Off topic: Translation trouble at top-level talks
Thread poster: Vanessa Marques

Vanessa Marques
Portugal
Local time: 05:02
English to Portuguese
+ ...
May 14, 2004

Translation trouble at top-level talks

By James Robbins
BBC diplomatic correspondent

What does it take to translate for a president or a prime minister? Can an interpreter's slip change the course of history? In Breaking The Language Barrier, some of the great interpreters talk of their experiences with US, UK and Soviet leaders - and confess that they sometimes tone down the language of their political masters.


Welcome to the world of interpreters - of linguistic high-wire acts and rapid-fire translation raised to an art form.
Interpreters are those almost invisible but quite indispensable people squeezed between two rival presidents, neither of whom speaks the other's language.

The interpreter's task is simple - render the flattery or the threats, the soft sell or the hardline of their masters into another tongue.

So how much does get lost in translation? And how do interpreters do it anyway, for heaven's sake, when most of us have trouble communicating in our own language half the time?

I have watched and listened to some of the greats in the interpreting business - at summits, at war crimes trials, at the United Nations or the European Parliament - as they play the parts of presidents and princes, prosecutors or parliamentarians.

Have there been any really big mistakes? Has the course of history been changed by the interpreter missing out that vital word "not" and turning a concession into a threat?

Well, even the stars of the profession make occasional slips.

Treaty tussle

Igor Korchilov, who translated for Soviet leaders from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, was at the very top of his interpreting career at a summit between George Bush senior and Mikhail Gorbachev as the Cold War was ending in the late 1980s.

"The two Presidents and their respective delegations were discussing the arcane biz of arms control," he says.

"Things like SDI, ABM, Mervs, all those Slicom, Glicoms, and other such hi-tech Star Wars stuff including the so-called open-skies proposal, which was the brainchild of the American delegation at the time."


The stumbling block was to reach agreement on whose aircraft should be used to over fly the other side's territory for inspection purposes, to verify compliance with the arms control treaties about to be concluded.
The Soviet Union wanted one set of rules - the Americans precisely the opposite.

The argument came down to two horribly similar words: verifying and verified.

"Gorbachev, in presenting his position, did not pronounce very clearly or distinctly the ending of one of these two terms, which were crucial in the context," Mr Korchilov explains.

"He said a word in Russian which I heard as verifying party - and of course that was a total reversal of the Soviet position.

"Baker and Bush were incredulous. They looked at me and they were kind of happy that Gorbachev had changed his position overnight to go along with their proposal.

"But just to make sure, they asked Gorbachev to repeat, to corroborate, to confirm what he had just said.

"Well, when I translated it back into Russian, Gorbachev said, 'No, no, I did not say that. I said it's up to the verified party to provide the aircraft' - not to the verifying party as I translated.

"Of course, after the meeting, I came up to Bush to apologise. He heard me out very carefully, he nodded gravely as if to emphasise how bad the mistake was, and said, 'Well, that's the bad news'.

"Then he patted me in a friendly fashion on the shoulder and said, 'But don't worry, the good news is you didn't start World War Three'."

Forceful language

Mistakes are inevitable. They are not usually as serious as that one - and it was spotted, of course.

So it is hard to find evidence of history actually being changed by an interpreter's slip, but that certainly does not mean their influence is not powerful.

Their performance and style can change the whole mood of a meeting.

But then, what about the poor interpreter unable to bring himself to be as blunt as the speaker - the interpreter convinced he must tone down the harshness of a political master?


No surprise, perhaps, that Margaret Thatcher could stun interpreters with her forceful language.
Her foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell, remembers a tense meeting.

"Sometimes interpreters really do have to censor things a bit," he says.

"Once, the Foreign Office plagued 10 Downing Street, back in the mid-1980s, for Mrs Thatcher to see the visiting president of the former French Congo - a well known Marxist and Communist.

"Mrs Thatcher was reluctant to see him but, after much nagging, she finally consented.

"The President arrived and was shown up to her drawing room and sat down opposite her, and she leant across, fixed him with a baleful glare and said, 'I hate Communists'.

"The poor French interpreter, rather shattered by this not exactly courteous introduction to the conversation, rendered it something like 'Prime Minister Thatcher says that she has never been wholly supportive of the ideas of Karl Marx', which I thought was a pretty brave attempt in the circumstances."

