If anything goes wrong, the translator or the interpreter is blamed
Thread poster: Narasimhan Raghavan

Narasimhan Raghavan  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:30
English to Tamil
+ ...
Nov 24, 2003

Translators/interpreters should take care. Here is what I found while browsing. It is in German, but am putting this here, as I feel more people should see it. In a nutshell: Some VIP is talking nonsense and afterwards blames the translator or interpreter.


Junus Kanuni schiebt die Schuld auf den Dolmetscher
Bonner Afghanistan-Konferenz: ... und Schuld war nur der Dolmetscher

Auf der Afghanistan-Konferenz hat es Verwirrung über die Haltung der Nordallianz zur Stationierung einer internationalen Friedenstruppe in Afghanistan gegeben. „Außenminister“ Abdullah hatte am Mittwochabend in einem Fernsehinterview in Kabul diese Maßnahme nicht mehr ausgeschlossen. Sein Verhandlungsführer auf dem Petersberg, Junus Kanuni, erklärte hingegen mehrfach, dafür bestehe keine Notwendigkeit. Auch auf mehrfaches Nachfragen der Journalisten war er bei seinem Nein geblieben.
Am Donnerstag sagte Kanuni nun, er sei missverstanden worden. Der Dolmetscher habe seine Worte falsch wiedergegeben. „Die Übersetzung hat meine Aussagen zerstört. Das war ein Übersetzungsfehler und ein Missverständnis.“ Er könne sich eine ausländische Militärpräsenz durchaus vorstellen. Darum sei er heute noch einmal vor die Medien getreten und habe einen anderen Dolmetscher, Jawan Nudin, mitgebracht.
Der WDR berichtet: „So richtig glauben mochte die Geschichte von der angeblich falschen Übersetzung niemand. Und so erntete die Bemerkung auch heiteres Gelächter von den Pressevertretern. Wahrscheinlicher scheint es, dass Kanuni auf Druck von außen hin zurückrudern musste."
Diese wahrscheinlichste aller Interpretationen nützt dem betroffenen Dolmetscher allerdings nichts mehr – er wurde entlassen.
[Text: Richard Schneider. Quelle: Berlin Online, Welt, WDR.]
Verwirrung auf dem

Other stories dealt with in this connection:
2003-04-27 Des Meineids Verdächtigte schiebt Schuld auf Übersetzer
2003-04-22 Nordkorea: Übersetzungsfehler gefährdet Weltfrieden
2002-10-28 Schröder: „Wenn man mit Dolmetschern spricht, mag das zu Missverständnissen führen“
2002-08-10 „Übersetzungsfehler“ empört österreichische Gastronomie
2002-03-09 Und wieder war der Übersetzer schuld: niedersächsischer Ministerpräsident verplappert sich beim Arbeitsessen
2002-03-01 Aufregung um Äußerungen des saudischen UNO-Botschafters. Schuld war - natürlich - der Dolmetscher
2001-11-29 Bonner Afghanistan-Konferenz: ... und Schuld war nur der Dolmetscher

I myself had such an experience some 10 years back. A visiting Frenchman was negotiating with an Indian oil company's officials. There was a dead end in the negotiations, when both sides went on repeating what they were saying. I was faithfully translating. Suddenly the Frenchman says that I have not translated properly, as otherwise the conversation could have proceeded further. Though taken aback, I told him that I had nothing to do with the deadlock and was just translating. He was not convinced. Fortunately the Indian side broke the deadlock by taking up some other topic and the work proceeded.
Afterwards the Frenchman apologized and said his nerves gave way. I gently asked him, whether he found my French faulty. He hastened to add that I seem to have translated perfectly into French but he was afraid that French to English rendering was perhaps not good. How does one react to such accusations? I had to tell him that when my reverse translation away from English is good enough for him, it goes without saying that my forward translation into English, my working language should definitely be better.
Even to this day I can recall the unpleasnt sensation of that moment.

