Blame the Translator

By Lucas Klein, published

Granted, this post has little to do with China aside from the tangential fact that it involves a question whose stated purpose was for views on Chinese contracts in the Congo.

By now we have all heard of, if not seen clips of, Hillary Clinton's sharp retort to the question, "What does Mr. Clinton think, through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton?” Think what you may of the Secretary of State's reaction, I think we should also pay some attention to the fact that, in the words of the New York Times blog, the video came "packaged in reports, like one from Kirit Radia of ABC News, stating that 'apparently the translator made a mistake.'"

The conclusion that the translator made an error seems to come from a face-saving gesture (you see, I just can't stop talking about things in Chinese terms) on the part of the student who asked the question: "'A State Department official tells ABC News the student went up to Clinton after the event and told her he was misquoted,' and said that he had actually asked her to share President Obaam’s [sic] views on Congo’s relations with China."

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.

The NYT blog report strikes the right note in noting that "It always seemed unlikely to The Lede that a translator working for Mrs. Clinton would make such a large error with a question asked in French," but it quickly moves on to discussing the role of and respect for women in international--especially African--politics, concluding,

Putting Mrs. Clinton’s reply to the student’s question in this context, as words spoken to Congolese students in a forum partly devoted to a discussion of violent discrimination against women in that country, do readers still think that her indignation at this request that she channel her husband as inappropriate as some of her critics have charged? Or could it be seen as a legitimate attempt to make a clear statement that women’s opinions matter, in a part of the world where that perspective may not be often aired?

I agree with this sentiment. I would like to see more emotional honesty from our world leaders--not least because it can be compelling, and because it gives us more material to help us decide whom to follow--and am not impressed by the double-standard that binds Hillary Clinton to her husband. I believe, in fact, that parts of our society are so critical of the Secretary of State's response because they themselves cannot believe that she is not something more than a mouthpiece for her husband.

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.


# 1.   

I think you are missing the point. Having known simultaneous translators working for the UN, their job is dependent on getting it right. They can’t rely on the speaker adhering to a script – especially where one doesn’t exist. Hilary, et al, should have made a better hire.

Bilge Water, August 13, 2009, 7:33p.m.

# 2.   

I wonder what point I could be missing, since I thought I was the one making the point.

The English - Chinese translator who was criticized was President Clinton's, not Secretary of State Clinton's. I don't know the specifics of why he was criticized, but from what I heard, his task was particularly difficult. That does not mean that he didn't err; it means that we might want to temper our criticism according to a sense of the degree of difficulty of the translation task.

Conversely, Secretary of State Clinton's translator was blamed--even scapegoated--for a situation in which she was not in error. My point, which Bilge Water seems to be missing, is that very often the translator gets blamed to cover up faults of others. This is a separate issue of translators being taken to task for their own shortcomings.


Lucas, August 13, 2009, 8:16p.m.


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