"Breaking the Language Barrier" is written and presented by James Robbins. The producer is Philippa Goodrich. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, 24 January, 2004.


Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/uk/3426257.stm

Published: 2004/01/24 16:32:22 GMT

© BBC MMIV


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xxxCMJ_Trans
Local time: 06:02
French to English
+ ...
all interpreters have this sort of experience.... May 14, 2004

My first thought is that I am surprised the top Russian interpreter didn't ask Gorbachev to repeat if he wasn't sure what he heard, given that it would have meant a complete reversal of position....
On more than one occasion I have asked for clarification when I suspected there might have been a slip of the tongue or when someone seemed to be arguing against himself. Better safe than sorry....

One of the toughest calls is when someone uses really foul language and you have to decide just how far you are prepared to follow him down that road.

One of my worst experiences was when I was doing something I should never have agreed to do. As a staffer, I was asked to cover two meetings at the same time. Sounds impossible but they were in two neighbouring rooms and both were in simultaneous with partners (someone called in sick on the very day). Each English booth was therefore manned by one person plus me floating between the two.
As I arrived in one booth, the girl on air was running out of steam and handed over to me virtually before I could sit down.
I plunged in headlong only to here the word "sept" in French, or so I thought. So there I was busily talking about "seven" of this, etc. only to see heads turn in the room. In fact they were talking about the port of "Sète". Fortuntantely they all found it very funny, when I explained the circumstances in the break...
Comme quoi, as they say!


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Monika Coulson  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:02
Member (2001)
English to Albanian
+ ...
Another real story May 14, 2004

Dear Vanessa,
thank you for this thread, it is indeed very interesting. I will bring here another real story, which I heard it last month.

The President of a country (I will not mention here which country) visited Africa and when he held a speech in front of a huge crowd, he said: "This city is clean, it does not look like Africa!"

The poor interpreter, trying to give him another chance to correct his wording, asked the President to repeat his saying, because he "did not hear it well."

- "This city is clean, it does not look like Africa!" - repeated the President.

- "You have a very clean city, I am happy to be in Africa" - were the words that came out of the interpreter's mouth.

Everyone was happy, the crowd that cheered the President's words and the President who was happy that his remarks were taken so well...

Monika



[Edited at 2004-05-14 07:56]


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Edwal Rospigliosi  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 06:02
Member (2004)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Interpreting plans May 26, 2004

I remember an episode of Mafalda (the dear little girl) where she was planning to become an U.N. interpreter when she were grown. She was thinking: "If a president says to another, 'your country is horrible', I will translate 'your country is a charm', and there won't be more wars". What a great plan!

Regards

edwal


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International Translation Agency Ltd //
Local time: 06:02
English to French
+ ...
S.I. is a very delicate business! Jun 23, 2004

My thanks go to whoever initiated this thread and to all those who contributed to it!

I've been interpreting since 1989, mainly simultaneously. I confess that I am of no use in the consecutive mode!

A couple of years ago, I had to interpret for 2 ministerial delegations in FR>EN>FR. The delegations were seated for lunch and I was kindly invited to join them for some exquisite French cuisine. (Wo)Man! I did not even get to taste the food. The reason being that the delegations carried out talking business over their lunch.

The French-speaking minister developed an idea that contained "on the one hand...." and naturally I expected him to say "on the other hand..." and develop the second part of his thought. Now, I was working in a very difficult environment: a table of 15 people, talking to each other in all directions and the poor interpreter caught in the crossfire! So, before the minister uttered the second part of his idea, I went faster than him and I said IT. I mean, I translated into EN what came after "on the other hand..." just by guessing (it's true that I knew the topic inside out). Lo and behold! The francophone minister said half-jokingly something of the sort: "well, the interpreter spoke on my behalf, I need not add anything to his words"!

You can imagine how I felt.

(Thank God I did not get it wrong, at least!).

At the VIP lounge in the Airport, the Francophone minister came up to me and congratulated me for my anticipation skills. I felt a big relief.

Cheers!

