MHM Human Translation, LLC

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Are Your Translators Unbiased or are They Politically Motivated?

Years ago, as I stood amidst Indian officials and foreign diplomats at a reception I was invited to at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, interpreting a speech given by one of the Arab Ministers of Oil, I learned my first lesson on the rules of translation.  The lesson was taught to me by the Minister himself, who turned out to know more English than an Englishman, even though he had insisted on speaking in Arabic.  Thanking me for jumping in to his rescue [by offering to translate for him when his interpreter did not show up at the event], and praising my translation skills and ability in manipulating his words to strengthen his message, did not prevent him from offering me a piece of advice. He cautioned me from manipulating words, even if the intention is to add strength and clarity to the message uttered by the speaker.  Looking back at that situation, I realize how right he was. Fortunately, then, I was politically motivated in the same direction as the Minister, so my manipulation of the message and the salt and pepper I added to it worked in both sides’ favor.  But that will not always be the case. 

Unfortunately, the political situation then was not as toxic as it is today.  A politically motivated translator today can do much harm, because he or she has the power to conceal or add things that are not faithful to the source message, and thus might mislead the reader of the target language. This raises the question: What happens if a native translator of a language is required to translate something for the enemy, the contents of which might impact the outcome and the reaction to the resulting text? Will the translator do the job faithfully, or will he or she choose to omit or add words to the target text to soften the language or hide a threat?  

It is a fact that the practice of deliberate translation manipulation has become more acceptable over the years by the translation world, and is referred to as a cultural political practice in which a translator acts more as a cultural mediator than a faithful translator of the original text. While this is understood and acceptable when dealing with literary material or simple TV commercials, it is quite risky, for example, if this is followed in the translation of an ISIS statement the contents of which might be very crucial. Who is to check or know if the translator has omitted or altered the message? Most translation companies in the United States use quality control managers who do not even read the language. Their quality control is limited to ensuring that each paragraph in the source document has a corresponding paragraph in the target file, and that the item is in the right order, etc. 

Of course, there are other political causes around the world, in which a translator might act in the same deceptive manner to serve a political agenda, as one Russian interpreter, many years ago, tried to change and manipulate the love message Mother Teresa was giving at a high level event in Moscow, Russia. 

Be smart and beware.

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