MSNBC News Story: Lost in Translation/Interpretation

"In the beginning of the timing of the laws, I said there is no difficulties base." Huh? Rachel Maddow doesn't understand it either, and she's a Rhodes Scholar. Last night, I was watching her news program on MSNBC. I really like her show, and while her political stance (which I share) is hard to miss, she presents very interesting news. Last night, our profession was the topic of one news item. Check it out here -- it is priceless.

Apparently, the American government has not done a very good job at providing correct English<->Arabic interpretation for defendants in Guantánamo Bay. Rachel Maddow referred to "bad translations". While I certainly appreciate our profession and its importance being discussed and appreciated in the national news, it was clear to me that Ms. Maddow was talking about interpreters in court, not translators. Maybe the American Translators Association should send out a memo to all news stations: Translation = written word. Interpretation = spoken word. It's not that hard.

Basically, five key defendants charged in conjunction with 9/11 were moving towards jury trials, and their lawyers said that translations were done so on the cheap that they estimate that half of what defendants stated in the hearing room was mistranslated. That certainly doesn't make for a fair trial, does it? No wonder the State Department has been aggressively recruiting Arabic translators/interpreters.

Ms. Maddow mentioned another hilarious interpretation mishap. Somehow, "Osama bin Laden's driver" got interpreted as "Osama bin Laden's lawyer". With a smirk, she shrugged and said "Oh, what's the difference?" and cut to commercial break. So, thanks MSNBC for highlighting the importance (in this case, it really might be about life or death) of our profession. Next time, please do check the terminology, though.


Unknown on October 15, 2008 at 2:05 PM said...

Great post! The statistics on Arabic translation in the government are just horrifying; I recently read an article that out of 1,000 employees at the new embassy in Baghdad (the world's largest), only 33 speak Arabic and only 6 of those fluently. It's kind of laughable if you're not one of the people whose lives is on the line because of the crippling lack of qualified government linguists! Lawyer/driver, what's the difference?

Anonymous said...

One of the problems with government translators/interpreters is that the pay is so bad. The FBI, for example, is always complaining about lack of translators -- but they don't mention that they pay far below market rates. So it's no wonder they have trouble getting competent people.

Another problem is security clearances. It's very hard for foreign-born Arabic speakers to get security clearances for US government jobs, although I don't know if this applies to GITMO in particular (i.e. what kind of clearances are needed).

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 15, 2008 at 10:40 PM said...

Good points, Ryan. I had heard some reports about the poor pay at the FBI. At Guantánamo, the old peanuts/monkey story seems to hold true, and that's just awful when someone's life is at stake.

Security clearances are of course also a good point. Somehow, though, you'd think that the State Department (or FBI, or some other governmental entity) would already have established some type of intense Arabic training (and living abroad) for American linguists...

Anonymous said...

"'d think that the State Department ... would already have established some type of intense Arabic training..."

That's a good point. In fact, the US government spends millions of dollars on improving the foreign-language abilities of Americans. For example, I got a government-funded scholarship to study abroad in Japan when I was in college.

The problem as I see it is that these efforts are more than countered by government attempts to create a monolingual society and culture. Take, for example, government refusal at all levels to nurture and develop the home languages of immigrant families, instead attempting actively to eradicate them.

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