Friday, October 13, 2006


A singular media plurality

Interpreting was in the news recently (or conspicuously not in the news in the case of the BBC, see below) when President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was reported by the New York Times and others as having regretted not being able to meet Noam Chomsky before he died (Chomsky is in fact alive).

It subsequently emerged that Chávez had said no such thing and the NYT issued a correction:
An article on Sept. 21 about criticism of President Bush at the United Nations by President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran reported that Mr. Chávez praised a book by Noam Chomsky, the linguist and social critic. It reported that later, at a news conference, Mr. Chávez said that he regretted not having met Mr. Chomsky before he died. The article noted that in fact, Mr. Chomsky is alive. The assertion that Mr. Chávez had made this misstatement was repeated in a Times interview with Mr. Chomsky the next day.

In fact, what Mr. Chávez said was, “I am an avid reader of Noam Chomsky, as I am of an American professor who died some time ago.” Two sentences later Mr. Chávez named John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who died last April, calling both him and Mr. Chomsky great intellectual figures.

Mr. Chávez was speaking in Spanish at the news conference, but the simultaneous English translation by the United Nations left out the reference to Mr. Galbraith and made it sound as if the man who died was Mr. Chomsky.

Readers pointed out the error in e-mails to The Times soon after the first article was published. Reporters reviewed the recordings of the news conference in English and Spanish, but not carefully enough to detect the discrepancy, until after the Venezuelan government complained publicly on Wednesday.

Editors and reporters should have been more thorough earlier in checking the accuracy of the simultaneous translation.
A recording of the interpretation can be heard here with the interesting bit coming after about 37 minutes 40 seconds.

Here is a transcript of what the interpreter said:
You asked how to achieve the, overthrow the, of imperialism. The political work of Chomsky, which has been very important for many decades. I am an avid reader of Noam Chomsky. An American professor who died some time ago. I wanted to meet that man, but he was aged. He was 90 years old. John Kenneth Galbraith, I have been reading him since I was child, and so Noam Chomsky. They are, these are great intellectuals of the United States.
The original Spanish spoken by Chávez can be listened to here starting at about 3 minutes 15 seconds (sound not great but adequate for present purposes).

Here is a transcription:
¿Cómo lograr la derrota del imperialismo? Aquí hay una buena propuesta, la obra política de Chomsky más importante y original desde hace una década, aquí hay extraordinarias ideas, soy un lector asiduo de Noam Chomsky, como lo he sido de un norteamericano profesor que murió hace poco, lamentablemente no pude conocerlo, chica, yo sí traté de conocer a ese hombre, pero ya estaba un poco deteriorado, noventa años tenía, John Kenneth Galbraith, lo leí desde niño a Galbraith...
The first and most important point here is that what Chávez actually said, in Spanish, is quite clear on the question of who died and who didn't and could not reasonably be construed as meaning that it was Chomsky rather than Galbraith who was no longer with us.

In that light, it is simply incredible that the NYT reporters, as the newspaper claims, ‘reviewed the recordings of the news conference in English and Spanish’ and did not ‘detect the discrepancy’, even after it had been explicitly pointed out to them.

Also, contrary to what the NYT claims, Galbraith is in fact mentioned by the interpreter.

But what really beggars belief here is how raw simultaneous interpretation is treated as if it were a verbatim record of proceedings.

Despite regular exposure to pseudo-interpretation, particularly in English-speaking countries, people in general – and journalists more than most, one would think – seem to appreciate that simultaneous interpretation is not an exact science and does not render a perfect and authentic copy of the original.

Normally, if people hear something through the interpreter that jars with what they know, they adjust to make allowance for the vagaries of simultaneous interpretation and try to reinterpret the interpretation to accord with their knowledge of the world and of the speaker (it is perfectly possible to read the Chávez interpretation transcript in a way that fits the facts).

If that fails, they normally assume that the interpreter has missed something, as is always liable to happen, rather than that the speaker has said something absurd.

Unless of course they already have the speaker pinned as a crazy foreigner and therefore have certain ‘expectations’ in his regard that have to be fed. A conspiracy is not required, it’s just a question of conforming to house style (earlier post on how recalcitrant facts get shoehorned into a stereotype). Eventually, what is manifestly false can come to be widely accepted as true.

It seems to me that the NYT correction leaves a lot to be desired, particularly in implying that Chávez himself was in some way responsible for the misrepresentation. But it is sackcloth and ashes compared to the ‘correction’ provided by the BBC’s Latin America service. Having parroted the US media for the original story, the BBC suddenly finds an independent voice when it comes to the rectification.

