Latest political translation fail hits the headlines

December 13, 2017
Latest political translation fail hits the headlines

We’re living in tense political times. Our global leaders include peaceful individuals who offer stability, dynamic rulers seeking to bring about change and a handful of dangerously unstable individuals. No doubt your own political leanings will shape which leaders you associate with each definition! 

The matters that global leaders discuss can impact millions of lives. Earlier this month, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron met with the Kurdish region's Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and Iraqi Kurdistan’s Deputy Prime Minister, Qubad Talabani to discuss demilitarization in Kurdistan and Iraq. 

Translation fail

It is hardly surprising, given the intense nature of the matters being discussed, that the French President became visibly frustrated when translation technology meant that the leaders’ joint press conference had to be interrupted on more than one occasion. At one point, Macron resorted to speaking in English in order to have a common language with Prime Minister Barzani. He remarked that,

“The Prime Minister perfectly understands English, but I think it will be strange to have here the president speaking in English for making this press conference. But I am pretty sure Paris could organize a translation for the Prime Minister.”

Translation technology

It seemed for a time, though, that the President’s confidence in Paris’ ability to arrange a professional translation service was rather over optimistic. Despite a series of officials providing the Kurdish Prime Minister with new headsets, it seemed that the translation technology was doomed to fail.

The President then turned his attention to the journalists present, realising that many of those who were ‘listening’ to his press conference did not understand French. He instructed his officials to try and organise an appropriate translation system before grilling journalists on who spoke French, who spoke Kurdish and who spoke neither language. 

Finally, after a couple of minutes of interruptions, it seems that the President’s staff managed to produce a working headset for his Kurdish and Iraqi counterparts, meaning that those present could finally return to the weighty matters at hand. 

Human translation 

The press conference fail serves to highlight the continuing flaws in translation technology. While human translation – or more correctly, interpretation – was available, the use of headsets to deliver the translated words to the Kurdish and Iraqi leaders caused the process to break down. 

This is far from being the only high profile political translation fail. 2015 saw a speech by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi go viral after his interpreter failed to translate the Prime Minister’s words appropriately. The translator was quickly replaced in order that Prime Minister Modi could continue addressing the assembled crowd. 

Then, in 2016, Indian MP Rajya Sabha became the next victim of poor translation. Her interpreter struggled to translate the MP’s English words into Malayalam, delivering confusing and incorrect messages and, at one point, simply lapsing into silence when utterly lost. 

These examples serve to show the importance of accurate translation in our modern world. Leaders being unable to connect with those they work with around the globe, as well as those they serve in their own country, is never a good sign. Indeed, poor translation can lead to misunderstandings and distract hugely from the important messages being delivered. When MP Rajya Sabha’s interpreter called the ‘women of Kerala’ the ‘criminals of Kerala’ by mistake, the MP’s speech clearly didn’t deliver the impact that is should have done. 

Of course, everyone has their off days, including those who provide professional translation services for a living. It’s just that, in some industries, a bad day at the office can have greater consequences than in others! 

Final thoughts

Have you ever lost your way while undertaking a translation? How did you rectify the problem? Leave a comment to share your experiences. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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