[Edited at 2003-11-24 15:20]

[Edited at 2003-11-24 15:28]

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Melina Kajander
English to Finnish
Interpreter, not translator..? Nov 24, 2003

Am I getting you wrong, or did you actually mean the interpreter, not the translator? This seems to be the case at least in your own story, about your personal experiences! (My German is not quite good enough to be sure in the other case...)

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PAS  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:00
English to Polish
+ ...
nag, nag, nag Nov 24, 2003

I was interpreting a discussion between some consultants and the management of a company which was about to undergo privatization (in Poland). The consultants were asking thousands of questions and the management was not answering them. They changed the subject, dodged questions, answered in all kinds of roundabout ways. About halfway through the meeting I finally heard the momentous words: "are you sure you're saying everything right?"
My confidence level was not that good then (this was 8-9 years ago), but I had to answer that I was interpreting everything correctly. I could not say right then that these guys were not answering the bloody questions!

It was one of the worst jobs of my life. I had a headache that lasted two days after this one. And, nobody apologized.

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Narasimhan Raghavan  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:30
English to Tamil
+ ...
I meant both Nov 24, 2003

Trouble is I am a translator as well as an interpreter. Even though the quoted stories deal mainly with interpreters, this equally applies to translators too. At times a translator is given an original text, which is full of sentences succeptible to be understood in more ways than one.
Anyhow, your point is taken and I have modified the posting title accordingly.

Heli Kajander wrote:

Am I getting you wrong, or did you actually mean the interpreter, not the translator? This seems to be the case at least in your own story, about your personal experiences! (My German is not quite good enough to be sure in the other case...)

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Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:00
Flemish to English
+ ...
The man or woman in the middle. Nov 24, 2003

Don't forget to add the apology of Mr.Berlusconi when addressing the German EP-representative, who in Mr.B's opion would function better as a "kapo" of a KZ.(concentration camp) to your enumeration.
His excuse the next day,was that it was the interpreter who misinterpreted.
First of all interpreting is conveying the message to the best of your possibilities with the same intonation, but without getting involved.
The first time you interpret, you are almost certainly going to make this mistake.
Also, ask what the customer wants:
I had the experience that the customer/man for whom I interpreted wanted me to summarize what was said by the participants(in three different source languages) at the board-meeting, but that the participants "had the impression you did not translate everything".
First of all, you are hired to interpret from one language into another and not three languages at the same time. How good you may be at interpreting and how many years experience you may have, nobody can interpret three languages at the same time into the source-language.
Second if you are asked to interpret, it is wise to ask the customer what he or she expects from you: if they say, "give me a short summary", then they do not have to blame you at the end of the meeting that you did not interpret everything. Which is why even if they ask you to interpret briefly what is said, it might be wiser to interpret everything. Everybody can have a slip of the tongue, but every interpreter with the proper training will quickly realize that (s)he has made a mistake and rectify it. Nobody is perfect. The interpreter is just the middle-person, no more and no less.

[Edited at 2003-11-24 16:18]

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Lesley Clarke  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:00
Spanish to English
On a lighter side Nov 24, 2003

I had the experience many years ago when i was just a bilingual English teacher in Dublin of having to interpret for a Spanish student in a hospital. The hospital were determined that she should be kept in, because of the seriousness of her condition and the student was equally adamant that she didn't want to stay. I felt that each side saw me as responsible for what I was saying on behalf of the other. A very uncomfortable situation altogether

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Magda Dziadosz  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:00
Member (2004)
English to Polish
+ ...
Yet another one Nov 24, 2003

I was once blamed for actually interpreting everything faithfully:
During a meeting one of the participants suddenly made an extremely rude comment about the nationality of the person I was interpreting for. Of course, I interpreted that one, but then the chairperson of the meeting suddenly turned too me very angrily with 'why do you interpret this?!' and so on. Other participants supported him with "oh, unbelievable, how you can interpret such things? You should be ashamed!" (Would you believe?) The meeting immediately turned into a mess because everybody were talking to me at the same time and I didn't feel I should reply to them thus engaging myself into discussion and leaving my customer without interpretation. Finally, my customer spoke and everybody start to apologise, but at the end the general agreement was that I should be blamed, not the person who said rude things. I had very mixed feelings, but my customer (the person I was interpreting for) supported me and said I did the right thing on both accounts - that is interpreting all comments and not getting involved into the discussion.

