The progressive translator

The purpose of this blog is to provide a forum, a clearinghouse, where progressive translators and other interested persons may discuss issues of concern, including, but not limited to, political aspects of translation, translation theory, the policies and structure of the ATA, and activism at the local group level.


Ken Kronenberg is a German translator specializing in medicine, patents, and 19th- and 20th-century diaries and letters. The views and positions taken by guest bloggers are not necessarily those of Ken Kronenberg or the Progressive Translator.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Traduttore, Tradittore?

A colleague, a court interpreter, recently sent the following e-mail to one of the lists I subscribe to:
I was in court yesterday. As the judge swore me in, I was admiring the new formula he was using. It pretty much covers the bases and does so quite well. This honing no doubt comes as a result of the Administration of the Court's recent reflection on court interpretation, prompted in good part by NHITO, the N.H. Interpreters and Translators Organization. In the past the format was pretty much left to each district or superior court. I have found myself having to say yes to the question: "Will you translate (sic) word for word, etc." Disgusting.

Well, back to yesterday. So the formula was fine. Then the judge decided to ad lib his own explanation of what had been said, adding, "That means you are to be a machine (sic), saying what I say in French, etc."

I wanted to respond, Then get yourself a machine. But, of course, one never argues with a judge.
This is a fascinating little vignette. The judge's ad lib may certainly have reflected a lack of respect or a lack of understanding of what translation is. But it may conceivably have reflected an underlying sense of unease with or distrust of interpreters and the privileged information and method that they almost always possess. After all, interpreters know something that their employers do not, so that they can never be completely certain of the interpreter's loyalties, even in situations in which "professionalism" would seem to dictate where that loyalty properly lies.

There is nothing new in this. Ottoman dragomans and other interpreters and translators were not infrequently suspected of doubledealing -- in some cases with reason -- and more than a few were executed on orders of the Sultan. Several more recent instances underscore the ambiguous nature of translation/interpreting:

1. On November 20, 2006, the New York Times ran an op-ed titled "Lost after Translation," by Basim Mardan, who served as an interpreter with the Marines in Iraq. It is a touching, even heartbreaking story.

In the op-ed piece he wrote:
In the second year, when we were processing the release of prisoners from Abu Ghraib, I read out a list of names of prisoners who needed to collect their documents. One of them said to me, "You are all going to be killed." I thought he was referring to the Americans, until he said, "No, I mean you." I didn't translate this for the soldiers who were with me. I was thinking, This person just got out of prison, and I don't want to be the reason that he goes back to prison.
About a month later, a message was fixed to my door, full of verses from the Koran and threats and curses. They gave me about one week to quit what I was doing.
A week later, a CD was fixed on my door, picturing one of my best friends, Nabi Abul-Ahad. It was a video of them beheading him, with the message that I would be next.
Now it is certainly clear why the insurgents would want to target Mardan and other interpreters: they are able to make clear information that they would rather remain opaque to the Americans. But, there is ample reason for the Americans not to trust him either: "I didn't translate this for the soldiers who were with me..."

2. A large part of the Sibel Edmonds controversy in 2002-2003 revolved around the purported purposeful mistranslation of documents by translators employed in sensitive positions and given top-secret security clearance by the FBI.

3. Over Thanksgiving, I had a lengthy conversation with a friend who is frequently called upon to give expert testimony in patent litigation cases involving computer technology. In one recent case, the attorney for the plaintiff's attorney produced in court a translation (paid for by the plaintiff) of a Japanese patent which, it was purported, demonstrated that the defendant's patent was invalid. As it happened, the jury found for the defendant because of the preponderance of evidence. His curiosity aroused, my friend showed the patent to a Japanese translator after the trial. In fact, the patent demonstrated none of the things that the plaintiff's attorney had claimed. In other words, given the weakness of the plaintiff's case the attorney may have purposely tried to mislead the court, using a bad translation. As my friend summarized, "This sort of thing happens much more frequently than you would think."

Although the third instance may say more about the ethics of lawyer, the point is that, unless the defendant commissioned his own translation, there would be no way for the court to achieve clarity about the plaintiff's translation. And the translator presumably allowed himself/herself to be used in this manner.

All of these instances go to the trustworthiness of interpreting and translation in critical (and noncritical?) situations -- and to the fundamental ambiguousness of the role.

Judges interested in replacing interpreters with machines should be referred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) web site:
The goal of the Compact Aids for Speech Translation program is to develop rapid, two-way, natural language speech translation interfaces and platforms for the warfighter for use in field environments for force protection, refugee processing, and medical triage. Compact Aids for Speech Translation will focus on overcoming the many technical and engineering challenges limiting current multilingual translation technology to enable future full-domain, unconstrained dialog translation in multiple environments.


Anonymous Interested lurker said...

"it may conceivably have reflected an underlying sense of unease with or distrust of interpreters and the privileged information and method that they almost always possess"
Or it may be that the judge was the same one who had to deal with me as a very green and completetly untrained interpreter a few years back: I carried a conversation with the witness, summarized what I thought to be a lengthy digression, and generally ignored the most basics rules. Fortunately, this was a very patient family court judge. Your colleague should be just as upset about would-be untrained interpreters than about the judge.
Note: I soon after decided to keep my interpreting activities where they belonged: at home.

December 07, 2006 7:34 AM  

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