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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

To translate is to betray

The French have a saying: "Traduire, c'est trahir -- to translate is to betray." Former President Jimmy Carter found this out the hard way when his interpreter famously used the wrong word in Poland. The affable man from Plains, Georgia said with his southern American English: "I love the Polish people." Carter's hapless interpreter rendered it: "I lust the Polish people." Oh, the difference the right word makes!

Pitfalls notwithstanding, we'll always need someone to bridge the gap between languages. WatchingAmerica.com is a unique site that translates selected articles from countries around the world. Each article has something to do with the United States, allowing the American reader to penetrate the linguistic veil and see what others are saying about us.

Because the Christian Science Monitor recommended the service, it wasn't surprising to find many positive elements upon visiting the site. For my fellow Americans convinced that the world hates us, you can find unflattering articles, such as the headline in the Tunis Hebdo of July 6, simply titled "America: An extraordinarily voracious country." Others present a more positive view, such as the July 7 Asia Times that trumpets: "Why 71% of Indians like the United States."

As a student of French, I wanted to see whether the English was an accurate translation from the French original. A July 8 article from Liberation was my test case. I compared the headlines, and found that in French it spoke of abortion, and Bush being "at the feet of the Supreme court." Strangely, no mention of abortion appeared in the English translation of the headline. Worse, it added elements that never appeared in the original French headline, saying that "the ideological choices have never been starker, nor the battle to come as fierce." Call me a strict constructionist, but a translator does not have the liberty to put words in the mouth of a writer.

The first paragraph of the article was considerably better than the botched headline. In general it was accurate, but even here, there were discrepencies. The French spoke of "lobbies of the religious right" crusading against abortion. In English, this was rendered "the religious lobbies." Considering that there are many religious people on the left who would be in favor of maintaining current abortion law, this is a significant error. Furthermore, the French original calls the Supreme Court "a powerful institution." On the other hand, the English translation calls it "one of the country's most powerful institutions." As Billy Crystal says in The Princess Bride, there's a big difference between "dead" and "mostly dead." And so, there's a big difference between these two descriptions, like the difference between a bicycle and a Harley Davidson.

We might live in the era of instant gratification, but some things still just take good, old fashioned hard work. Language learning is one of them. Let's not start any wars based on something we read on WatchingAmerica.com. And the next time your local school board is looking for ways to cut the budget, tell them to keep their hands off the foreign language program. Our national security may depend on it.

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This article has been double-posted to DigitalDissent.com.

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