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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Word's Worth: Translation by Omission

Пресс-конференция: press conference


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Would everyone who is sick of politics please raise your hand? (Thousands of arms shoot up.) I’m sick of the subject, too. (Pleased murmurs fill the hall.) But (loud groan) the thing is, I keep finding all these weird political translation problems. (People shuffle loudly out of the hall, muttering.)

OK, for those of you who are still interested, here’s the question: Why would a country with some of the world’s best-trained, most-talented, experienced and creative translators stick a lousy translation of a presidential news conference on an official web site?

The news conference in question took place in Moscow on July 6 with Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama. The translation of Medvedev’s comments into English seems decent and fairly complete. True, if someone asked me to red-pencil it, I’d fiddle a bit. For example, “Это была, вне всякого сомнения, та встреча, которую ждали” was rendered “This, no doubt, was a meeting that has been expected.” I would have written: “This was unquestionably the meeting that people had been waiting for.”

But the real problems are with the curious translations and omissions in Obama’s comments. For example, Obama said about Iran: “This is not just a problem for the United States. It raises the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.” This was rendered in Russian as: “Это большая проблема для Соединенных Штатов, потому что речь может идти о ядерной гонке вооружения на Ближнем Востоке.” (“This is a big problem for the United States because it might concern a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”)

In another case, the tense, a conjunction and the nature of the problem changed: “Too often, the United States and Russia only communicate on a narrow range of issues, or let old habits within our bureaucracy stand in the way of progress.” “Слишком часто в прошлом мы сотрудничали только по узким проблемам, и наша бюрократия мешала прогрессу.” (“Too often in the past we only cooperated on narrowly defined problems and our bureaucracy impeded progress.”)

In Russian, a list of working groups cited by Obama omitted development, nuclear energy and security, international security, defense, foreign policy and preventing and handling emergencies. But it did have a blanket и так далее (and so forth) and included энергетическая безопасность (energy security) — no doubt an important issue but not one that Obama specifically mentioned.

The list of areas of cooperation in health care cited by Obama included combating “infectious, chronic and noncommunicable diseases, while promoting prevention and global health.” In Russian: “[борьба] с инфекционными заболеваниями во всем мире” (combating infectious diseases all over the world).

On Georgia, Obama said, “Yet even as we work through our disagreements on Georgia’s borders, we do agree that no one has an interest in renewed military conflict.” The Russian version differed: “Мы также несогласны друг с другом по поводу границ Грузии. Но никто из нас не заинтересован в военном конфликте.” (“We also disagreed about Georgia’s borders. But none of us has an interest in a military conflict.”) Call me a nitpicker, but “no one” is different from “none of us,” and “as we work through our disagreements” is quite different than “we don’t agree on.” And so it goes for the entire news conference. It reads like an unedited simultaneous translation produced by someone who had some problems with aural comprehension.

Maybe all the good Russian translators were on vacation?


Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.