Anna Aslanyan on the perils of translating news.
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It was a journalistic blunder that generated the Hungarian word for ‘mistranslation’, leiterjakab. In 1863, when the French photographer Nadar first flew in his balloon, a Hungarian reporter used a publication in a Viennese newspaper as the basis for his article. The German original read ‘Empor, empor, wir wollen so hoch hinauffliegen wie Jakobs Leiter’, or ‘Up, up, we want to fly up as high as Jacob’s ladder’, but the journalist missed the biblical reference and wrote ‘as high as Jakob Leiter’.
News have long been treated as an international commodity. Back in the seventeenth century, the first English newspapers consisted of highly interpretative translations of European sources. Nowadays major media outlets carry stories from all over the world, using foreign correspondents and news wires: Reuters, Associated Press, and others. Whichever model is used, journalists translating news are not translators in the usual sense of the word. Their tasks might be closer to interpretation since they must constantly rephrase, summarise, adapt, gloss, and contextualise foreign sources, framing stories for their audiences. They are sometimes called ‘journalators’, their job known as ‘transediting’.
Headlines rarely result from direct translation. Take the coverage of the Euro 2020 final and its aftermath. Russian media outlets duly reported the racist abuse aimed at England’s Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka. The state-owned agency RIA ran a piece headlined ‘Media believe racism deflected attention from England defeat’, with the standfirst ‘The English media are convinced that discussions of racism drew people’s attention away from the defeat of the England team’. No quotes to support these claims appeared in the article itself (nor could I find them in British broadsheets). Another Russian outlet, meanwhile, translated ‘It’s coming home’ word for word, leaving the phrase to fall flat. That’s not to say that Russians don’t appreciate wordplay. A piece on the climate summit organised by the US in April was headlined ‘Klimaticheski sami’: a pun on ‘climate summit’, it literally means ‘climatically by ourselves’. An odd choice, given that the article focused on Vladimir Putin’s ‘global algorithm’ for international cooperation.
Sports, despite being mainly about figures and facts, often get misinterpreted by international commentators. At the Tokyo Olympics, during an English-language press conference, the Chilean reporter Sebastian Nahmias asked the Russian tennis player Daniil Medvedev: ‘Are the Russian Olympic team athletes carrying a stigma of cheaters in these Games after the scandal and how do you feel about it?’ The journalist was referring to the doping violations that, in 2019, led to the World Anti-Doping Agency banning Russia from all major sporting events. Medvedev exploded: ‘That’s the first time in my life I’m not gonna answer a question, man’. He then requested that the journalist be removed: ‘I don’t wanna see him again in my interviews’.
The Russian response was predictable. The news site Lenta.ru, for example, reported that Nahmias ‘called all Russian athletes cheaters’. Konstantin Vybornov, a Russian Olympic Committee official, stated, ‘It has nothing to do with translation problems, everyone understood him quite clearly’. Clearly, not everyone did. Tracked down by another Russian publication, Nahmias said that he must have been misunderstood: ‘As far as I could understand through Google Translate, my words were slightly changed’. Besides those changes, I spotted some unexpected loan words in the reports: not only mikst-zona for ‘mixed zone’, but also cheeter instead of a perfectly normal Russian word for ‘cheater’.
All or some? That’s a distinction Russian speakers should be careful about, since unlike English, where commas are not used in defining relative clauses, Russian always separates clauses by commas. This is exemplified by a high-profile controversy which took place in 1987, prompted by a reference to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in a joint statement by the US and the USSR. The parties were supposed to be ‘conducting their research, development, and testing as required, which are permitted by the ABM Treaty’. Initially, some interpreted it as implying that the ABM Treaty permits any ballistic missile tests, although the authors of the document meant only those tests permitted by the treaty.
The Cold War-era diplomats had enough time to iron out any inconsistencies in the statement; journalists, by contrast, are constantly in a hurry, especially when having to translate news. There is a curious contradiction between the right to information and the disinformation that results from it, precipitated by time pressure. Is being the first to bring your readers a story from a distant part of the world worth the risk of spreading fake news? A sporting event requires live commentary, whereas a doping scandal can emerge years after the substance abuse has taken place; similarly, some news warrant an instant reaction while others don’t.
An urgent news story broke in Tokyo when the Belarusian sprinter Krystina Timanovskaya (to use the most common English spelling of her name) was suddenly taken to the airport to be sent back home against her will. Timanovskaya said it was because of critical remarks she’d made about the team’s management on Instagram; Belarus gave her emotional state as the reason for her removal from the team. The country has been ruled by President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, with mass protests over his re-election last year leading to brutal repressions, the latest of them being the closure of PEN Belarus.
Worried for her safety, Timanovskaya asked Japanese police at the airport for help, using her phone to translate her plea. Rumours began spreading in several languages, particularly on social media: some said Timanovskaya was planning to apply for asylum in Germany; some called her a ‘defector’, a ‘runner who ran away from the authorities’; one source mentioned her husband and their children, even though the couple don’t have any. The next day, Timanovskaya was granted a Polish humanitarian visa and later travelled to Warsaw; the coaches were subsequently expelled from the Games. Meduza, an independent news site available in Russian and English, published the transcript of a conversation in which the coaches pressurise the athlete. ‘Pride,’ one of them tells her, ‘will start pulling you into the devil’s vortex and twisting you. That’s how suicide cases end up’.
On the track, Timanovskaya wore a vest with her name transliterated from Belarusian as ‘Tsimanouskaya’. That reminded me of an asylum case I once worked on as an interpreter. In a Home Office interview, a Belarusian activist was asked to list all the opposition leaders and their meeting places to prove his involvement in the anti-government movement. I painstakingly transliterated the names, trying every possible version, but the interviewer remained unimpressed: the information didn’t match her notes (printed out from Wikipedia, I couldn’t help noticing, and out of date). Throughout the interview, I kept thinking of what awaited the young man if his application was rejected, which seemed increasingly likely. I never learned what happened to him.
If all translation is fraught with error, machine translation, as we have seen, can at least provide a quick way of solving linguistic problems. While AI is increasingly being relied upon to generate content, it should still be treated with caution. Last December, Russian speakers laughed when Google translated ‘Thank you, Mr President’ as ‘Spasibo, Vladimir Vladimirovich’. The bug was soon fixed. One advantage humans have over machines is that a journalator, however rushed, would never make such a mistake – not even if wishing to employ translation as a political tool.
Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator working from Russian. She writes for the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian and other publications. Her popular history of translation, Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of History, is out with Profile Books.