Translation plays a crucial role in international politics as was recently highlighted in the US media with claims that President Trump’s interpreter could be subpoenaed to divulge what was discussed in private meetings between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Translation generally remains an obscure practice with little consideration given to its political significance or its complexity.
This is mainly due to the widely held view that translation is an unbiased practice in transferring a message from one language into another, an almost mechanised act, which produces translations that are equals to their originals.
However, contrary to this oversimplification, translation is a complex two-stage cognitive process of inferring meaning and then formulating that inferred meaning in a language that is different in terms of its linguistic and cultural composition.
What is crucial but generally not considered, is both of these stages can be influenced, in varying degrees, by ideology and the clearest proof of this is in the differences found in the various translations of the same political or religious texts. This is significant because the threads of translation are interwoven throughout our lives.
Consider, for example, the many instances we can access religious texts, foreign news stories, technological information and political speeches only through translation.
Furthermore, due to the potential malleability of translation coupled with its obscurity, it can be utilised to manipulate perception clandestinely. In this regard, translation has been a useful tool of statecraft in influencing public opinion and legitimising ideological agendas.
A good example of this is how the Athenian concept of democracy was altered to propagate hierarchical systems of governance in England. It was through translation that the meaning of democracy was tacitly changed from a system of governance administrated by the many to a system of governance that considers the many.
Likewise, translation has also been used to alter society’s morality. For example, in the middle of the last century, there was a shift in almost all Bible translations, from the use of the more encompassing word ‘kill’ in the translation of the sixth commandment to the more restrictive word ‘murder’, which ultimately legitimised killing in war.
Also, the newly formed Turkish Republic’s initial appeal to Mehmet Akif to translate the Quran into Turkish can be seen as part of the broader ideological agenda to cement nationalist and secularist policies of the period by replacing the use of Arabic with Turkish in acts of Islamic worship.
In line with these uses of translation, it was also an essential factor in legitimising the official 9/11 narrative and imprinting it onto the western social psyche. For example, translation was crucial in keeping the fear of attacks by Al Qaeda alive with the translation of their communiques appearing in the media throughout the 2000s.
Also, after doubts began to emerge following the Obama administration’s claim that they had killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, it was a translation of an Al Qaeda communique released to the media by an organisation called SITE intelligence that authenticated the administration’s narrative.
However, the translation’s most decisive role was in the establishment of the central premise of the 9/11 narrative, put forward by the Bush administration, that bin Laden was responsible for the attacks.
The first piece of evidence supporting this foundational claim came in the form of a video known as the ‘Bin Laden confession tape’ which was released in mid-December 2001.
For example, on the 12th December 2001, the BBC reported that: "Vice President Dick Cheney and other American officials have described the amateurish video - believed to have been filmed at a dinner last month - as a 'smoking gun' that leaves 'no doubt' about the al-Qaeda leader's guilt."
The significance of the release of this tape cannot be overstated because at the time it was the only piece of tangible evidence in the public domain supporting the official narrative. Accordingly, on the 14th of December, a day after the US Department of Defense released the translation of the tape, segments of it which directly supported the Bush administration’s claim were extensively circulated in the news media.
For example, The New York Times reported that: "On the tape, Mr. bin Laden, 44, indicated that the men who carried out the plot knew they were on what he called a 'martyrdom operation,' but did not have details of the mission until the last minute. 'We asked each of them to go to America, but they didn't know anything about the operation, not even one letter,' Mr. bin Laden said."
Through the reporting of this tape, the power of translation and a significant problem related to its social perception are manifested. In the BBC report, we were told Dick Cheney, the vice president in the Bush administration, described the video as a ‘smoking gun’ that leaves ‘no doubt’ about the Al Qaeda leader’s guilt.
However, Dick Cheney does not know Arabic and what he read or heard and then described was not bin Laden because he only spoke in Arabic in the video. Thus, Dick Cheney’s conclusions were not drawn from the original video but rather from its translation.
In this sense, the BBC report is factually incorrect.
Likewise, in The New York Times report it is stated ‘“we asked each of them to go to America, but they didn't know anything about the operation, not even one letter," Mr. bin Laden said’.
However, in the video, bin Laden never said anything in English, yet the translator’s English words are directly ascribed to him by the report stating ‘Mr. bin Laden said’.
It is due to the social perception translation is an unbiased practice that the translator’s words can be so readily presented as Bin Laden’s. Moreover, through this perception, the original author, in this case, bin Laden, becomes responsible for the words of the translator. This is extremely problematic because the translation process, like any form of subjective representation, such as the writing of history, is open to ideological manipulation.
These factors can be illustrated by highlighting a fundamental variation between the original Arabic source audio of the tape and the translation which was released by the US Department of Defence.
According to their translation, bin Laden said, "The brothers, who conducted the operation, all they knew was that they have a martyrdom operation and we asked each of them to go to America, but they didn’t know anything about the operation, not even one letter."
In the translation, bin Laden is admitting guilt by using the first-person pronoun ‘we’, however, after analysing the video’s original audio it is clear the Arabic phrase he utters is ṭuliba minhum which uses the Arabic passive verb and means ‘they were asked’.
The use of the Arabic passive is not a clear confession, and at the very least, it is a vague statement. Likewise, if the translation also had used the English passive, ‘they were asked’, a clear conclusion of guilt could not have been drawn from this statement. Moreover, this statement could be dismissed as bin Laden’s conjecture of what happened based on widely available media reports at the time.
As a consequence, it is more accurate to describe the translator’s rendition, ‘we asked’, as their subjective interpretation of what bin Laden could have meant rather than what he actually said.
Also, another interesting facet of the bin Laden confession tape is that it was also used as a prosecution trial exhibit in the 2006 criminal case against Zacarias Moussaoui. However, what is profound to note is that the accompanying translation of the video used the passive, ‘they were asked’.
The causes of this change are not completely clear, and even though it can be argued that the translation difference is a result of what the translators inferred, it cannot be ignored that the initial translation ‘we asked’, released by the US Department of Defense, was ideologically favourable to the Bush administration.
This is because it occurred at a time when it was essential in solidifying a governmental narrative which was being used to justify ideological agendas such as military expansion and the enactment of laws that curtailed previously held democratic values. Thus, there was an ideological currency in translating the utterance ‘ṭuliba minhum’ into ‘we asked’ rather than ‘they were asked’.
I raise the bin Laden 'confession' tapes as an example not to exonerate bin Laden or make a judgement on his or Al Qaeda’s culpability for the attacks. I raise it as an example of how words can be translated to serve a particular political agenda regardless of the merits of the narrative itself.
Considering this analysis, another way to explain translation is that it is something else than the sum of the parts of the original. That is to say, translators can impose their inference on the translation which stems from their biases, ideologies and the narratives they adhere to and thus produce a translation that offers a different meaning than the original.
Besides, translation can be used as a tool of statecraft to legitimise narratives, which produce public support for ideologically derived agendas. From this perspective, translation functions similar to other forms of subjective cultural representations such as film, literature, photography and the writing of history.
Moreover, similar to the truism that the victor writes history, it can be argued that whoever translates a message also controls its meaning.
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