Still from Al-Aqsa TV clipBesides writing and editing, I spend a big chunk of my day as a linguist, translating Arabic to English and vice versa. Although the process itself is tedious and hectic at times, I enjoy it for the most part, particularly when I’m trying to find the exact word match. I look at a challenging text as a riddle that can only be solved by hunting for the most accurate missing pieces. It is an elusive game but I enjoy it and better, I even get paid for it. Any translator dreads the time when they end up choosing words that do not match. It is the ultimate horror when the translator “mistranslates” especially when it comes to the business of news. Misquoting someone’s words and then broadcasting them to the public is the news translator’s ultimate bad dream. Luckily, I have yet to face my interpretation nightmare.

All that said, it should come as no surprise that I was extremely intrigued by Brian Whittaker’s piece in The Guardian that highlighted the mistranslation of the now infamous Al-Aqsa TV clip, which was eaten up by US media outlets. While I found the show and its content extremely off-putting, as children are being cajoled into parroting political ideologies, Whittaker makes a very valid point: The MEMRI translators either mistranslated or intentionally decided to embellish what was said on the tape. What was most intriguing about his piece was the argument that occurred between MEMRI’s founder and one of CNN’S Arabic speakers, Octavia Nasr.

Among those misled by Memri’s “translation” was Glenn Beck of CNN, who had planned to run it on his radio programme, until his producer told him to stop. Beck informed listeners this was because CNN’s Arabic department had found “massive problems” with it. Instead of broadcasting the tape, Beck then invited [MEMRI’s] Carmon on to the programme and gave him a platform to denounce CNN’s Arabic department, and in particular to accuse one of its staff, Octavia Nasr, of being ignorant about the language.

Carmon related a phone conversation he had had with Ms Nasr: She said the sentence where it says [in Memri’s translation] “We are going to … we will annihilate the Jews”, she said: “Well, our translators hear something else. They hear ‘The Jews are shooting at us’.” I said to her: “You know, Octavia, the order of the words as you put it is upside down. You can’t even get the order of the words right. Even someone who doesn’t know Arabic would listen to the tape and would hear the word ‘Jews’ is at the end, and also it means it is something to be done to the Jews, not by the Jews.”

And she insisted, no the word is in the beginning. I said: “Octavia, you just don’t get it. It is at the end” … She didn’t know one from two, I mean.

As a native speaker myself, I heard nothing about annihilating the Jews. What I heard was: بطخونا اليهود which translates into: “The Jews are shooting at us.” So the question becomes: Did MEMRI embellish their translation on purpose or was it simply an innocent translation mistake? I cannot say for certain. What I do know is media organizations should take MEMRI’s translation with a grain of salt, especially after this incident. Here is what Whittaker thinks:

The curious thing about all this is that Memri’s translations are usually accurate (though it is highly selective in what it chooses to translate and often removes things from their original context). When errors do occur, it’s difficult to attribute them to incompetence or accidental lapses. As in the case of the children’s TV programme, there appears to be a political motive. The effect of this is to devalue everything Memri translates — good and bad alike. Responsible news organisations can’t rely on anything it says without going back and checking its translations against the original Arabic.

Hat tip: [Jordan Journals]