It snidely impugns Chávez's phraseology ('you only have to listen to it three times to figure out who he's referring to') and claims that several international media organisations independently misunderstood him - which would mean of course that the misunderstanding was his fault not theirs - whereas in fact they had all simply relayed the NYT's version of events rather than reporting the matter directly.

(So much for media plurality).

This is all the more blatant in the case of the BBC’s Latin America service, of course, because its correspondents would – had they actually witnessed proceedings first-hand – have heard and understood the original Spanish, which – as noted above – is quite clear as to who is dead.

Or would the BBC's Latin America service have us believe that its people were present at the press conference but chose to listen to the English interpretation instead of the original before then translating it back into Spanish for their report?

In fact the BBC, unlike e.g. the NYT in its correction, makes no mention whatsoever of any interpretation. And of course it cannot do so without revealing that what its prestigious world-renowned news service is serving up to its Latin American audience as well as being second-hand and unverified has passed through the mangle of translation not once but twice.

Friday, October 06, 2006


Preterite perfect

It is well known that different professions can have vocabulary all their own but can they have their own grammar too?

I have long been struck by the strange use of the present perfect (“has done”) instead of the preterite (“did”) by football and racing folk in Britain, particularly in the context of post-match/post-race comments and reaction.

Example 1
"Their goal is not legitimate. He's neither headed it nor side-footed the ball in. We've had a bit of a rough decision but we didn't score…. He's knocked it in with his hand but what can we do about it?”
Example 2
Yet while Monday's misadventure will have done little to enhance his reputation, Collins insists it would be wrong to cast the defender as a thug.
"I know Dan quite well and he's not that sort of player," he said. "He's not going to go into a tackle trying to do someone. He's gone for the ball and the lad's got there a yard sharper than him. Unfortunately, he's caught him.”
Example 3
Smart was not at the track but he did see the race on television and he was fuming at the decision of the stewards.

He said: ''I have never stopped a horse in all my training career...Paul Eddery has rode a misjudged race, that's what he's done. That horse was not stopped. To fine me that amount of money is a ridiculous thing, all because of a misjudged race. I am so angry I can hardly speak.

''I told him to drop him in a little bit but he has dropped him in too far.
Example 4
Quinn added: ''He's quickened up really nicely and was always travelling supremely well. I knew we had it stitched up towards the end.''

He is a nice young horse and I couldn't see him getting beat today," said the trainer. "He got there a bit sooner than we'd planned, but Mick (Fitzgerald) felt he'd better commit when he did and he's quickened away well, despite running a bit green."
I have now discovered that there is a third group – the New Zealand police – using the present perfect in this way. The phenomenon, which has been dubbed the preterite perfect, is researched and documented in a most informative thesis paper by Rebecca M. Cox.
They’ve concealed themselves in the roof here um a woman was using one of the cubicles in the toilet and Taylor’s fallen through on top of her. They’ve run away and then he was located um a short distance away in a nearby carpark.”
In fact it seems that in New Zealand and Australia the construction has also become common in mainstream English (or should that be Anglo-American? – see previous post), which runs counter to the trend in American and British English of the present perfect giving way to the preterite.
In the northern hemisphere, the perfect is said to be losing ground to the preterite, but in New Zealand and Australian English the [present perfect] is apparently undergoing semantic extension to include past time with no present connection, a niche traditionally occupied by the preterite.
The paper also considers the literature on how perfect tenses tend to evolve across all languages:
Elsness has compiled the generally recognized stages in the development of the present perfect from the work of a number of linguists (see Elsness 1997: 346 for a full list). Elsness’s first stage is typified by a reference to a present state or result of action. By the second stage, ‘the emphasis has shifted to the past action which brought about the state or result’ (ibid: 347), although any specific past-time reference is still disallowed. Modern English clearly belongs in this stage. At the third stage, the present perfect has lost any present relevance, and has become simply a past tense. At this stage there are no restrictions on the use of past-time specification (ibid). French is included in this stage, and German appears to be at an intermediate stage between two and three (ibid).
And concludes that:
The change observed in New Zealand and Australian English appears to follow the universal trend of perfect evolution outlined in Bybee et al. (1994), where present perfect forms evolve to display preterite-like uses. New Zealand English speakers may thus be at the forefront of a wider PP change.
So first it's the rolling maul, now this.

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