Blame the Translator

Over at Paper Republic, Lucas Klein just posted an interesting piece about the recent translation snafu that marred Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to the Congo.

For anyone who hasn’t heard about this, during a Q&A session an interpreter supposedly “misinterpreted” a question from the audience and instead of asking Clinton what Obama would think of Chinese finance contracts with the Congo, asked Clinton what her husband would think. Naturally, she was a bit pissed: “You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the secretary of state, I am. You ask my opinion. I will tell you my opinion; I’m not going to channel my husband.” (See CNN report.)

Lucas questions this a bit, jumping to the defense of translators everywhere:

But did anyone in the news ever think to check the record? I admit that on the clip I’ve seen I can’t hear the person asking the question, only the voice of the translator. But it just goes to show, as they say, how ready we are to blame the translator: according to several witnesses, the student may have “misspoken,” but he was not “misquoted” or “mistranslated”: he asked the Secretary of State to be a mouthpiece for her husband.

The first time I can remember feeling that a translator was getting a raw deal was when my then step-father, whom I had given Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before as a gift, told me that he couldn’t make it through the book because, as he said, there must be something wrong with the translation. I quickly surmised that it wasn’t a problem with William Weaver (Eco’s translator), but rather with Peter Gombrich (said former step-father), and his inability to admit that Eco might be too much a challenge for someone used to reading John Grisham, as he was.

Inside the China – Clinton cluster, you may also recall how much Bill Clinton’s translator was criticized in China following the president’s visit there in the late ’90s. But when I spoke with the man in charge of Chinese instruction for American Foreign-Service Officers, one of the best American-born speakers of Chinese I’ve met (including so-called “heritage-learners,” which he was not), he told me that the fault was mostly Bill Clinton’s: he had not given the translator a draft of the speech until the night before, leaving him little time to prepare, and then made last-minute changes even as he was reading. It always seems easier to blame the translator than to fault a sitting president, or to acknowledge one’s own shortcomings. [. . .]

But what about the rights of, and our respect for, people who are mouthpieces? I mean here the translators, who, like women and other disempowered figures around the world, are blamed when they err—or are even perceived to err—and ignored when they succeed? While we have follow-up quotes from the State Department, the Congolese student who asked the question, and from media commentators across the land, did anyone ever think to ask Clinton’s translator—who in her own way must be an expert on negotiating the cultural differences between Francophone Africa and the American political realm? Just because she refuses the space to comment when she’s on the stage doesn’t mean we should refuse her that space afterward.

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