Tuesday, March 27, 2007

How Journalists Work With Interpreters When Reporting

Journalists reporting from foreign countries often have to rely on translators or interpreters when they want to use documents or interview people in the language spoken in the country in question. Many papers (in English and in Swedish, at least – I am not familiar with the newspapers in other languages) just quote from sources as though they spoke in the language of the newspaper; in other words, they don’t name the interpreter or even mention the fact that one was used. For greater transparency, this perhaps ought to be done.

In the New York Times, the Public Editor recently posted to his blog about this topic, and invited staff editor Andrea Kannapell to comment. She wrote, “When there is the luxury of time, and The Times considers the investment worthwhile, we send correspondents for a year of language training before they take up a foreign assignment. We have begun such training for one correspondent who has already spent a good deal of time in Iraq. A year of training, of course, will not make anyone truly fluent, but it does enable the correspondent to get a sense of what people are saying — as well as a sense of whether a translator is up to the job.”

However, that is not always the case, and journalists may still need to rely on interpreters (note: not translators – the people at the Times seem a little confused about the difference between a translator and an interpreter), so one technique they have is to “ask questions more than once, or ask in a slightly different way, if they feel the translator has skipped something or offered a garbled passage.” A comment from translator Daniel Garcia Pallaviccini after this post brings up the issue of what an interpreter is to think if the journalist behaves a little strangely and keeps asking the same questions; the point here is that the journalist ought to attempt to have as good a relationship as possible with the interpreter and perhaps should discuss his or her concerns or methods of working with this person. In the post, Sabrina Tavernise, a correspondent in Iraq, is quoted on her relationship with her interpreter, whom she says has never “purposefully mistranslat[ed].” Of course, clients working with interpreters or translators must always be cautious and aware, but some of these comments do sound a little overly suspicious, as though most interpreters would mistranslate on purpose.

In political situations, finding and using a reliable interpreter is naturally very important, but it is also quite tricky, and it was interesting to read about how one newspaper views the process. I still think that giving information about the interpreter (or translator, in the case of documents) and the methods employed would increase the trustworthiness for editors and readers.

Thank you to Erika Dreifus for sending me this link!

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