Mind Your Language, You @#x!$%* !

In late 2017, I was interviewed by the BBC in connection with an incident involving the interpreter who watered down parts of President Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly that were critical of the Iranian regime. Detailed transcriptions of both the original and the interpretation can be easily found online.

The interpreter was severely criticized on social media but stood his ground by indicating, inter alia, that he didn’t feel he had the right to trash his own country on air.

BBC wanted to hear the perspective of a UN interpreter. They wondered whether linguists are at liberty to introduce such willful meaning shifts. I went as far as I could within the limits of a live interview, but stopped short of passing judgment. You can hear my take on it here (http://bit.ly/BBC-interview).

The following day, a few colleagues reached out to respectfully disagree with my approach, expressing the viewpoint that it’s not an interpreter’s job to decide what should or should not be said, and that I would do well to publicly condemn that attitude. Basically, their point is that if somebody calls you a @#x!$%* in a different language, you have the right to know what they mean.

I hear them, and as a practicing interpreter and longtime trainer of interpreters, I fully subscribe to that philosophy. In an ideal world, fidelity should trump political correctness any day. Interpreters should remain as neutral a conduit as possible and get the message across as heard. Then again, the world is far from ideal, and I also know that circumstances play a role.

Granted, such omissions and meaning shifts, if deliberate, would have been unforgivable coming from a staff interpreter working out of a UN booth. That was not the case, though. And that changes the game on many levels.

The Fell Clutch of Circumstance

Culture is a huge factor in how one uses language. It plays a particular role in determining what one may say in public and how. What is considered appropriate or acceptable in a given country may be off-limits in another.

Many countries even have laws criminalizing the use of inappropriate language on television or radio. And please don’t be too quick to dismiss this as an attribute of some backward, fundamentalist nation. The example that springs to mind probably hits a lot closer to home:

Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1464: Whoever utters any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communication shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

I guess the trick lies in determining who defines what is “obscene, indecent, or profane” and how. Once again, the point at which strong language becomes “profane” will vary drastically from one culture to the next.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, not every culture requires a bad word to be present for the purposes of an insult. Again, the U.S. is a good example. Take “son of a bitch,” for instance, where the insult is conveyed primarily by intonation and by the general understanding surrounding a euphemism where “bitch” (female dog) is used to mean something other—arguably far worse—than an animal epithet.

In some cultures, the mere mention of someone’s family or the use of taboo words like “cancer” can come across as extremely insulting, depending on context. The same goes for waving, pointing fingers, or inadvertently exposing the sole of your shoe in public. If you are away from home, chances are those gestures, and a few of your words, might be taken harshly, offensively, or both.

It should be noted that the considerations above apply to individuals as well as cultures. That being so, an interpreter may feel personally offended by the use of certain language, for moral or religious reasons, and consequently inclined to substitute what he considers offensive with less impacting language when given a chance. Is he in the wrong for doing that? If so, according to whom and, more importantly, where?

Finally, this discussion would be incomplete if it fails to address a huge elephant in the room: the client. Who is the interpreter working for? Where does his loyalty belong? Once again, circumstances play a role.

His Master’s Voice

As discussed briefly during the interview, most heads of state have their interpreters in tow when attending an international function. They do so for a couple of reasons.
First, they need to be certain they are getting a full and accurate rendition of what they are being told by their counterparts in an exchange—especially if someone is calling someone else a @#x!$%*.

Second, they rely on their interpreter to get their own message across as intended (which, mind you, may and often does differ from how it’s said). Rather than a mere conduit or linguistic facilitator, the interpreter becomes a trusted adviser, a key public relations official, who will try hard to help the president or prime minister stay objective and politically correct while delivering the message as briefed.

Under such circumstances, or under duress, one’s perception of accuracy and fidelity might become more fluid, and the interpreter may find himself making slightly vaguer statements, either consciously or unconsciously, while giving the speaker a chance to rephrase the original utterance. One must be very clear about the job in hand. Then again, for a personal interpreter to a celebrity or public figure, that is the job in hand.

Yes, We Can!

As a rule, freelance or staff interpreters are ethically obliged to say it as it is. We’re not in the business of sugarcoating and not at liberty to deviate from the language chosen by the speaker as a matter of personal choice or whim. Then again, a personal interpreter is not exactly a freelance interpreter. The former is no longer a totally independent player and will be faced with decisions with which the rest of us will seldom have to contend.

In any event, the circumstances discussed above are extremely rare and specific, and adjustments, if any, will be minor, like finding substitutes for politically incorrect expressions or offering neutral pleasantries in lieu of compliments that could be taken the wrong way (when truly meant as compliments). These circumstances pose a conflict to any interpreter, whose ethics and credibility also hang in the balance. Not an easy job under any circumstances. And it doesn’t get any easier when your audience reaches in the millions.

As a freelance interpreter, I can choose who I work for, and I can object to impositions from a dictatorial leader whose ideas I don’t share. Staff interpreters are not at liberty to make the calls alluded to here, and they can bask in the knowledge that full neutrality is what is expected of them.

That was not so for the Iranian interpreter in question, working as he was for a state-controlled national television chain in his country, and under very specific instructions. Given the circumstances, laws, and impositions mentioned above—whether written or not—neutrality was probably not an option. And while we can take issue with some of those impositions, we have to assume not everybody can.


Ewandro Magalhães is an experienced conference interpreter and interpreter trainer. He has a master’s degree in conference interpreting from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. A former senior staff and chief interpreter in the United Nations system, he is the author of Sua Majestade, o Intérprete—o fascinante mundo da tradução simultânea. He is the vice president of marketing and communications of KUDO, Inc., a cloud-based platform for multilingual conferencing and online collaboration. You can read his blog at ewandro.com. Contact: ewandro@gmail.com.

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