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.

I'm glad you wrote this up. I had a feeling there was some lack of information there.
The link to pseudo-interpretation doesn't seem to work.
Thanks for that, Margaret, I hope it's fixed now.
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