Saturday, December 26, 2009

Polish Extermination Camp

Timothy Garton Ash on the Auschwitz sign-theft:
Watching a German television news report on the trial of John Demjanjuk a few weeks ago, I was amazed to hear the announcer describe him as a guard in "the Polish extermination camp Sobibor". What times are these, when one of the main German TV channels thinks it can describe Nazi camps as "Polish"?

Normal times, I would say. 'Polish', in this case, is ambiguous, as ethnonyms almost always are: does it imply a camp run by Poles, as Garton Ash seems to think, a camp in Poland, or a camp with Polish inmates? Put yourself in a German news outlet's shoes a second. You're German and cover German issues. Your viewers are German. Their German teachers taught them all about German extermination camps in German history classes in their German schools in Germany. Germans do not need to designate the origin of Nazi stuff in the same way we can call Gordon Brown 'Prime Minister', or even just the 'PM', but have to specify that François Filon is the 'French Prime Minister'. However, the Nazis had concentration camps all over their territory, and so reference to the location is informative.

This is not entirely a translation issue - most people don't need telling that the death camps in World War Two were German, but might need some extra information about where they were. However, this is amplified in the case of Germany where different things are taken as read and where, when we have to say say 'German', they often say nothing at all.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Lying Through Translation

Oh Sacha Baron Cohen, you're so brave, tracking down terrorists and calling their leaders "dirty wizards". Except, well, he wasn't actually a terrorist. He wasn't even a Muslim. He wasn't even that annoyed about the dirty wizard crack. Now, as the second video claims, the interpreter apparently didn't say "get out, get out now", and you'll notice there's no subtitles for what Ayman Abu Aita said before, even though the other Arabic was translated.

This is why I started this blog. This is why I hope that if Ayman Abu Aita wins, he gets the shirt off Baron Cohen's lying, cowardly back. Aside from the fact that he took credit for being clever enough to find a man in the phonebook hiding from the CIA and being brave enough to talk to a peace activist high-ranking terrorist leader, aside from the fact that it plays on and reinforces unfair and dangerous stereotypes of anyone Muslim/Arab/generally brown being a terrorist, aside from the fact that his making a Fateh political candidate and Christian peace activist look gay is one of the best things that could ever have happened to Hamas, this is absolutely the worst kind of lying.

I don't speak Arabic. Most people don't speak Arabic. Most Arabs don't speak Palestinian Arabic, though I'm guessing they can understand it. We have to take Brüno's word that Aita said what Brüno said he said. There's an implicit trust in the translator not to just make stuff up to suit their own agenda, and to use it to straight-out lie - if this is what Baron Cohen did - not only abuses this trust, but does so in a situation where it is very hard to find out. It doesn't even have to be a convincing lie. I have no idea what "get out" in Arabic would even sound like. The more you need translation, the less you are capable of evaluating its accuracy. The more you have to trust the translator, the easier it is for them to openly lie to you.

It's worth noting that every time Aita speaks, the camera cuts directly to him, whereas it pans over to him for one reaction shot. Also, when Brüno starts his "dirty wizard" speech, it sounds jerky, as if there's been a cut. These don't really prove any kind of lie, but they do show there's been a fair bit of studio scissor-work. If this is read by any film/sound-production geeks who could tell me any more, that would be very helpful.

Afterthought edit: If someone was saying they wanted you to kidnap them because your terror cell was the in this season and Al Qaeda was out, would your reaction really be "I don't like (that)"? Would it not be something like "Yewhat?" or "I don't think you quite understand what's involved here". Even if your English isn't perfect, which Aita's clearly isn't, everybody knows "Pardon?" and the BS-word. Cohen gets away with this because we expect non-native speakers to get things wrong, to use the wrong expressions. Now, maybe in Arabic, you do say "I don't like" if someone's talking out their backside, but to me it sounds a bit of a non-sequitur. This should alert us to two things, firstly that something might be amiss with the video, secondly just how much we're willing to blame on the speaker or write off as just an innocent learner's mistake.