2007/06/09

Translations and News

In 1870 when Chancellor Bismarck wanted a war with France for his very complicated grand strategy (that succeeded), he needed a provocation. He manipulated a letter with slight changes in the text - no really strong changes for a modern reader - and the subsequent publication of the letter helped a lot to incite the war of 1870/1871.

Nowadays, we'd like to protect our nations against warmongers among our own ranks. In a democracy, manipulation and wrong information undermine the legitimacy and functioning of the political system and need to be avoided even at high costs. The people are the sovereign, and they can only keep their sovereignty in a democracy that functions well.

That's why I'm quite furious about a problem that apparently few people even recognize: Our news lie systematically because of poor translations. Wrong news is a broader problem, but wrong translations are easily avoided.

The problem is most likely more relevant in nations with not so widespread language and least relevant in countries with very widespread language (in the NATO; USA and UK).

One example; on publicly financed TV channels (private TV channels aren't better) I can very often observe how simultaneous translation is used. This is prone to mistakes because of the lack of time for the interpreter. But for the sake of timeliness, this can probably be tolerated in most cases.
What cannot be tolerated is that a definitely wrong simultaneous translation appears in the news even hours after the taping. Many journalists are obviously not aware how serious their job is, otherwise they'd care more for exact translations.

And I don't mean just small mistakes or wrong emphasis in simultaneous translations. The freedom of interpretation that interpreters seem to claim is huge. Sometimes, there's little resemblance to the original text.

I believe this is one of many problems that grew over time and are adding sand into the mechanism of democracy.
Democracy doesn't function because people believe it's good - it functions only when many requirements are met and we need to have a keen eye on things like these.

(Maybe the next time we observe this in the news it's about time for a letter to the editor. Unless many people do this, it would probably not work - but we're in a democracy, so we're free to steer some journalists in search for a scandal on the topic ... they might make it into print with the story in the summer slump.
The system has what it needs to repair itself - but a recognition of a shortcoming and a stimulus to resolve it is usually necessary.)

Sven Ortmann

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