Found in translation ... when misquoting someone is the best way to be fair and accurate
The Guardian May 24, 2014
If a non-English speaker feels like a 'donkey out of water', it's right to change their words to help them get their point across clearly
"I want to take physical exercise with the guitar" – this phrase is what, my uncle informed me through much mirth, I was saying when I was fighting over said instrument (well, a toy version of it) with my cousin in India one childhood summer.
The confusion, and subsequent hilarity, was the result of my English-first speaking brain, translating the wordplay into a context that has no existence in Bengali. Play as in "I will play a game" (khelbo) simply cannot be used in the way we say "I will play the xylophone" (bajabo), and certainly not any others: "I will play a part" (hobo) in a, well, play (natok).
This has gone down in the annals of my family as one of many comical tales of my mangling of Bengali in my youth along with "wearing" insect repellent (in Bengali you "spread" it) and attempting to "comb" a cousin's hair (comb is never a verb; literally translated, you "scratch" someone's hair). But say it was the other way around – if Bengali was my firstlanguage, and I witnessed something and was interviewed by an English-language newspaper, saying "I was just scratching my hair when I saw the crash" – that would make me sound rather foolish, wouldn't it?
When it comes to journalistic quotes there is a fine line between being accurate and being fair to the person speaking: the difference between quoting verbatim and conveying their point. When it comes to people speaking in a second language, or more precariously, conducting a conversation in another language and then translating the quotes, it's barely a meniscus.
Every journalist irons out an interviewee's responses to make them structurally make sense – yet when it comes to people who are expressing themselves in a second tongue, an obsession with perceived accuracy can inadvertently make them sound confused, ignorant or, worst of all, dense.
In a recent Guardian interview with Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro, conducted in Spanish, he waxed lyrical about his love of the rock and hippy culture of the 1960s and 70s. "We listened to Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin, and listened to and lived through the life of John Lennon." The unedited story had him saying "and listening to and living through the life of John Lennon" which reads oddly, but is an exact translation.
So which is more "accurate" – the exact words used by an educated man, a head of state no less, speaking in a second language, that make him seem doddery? Or our very slightly adjusted interpretation, which conveys his meaning in complete sentences? In some instances, using [sic] seems to me barely more than a nudge and a snigger. With politicians, celebrities and experts, while the wording can often be crucial, we can assume they are likely to have a degree of media savvy about them that we cannot for members of the public.
I canvassed opinion from the Guardian's foreign correspondents – that urbane group of polyglots who have to deal with several languages, time zones and cultures simultaneously to bring us the news. They overwhelmingly agreed that when it came to quoting non-native English speakers, either they themselves or our various editorial desks should help them along. As Suzanne Goldenberg, who has reported from India, the Middle East and the US, says: "If it's a charming but odd use of idiom – 'I feel like a donkey out of water' or something – then I just don't use it. I guess my bottom line is we shouldn't set out to make people look dumb, especially if they are civilians."
Idioms are by their nature tied to language and culture so can cause all manner of problems; and yet they can also result in magical copy, adding colour and atmosphere. It's the difference between a Colombian feeling like a fish out of water – a phrase so common it doesn't even need quotation marks – or feeling "as lost as a cockroach at a chicken dance". I know which my editors would prefer.
Rory Carroll, our LA correspondent, previously based in Caracas, agrees we should clean up grammar, "except when someone's imperfect English is relevant or adds context and flavour, like crowds in Liberia chanting 'we is hungry, we is dyin'." Tania Branigan, our Beijing bureau chief, says: "People whose English is not 'standard' can be much more eloquent than those who supposedly speak it perfectly."
This is especially pronounced in Commonwealth countries, where English can be taught in a more florid and formal manner. Indian newspapers, for example, regularly refer to "swashbuckling innings" in their cricket reports. David Smith, Africa correspondent, knows this only too well with so many various former colonies on his patch: "Somalis and Zimbabweans speak a very distinct and lyrical form of English. Zimbabweans in particular have an ornate, almost Edwardian English. But it's not so pronounced that it appears incongruous when quoted."
When it comes to other languages, you simply have to trust the people in the field. Our man in Tokyo, Justin McCurry, says: "In Japanese someone who has achieved something noteworthy might say temae miso nan desu ga ... ('there is some miso paste on this side, but … ') which makes no sense at all. I feel within my rights to translate that as: 'Well, I don't want to blow my own trumpet … '." Ian Black, Middle East editor, adds: "In colloquial Arabic bukra fil mishmish translates as 'tomorrow when the apricots bloom'. What it actually means is something akin to 'and pigs might fly'."
Sometimes there's simply no way around a direct translation. Philip Oltermann, based in Berlin, says: "I wrote about the Heidegger notebooks recently. The exact wording was so important there that I just had to accept that some of the sentences would be very long and very clunky."
We are of course past the days when "pressmen" telexed dispatches from exotic locations; the onslaught of globalisation has made news, and in some senses language, a more universal and accessible currency. Harriet Sherwood, recently returned from a stint as Jerusalem correspondent, says: "I was always awed by the fact that so many Israelis and Palestinians speak English."
Kim Willsher, Paris correspondent, acknowledges who keeps us honest when it comes to linguistic gymnastics – our readers. "There are, thankfully rare, occasions when I've had a complete language malfunction, and you can be sure that a bilingual/polyglot Guardian reader will pick it up and we'll have to think again." I think she hits the nail on the head, or mathar opore perek mereche in Bengali in case you're interested – and no, it doesn't make any sense.