Rachid Titouah








Vanessa Marques wrote:

Translation trouble at top-level talks

By James Robbins
BBC diplomatic correspondent

What does it take to translate for a president or a prime minister? Can an interpreter's slip change the course of history? In Breaking The Language Barrier, some of the great interpreters talk of their experiences with US, UK and Soviet leaders - and confess that they sometimes tone down the language of their political masters.


Welcome to the world of interpreters - of linguistic high-wire acts and rapid-fire translation raised to an art form.
Interpreters are those almost invisible but quite indispensable people squeezed between two rival presidents, neither of whom speaks the other's language.

The interpreter's task is simple - render the flattery or the threats, the soft sell or the hardline of their masters into another tongue.

So how much does get lost in translation? And how do interpreters do it anyway, for heaven's sake, when most of us have trouble communicating in our own language half the time?

I have watched and listened to some of the greats in the interpreting business - at summits, at war crimes trials, at the United Nations or the European Parliament - as they play the parts of presidents and princes, prosecutors or parliamentarians.

Have there been any really big mistakes? Has the course of history been changed by the interpreter missing out that vital word "not" and turning a concession into a threat?

Well, even the stars of the profession make occasional slips.

Treaty tussle

Igor Korchilov, who translated for Soviet leaders from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, was at the very top of his interpreting career at a summit between George Bush senior and Mikhail Gorbachev as the Cold War was ending in the late 1980s.

"The two Presidents and their respective delegations were discussing the arcane biz of arms control," he says.

"Things like SDI, ABM, Mervs, all those Slicom, Glicoms, and other such hi-tech Star Wars stuff including the so-called open-skies proposal, which was the brainchild of the American delegation at the time."


The stumbling block was to reach agreement on whose aircraft should be used to over fly the other side's territory for inspection purposes, to verify compliance with the arms control treaties about to be concluded.
The Soviet Union wanted one set of rules - the Americans precisely the opposite.

The argument came down to two horribly similar words: verifying and verified.

"Gorbachev, in presenting his position, did not pronounce very clearly or distinctly the ending of one of these two terms, which were crucial in the context," Mr Korchilov explains.

"He said a word in Russian which I heard as verifying party - and of course that was a total reversal of the Soviet position.

"Baker and Bush were incredulous. They looked at me and they were kind of happy that Gorbachev had changed his position overnight to go along with their proposal.

"But just to make sure, they asked Gorbachev to repeat, to corroborate, to confirm what he had just said.

"Well, when I translated it back into Russian, Gorbachev said, 'No, no, I did not say that. I said it's up to the verified party to provide the aircraft' - not to the verifying party as I translated.

"Of course, after the meeting, I came up to Bush to apologise. He heard me out very carefully, he nodded gravely as if to emphasise how bad the mistake was, and said, 'Well, that's the bad news'.

"Then he patted me in a friendly fashion on the shoulder and said, 'But don't worry, the good news is you didn't start World War Three'."

Forceful language

Mistakes are inevitable. They are not usually as serious as that one - and it was spotted, of course.

So it is hard to find evidence of history actually being changed by an interpreter's slip, but that certainly does not mean their influence is not powerful.

Their performance and style can change the whole mood of a meeting.

But then, what about the poor interpreter unable to bring himself to be as blunt as the speaker - the interpreter convinced he must tone down the harshness of a political master?


No surprise, perhaps, that Margaret Thatcher could stun interpreters with her forceful language.
Her foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell, remembers a tense meeting.

"Sometimes interpreters really do have to censor things a bit," he says.

"Once, the Foreign Office plagued 10 Downing Street, back in the mid-1980s, for Mrs Thatcher to see the visiting president of the former French Congo - a well known Marxist and Communist.

"Mrs Thatcher was reluctant to see him but, after much nagging, she finally consented.

"The President arrived and was shown up to her drawing room and sat down opposite her, and she leant across, fixed him with a baleful glare and said, 'I hate Communists'.

"The poor French interpreter, rather shattered by this not exactly courteous introduction to the conversation, rendered it something like 'Prime Minister Thatcher says that she has never been wholly supportive of the ideas of Karl Marx', which I thought was a pretty brave attempt in the circumstances."

"Breaking the Language Barrier" is written and presented by James Robbins. The producer is Philippa Goodrich. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, 24 January, 2004.


Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/uk/3426257.stm

Published: 2004/01/24 16:32:22 GMT

© BBC MMIV


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