the same time protesters were visibly shaking the soles of their shoes in disgust. Showing the soles of one's shoes in this culture is one of the biggest possible insults.

An army soldier sits on an armored vehicle as anti-government protesters hold their shoes in the air during a protest in front of the state television building Friday in downtown Cairo. i i

An army soldier sits on an armored vehicle as anti-government protesters hold their shoes in the air during a protest in front of the state television building Friday in downtown Cairo. Protesters waved their shoes in contempt and shouted, "Leave, leave, leave." Emilio Morenatti/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Emilio Morenatti/AP
An army soldier sits on an armored vehicle as anti-government protesters hold their shoes in the air during a protest in front of the state television building Friday in downtown Cairo.

An army soldier sits on an armored vehicle as anti-government protesters hold their shoes in the air during a protest in front of the state television building Friday in downtown Cairo. Protesters waved their shoes in contempt and shouted, "Leave, leave, leave."

Emilio Morenatti/AP

'Language Matters'

"Live on-air interpreting of highly sensitive and important speeches is a very delicate matter and is best left in the hands of true professionals — certified interpreters, preferably those experienced in the international arena, such as U.N. and EU interpreters and/or those with substantial simultaneous interpreting experience in the political field," says Judy Jenner, an interpreter and translator in Las Vegas. She and her twin sister, Dagmar, who lives in Vienna, Austria, run Twin Translations, a global company.

"Language matters and can make or break international relations and our ability to understand each other and the subtle nuances of the language," Judy Jenner says. "All non-Arabic speakers should have the same access to the speech as Arabic speakers. Hiring professionally trained interpreters ensures that that happens."

In Vienna, Dagmar Jenner says she and other members of the Austrian interpreter community watched Mubarak's speech on various channels and discussed the interpretations on a listserv. She chose Al-Jazeera.

People on the listserv were very critical of several interpreters, calling one very embarrassing and another very poor, like a "cab driver," she says.

The CNN interpreter was faulted for monotony, and the Al-Jazeera interpreter was praised for his lively intonation.

"Apparently, the German TV station NTV did what all the others should have done as well: They hired an experienced interpreter who did a very good job," Dagmar Jenner says. "Let's not forget that none of us can really compare the source text to the target text [in interpreting studies, speeches are also considered 'texts'], which would allow us to really assess the quality of the interpreting job. However, it is safe to assume that an interpreter who is constantly looking for words and doesn't finish her sentences is not doing a good job at rendering the sense of what the speaker is saying."

Ultimately, Dagmar Jenner says, interpreting should not be about a strict word-for-word rendering, but "about conveying the meaning of what the speaker is saying."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.