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An unusual visitor

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As part of the celebrations of International Translation Day, the former president of the International Federation of Translators gave a lecture at Greece’s National Centre for Public Administration about “The role of Translation & Interpreting for an effective Public Administration in a multicultural and multilingual world”. He stressed the important role translation plays in diplomacy and gave some examples of wrongly conveyed messages that impact on a country’s international image.

In today’s guest post, Danae Seemann looks at another example of garbled messages and the potential they have for starting incidents.

An unusual visitor

When the world’s eyes are upon you, precise translations and interpretations of your words can make all the difference in how you are perceived. And when it comes to diplomacy, sensitive and accurate interpretation/translation is critical to intercultural, political communication.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has been visiting the USA this past week to drum up business for his country and, apparently, to mend fences with American President Donald Trump, and even to ask for a favour or two. Back in the run-up to the 2016 elections, Tsipras had made some derogatory comments about Trump, and now, needing all the foreign investments and help with the IMF he can get, he is probably regretting it.

An unusual visitor

Tsipras dubbed an ‘unusual’ visitor to the White House in translation gaffe in the Greek media

But what does all this have to do with translation?

Well, after Tsipras’ visit to Chicago (where many of the businessMEN shed their ties in solidarity), the Greek PM headed to Washington D.C. for some one-on-one, and the media were happy to cover both visits extensively. One report, from The Guardian (H. Smith, 17/10/2017), referred to Tsipras as “an unlikely visitor to the Oval Office,” in light of his earlier stance on the US President’s bid for office and sometimes radical, anti-American views in general.

The Greek media were quick to seize on the reference to the “unlikely visitor,” but here’s where translation takes centre stage. The earliest reference to the original article seems to be in I Efimerida, a Greek language news site, where the phrase is translated as “asynithistos episkeptis sto Lefko Iko”, which is literally “unusual visitor to the White House”. There is quite a difference between “unlikely” and “unusual”. The latter raises images of aliens, or strange creatures, as if humans like Tsipras don’t normally set foot inside the WH, and that’s not what the Guardian reporter intended, I’m sure. (Well, pretty sure. There are definitely those who think of Tsipras as “strange”.)

But that, of course, was not the end of it. Various other news outlets picked up the translation – “unusual visitor” – and ran with it, so that by the end of the day, even the state-run TV analysts were wondering if somehow the prime minister had been insulted without realising.

One outlet that did NOT just blindly follow was The Paper, another news site that went with “aprosmenos episkeptis,” which much more accurately renders “unlikely” in the context of Tsipras’ pre-election opinions about Trump.

So what does it all mean? Probably not much in terms of geo-political, world-ending chaos. But it does highlight, for me, the occasional need to double-check translations of critical phrases with a native speaker of the source language. Of course translations should be done by a native speaker of the target language, but sometimes these translators are not so sensitive to the many nuances of their SL (see countless – most often humorous – examples in subtitles). And in such cases, where the stakes may be high, it wouldn’t hurt to get a second opinion. (As for movie/show subtitles, I say let the humour flow.)


Danae Seemann is a former journalist and Greek-into-English translator working in Greece. Her opinions are completely her own.

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