He who pays the piper, calls the tune
This post is an answer to the allegations made against the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was reported as vowing that wipe Israel off the map. We have opted for an academic style, so as to avoid being ‘personal’ on such a sensitive matter. This post, rather than defend any particular regime attempts to show propaganda ‘at work’ and how translation can be used as a tool to further political agendas. We, unlike many mainstream media platforms, encourage the reader to critically look at facts, study matters from different angles, and come up with their own conclusions.
The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet
of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press?
We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.
The above quotation is part of a speech attributed to John Swinton (1829–1901), a renowned journalist and newspaper publisher who worked for the New York Times as chief editorial writer. Swinton delivered the speech at a banquet where he was guest of honour in 1880. It was said in response to someone who offered a toast to a “free and independent press.” The quotation was selected for its relevance to the topic that will be discussed in this essay.
Schaffner and Bassnett posit that most readers are not aware of the role that translation plays in international news outletand that “there is a direct, though usually invisible link between politics, media and translation” (Schaffner and Bassnett 2010: 2). Far from adopting a conspiracy theorist approach to interpreting current events, what is intended here is to look at the things that the title of this essay implies: how powers manipulate translation to further agendas, the impact of such translations, the translator as an “intellectual prostitute” and his/her powerlessness (or invisibility).
According to the Defense Department in its Quadrennial Defense Review Report, the United States is currently involved in a war (mainly in the Middle East) that is “both battle of arms and battle of ideas” in which ultimate victory can only be won “when extremist ideologies are discredited in the eyes of their host population and tacit supporters.” (2001-2009.state.gov, 2014)
What is of interest to us is this “battle of ideas” that the US Defense Department (including its allies and surrogates) is openly declaring being involved in. Where does this translate and how? What methodology is used and what role does translation and translators play in furthering such agendas?
Chilton argues that translating and interpreting contribute to “shaping the way in which conflict unfolds in a number of ways.” According to Chilton, a declaration of war is, in essence, “a linguistic act.” (Chilton in Baker 2006: 2) Once declared, it has to reach all parties involved in their own respective languages; or else, it would be pointless for America to declare war on Iraq without the entire world “hearing” that declaration. Furthermore, once the declaration is proclaimed, “the military operations can only begin and continue through verbal activity.” (Chilton in Baker 2006: 2)
In addition, Baker posits that “arguably, depending on one’s narrative location, we are constantly being socialized into barbarous narratives even today, from the various narratives associated with ‘security’ and ‘terrorism’ to those of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and the so-called ‘Clash of Civilisations’.” (Baker 2006: 12) Such narratives are in themselves ‘verbal activities’, very often disseminated for the justification of wars as well as acts of war. Even prior to a declaration of war, ‘verbal activities’ and ‘linguistic acts’ take place in the form of narratives, or what could be referred to as propaganda. In such contexts, propaganda is, to a large extent, used to get the home front to support war efforts and win the battle of hearts and minds.
The spread of information, disinformation, ideas and rumours through mass media has become a common currency today. As shall hopefully be demonstrated in the next paragraph, translation – or, rather, “mistranslation” – has been widely used, one may argue, in pursuit of geopolitical interests.
One pertinent instance of such “verbal activity”, which has contributed to giving legitimacy to the implementation of economic sanctions (an act of war in itself) on a sovereign country, is the ‘translation’ of a comment made by the former president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The latter was vociferously condemned internationally for having allegedly said that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” Adding to an anti-Semitic connotation is a genocidal one, the ‘wiping off’ implying that Israel and everything in it should be ‘nuked’ back to the Stone Age, with some nuclear weapons that Iran never had and constantly denied the intent to acquire. Such comments reflected those of a warmonger advocating military attack, causing Iran to be labelled as a regional and international threat. The impact was such that it resulted in worldwide condemnation of the former president provoking an anti-Iran diplomatic tsunami with far-reaching consequences to this day. Had the former Iranian president uttered such words, the condemnation would have been more than justified, but it seems as though the old “WMD” pattern (weapons of mass destruction) had once again reasserted itself in the region, and that there was, as shall be demonstrated, more to things than met the eye.
According to the BBC Online Archive Editor Peter Rippon in a blog entitled Wipe off the map, the comment made by Ahmadinejad at a conference was selectively chosen and translated by the BBC monitoring service from the Farsi language. His actual words were: “The Imam [Khomeini] said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” The former Iranian president was merely quoting Ayatollah Khomeini and, far from advocating for military action, Ahmadinejad was emphasizing the illegitimacy of the oppressive Zionist State. (Rippon, 2007)
Why have Ahmadinejad’s words been put out of context and trans-edited and transformed? Why are politicians and mainstream media persisting in parroting that comment to this day? Who translated those words and what was the justification for having opted for this ‘extra dynamic equivalent’?
Following a complaint made after Andrew Marr used the comment “wiped off the map”, an investigation was conducted by the BBC Governors’ Complaints Committee. Their judgement was that careful consideration was given to the wording of numerous translations of the speech from different sources, including different renowned media outlets. It was also added that, considering the variations of different translations, it was difficult for the committee to select the most accurate. The conclusion was that none of the different translations available to them provided any grounds for the charge that Andrew Marr misquoted what Ahmadinejad had said. (Rippon, 2007)
It must be noted the translators in this instance had remained ‘invisible’. They were always referred to as: translations from the “BBC Monitoring”, the “Middle East Research Institute in Washington”, translations by the “British newspapers” and on “Al Jazeera Online.” And, to ensure that the target audience and reader relate to the message, a “domesticated” approach was opted for. According to Venuti, one of the two determining phenomena to describe the translator’s invisibility is “the illusionistic effect of discourse of the translator’s own manipulation of the translating language, English in this case.” (Venuti 2002: 1) Although, in the above quote, Venuti is referring to the “illusion of transparency”, it could arguably apply to Ahmadinejad’s case, since “wipe off the map” reads fluently, the “translator’s own manipulation of the translating language” applied, and the numerous translators, despite having been referred to, remained invisible.
Despite the rendition referring to the “oppressive regime in Jerusalem” being the closest to what Ahmadinejad had actually said, “wipe off the map” has remained to this day engraved in people’s mind. The intent conveyed in the target language is very much unlike the one existing in the source language. The intent is not that of former president Ahmadinejad as he was delivering his speech, but that of a mediator, someone “pulling the strings” and the translators “dancing to it”, and, as posited by Loupaki, most probably because translators “normally try to comply with the ideological profile promoted by the publication they work for.” (Loupaki in Schäffner and Bassnett 2010: 22)
Referring to a similar case, where the reformulation of a syntactic structure resulted in a change of perspective on an event in China, Schäffner and Bassnett argue that such examples illustrate that the media play a pivotal role in the transmission of politics and foreign political affairs, “thus also influencing impressions and reactions of the public, as well as (potentially and in reality) influencing actions by home politicians.” (Schäffner and Bassnett 2010: 21).
No definite answer could objectively be given with regards to what influences translators to opt for one approach or another, nor who ‘calls the shots’. However, it is hoped that a link between translations and powers was made, thus giving an explanation as to what could be described as distortion of the meaning intended in the source language. There is no advice that could be given to the translator acting as “intellectual prostitutes.” As for the ethical translator, who might unwittingly contribute to furthering specific agendas, a sound knowledge of history, politics, geopolitical realities, and ideologies, be it from both sides of a conflict, is a must.