Well, one of the most unpleasant assignments, I'm telling you


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Anne Lee  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:00
Member (2003)
Dutch to English
+ ...
Another hospital story... Nov 25, 2003

In Edinburgh, I once had to translate between a Scottish psychiatrist and a Flemish woman found wandering in the streets. For two hours, the psychiatrist asked her detailed questions about where she came from and what she was doing. I replied faithfully what she said to me, about how she was told to do things by voices in her head, radio waves and an alien who had abducted her. The conversation became very surreal and I had to use all my self-control at times to keep a straight face, but the psychiatrist and the woman both remained business-like and serious. When the two hours were finished, the woman left the room and I was left with the psychiatrist and a pounding headache. There was a long silence. After all those detailed questions, I was quietly wondering about his diagnosis. Then he said quite simply:"That woman is completely nuts!"

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sylver  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:00
English to French
A joke and some comments Nov 27, 2003

On a really lighter side: The USA sent a diplomat in China, to smooth things out. Giving his speech, he was interpreted by a local and things went very well.

So well in fact, that he was really enthusiastic about the whole thing, and got a little cocky with one of the ambassy staff: "I can't figure how you are having problems with such a wonderfull people. Eating out of my hand, I tell you. I got on stage, and they laughed at my jokes, and even applauded for 2 minutes after the end of my speech! By the way, Chinese is such a wonderful language! I would speak 5 minutes and the interpret was able to translate in just a couple sentences! Amazing!"

The staff picks up the lecture's script and start cracking up. It said:
"Please welcome the american moron.(applauses) ...He is talking nonsense(laughs)...Some more nonsense(laughs)...He is finished with his nonsense!(applauses)"

To be fair, it was perhaps not such a bad translation.

To come back to the original topic, it must be said in defence of the people using interpreting services that you really feel powerless when using an interpret. I don't know if any of you has ever been on the other side.

I have, and I can tell you there are very few things as scary as discussing an important matter and suddenly feeling that the interpret made a mistake or changed the meaning or did not really understand what you meant in the first place.

An interpret's communication skills must be very polished indeed, not only to relay the message but also to acknowledge the original communication. (Things like looking at the speaker, nodding to acknowledge when he start repeating himself -people usually repeat themselves when they do not feel acknowledged properly).

True, the interpret is sometimes taken as a scapegoat, and it's just unfair, but quite often too, he creates the situation by failing to acknowledge or by failing to spot a misunderstanding.

Though I do not interpret for a living, I have seen interpretation in all three ways (As an interpret, as a "customer" and as a spectator understanding both languages) and lots of it (nearly daily, for 4 years). In my observation, most of the upsets that occurred where due either to a lack of control of the interpret over the communication or misunderstanding.

Meaning, most of the upsets I witnessed (or was involved in, at times) came from a lack of skill from the part of the interpret.

I can really understand the customer. He is dealing with a lot of money, or sometimes even his own future (Ever discussed a serious problem with a policeman in a third world country, using whoever is there to translate?) and the interpret looks like he doesn't understand, or it looks like he is saying something else, or giving his own opinion.

I know it's no fun when you are trying to help and get aggressed in return, but in many cases there was something you could have done to avoid it.

Complaining doesn't help. Looking at what can be done to improve oneself or spotting your mistakes (often not a translation error, but simply looking absent, or starting to translate when the speaker is not quite done or ...) does.

I don't mean this for any poster in particular. It's just general comments on things I have observed and which I thought would be pertinent to that specific thread.

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