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Tongue twisters

Cultural ambassadors, manipulators, blunderers - Chris Bunting profiles the work of translators, the people behind some of the big events of history

President Jacques Chirac of France found himself at the centre of a linguistic storm last month when he seemed to tell 13 East European countries to "shut up" about the looming war with Iraq.

He was reported in some areas of the world's media as saying these countries "missed a good opportunity to shut up". This is, however, just another example of a translation faux pas. What he actually said was "ont manque une bonne occasion de se taire" - "se taire" translating as "to remain silent", decidedly more neutral and less aggressive than "to shut up". Ironically, French used to be known as "the language of diplomacy".

It was the most disastrous translation mistake in history: a simple language error that may have helped kill 15 million people. In November 1941, the US Government's small band of Japanese translators were working under huge pressure. Japan and America were not yet at war but Japan's attempts to carve out an empire in Asia and America's determination to stop her had left the two countries a misplaced word or two away from a terrible conflict.

As diplomats from both sides tried frantically to reach a peace agreement, translators in Washington were working day and night on America's hidden weapon in the negotiations: transcripts of the secret communications between the Japanese embassy in Washington and their bosses in Tokyo.

These intercepted messages exercised a huge influence over the US. They were, or so Americans thought, a window on the inner secrets of the Japanese mind. Were all the nice sounding peace proposals coming from Tokyo just tricks? Or did the Japanese really want peace?

In November 1941, the crunch came with a major peace initiative by the Japanese. The Tokyo government was offering to halt the war in China and, eventually, to withdraw its troops in return for an end to a US oil blockade which was bleeding Japan dry. In Tokyo, it was seen as the last chance for the leaders supporting peace. Hardline generals and admirals were arguing that the Americans were playing for time, waiting for a lack of oil to make Japan defenceless. If this peace proposal was rejected, they said, war would have to begin immediately.

Tragically, a secret set of instructions sent from Tokyo to the Japanese ambassador about how to handle the peace plan was picked up by American code-breakers and a translation of the instructions was on the desk of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, days before the Japanese ambassador made his presentation.

The translation (see box on page 14) gave the impression the Japanese had given up on peace. The secret instructions to the ambassador seemed to confide that the peace proposal was really an "ultimatum", a diplomatic word meaning the final non-negotiable demands which come before a declaration of war. It told the ambassador to be vague, to be as indecisive as possible in the coming negotiations. It talked of Japanese and US relations having "reached the edge" where "no longer is procrastination possible".

Yet much of this was unrecognisable from the Japanese original. Where the translator talked of an "ultimatum", the original said, in the language of a negotiator, "these are virtually our final concessions". What the translator had taken as demands for deliberate vagueness and euphemism, were actually instructions to give "approximate goals" for withdrawing troops from China. The misunderstandings permeated the entire document. Far from giving the impression of a cynical attempt at trickery, the original actually read like a last desperate stab at peace.

Sadly, it was the translation that helped decide the course of history. By the time Hull had finished reading, he was convinced that the Japanese were playing games with him. The US delayed its response for a few crucial weeks. In Tokyo, this was interpreted as meaning the US did not want peace.

On December 7, Japanese bombers carried out a devastating raid on Pearl Harbor, the US naval base in the Pacific. (Ironically, another intercepted message indicating that Pearl Harbor was about to be attacked was left untranslated until the day before the raid and then not sent to the US leaders because the chief translator thought there were errors in the translation.) There were many other forces pushing Japan and the US into war in 1941, but many believe a simple translation mistake helped destroy the last hopes for peace.

Translators and interpreters are supposed to be history's little people: men and women beavering away behind the scenes to make sure everything goes smoothly. The great Russian interpreter Igor Korchilov recalled how the Soviet media used to airbrush interpreters from official pictures. Once, a newspaper picture of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev showed him chatting unaided with a foreign guest (Brezhnev's foreign language was, in fact, limited to the German "Auf Wiedersehen", when saying hello and goodbye to all foreigners). To the Soviet leader's side, readers could clearly see an open notebook and a pencil suspended in mid air.

Translators have got used to such treatment. They have a saying: "a good translation is like the air: nobody notices it until it is polluted." Yet time and time again these "little people" have grabbed the limelight.

Sometimes, as in 1941, mistakes have put them centre stage. Korchilov told another story about a interpreter at an international conference who heard a Soviet delegate use the Russian saying "an elderberry grows in the kitchen garden and my uncle lives in Kiev". The saying means about the same as the English phrase "mixing apples and oranges" but the interpreter had never heard of it. With no time to think, he substituted it with Shakespeare's "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" and was congratulating himself on his quick wits when a red-faced delegate from Denmark stormed on to the conference floor, shouting about the Soviets'

"unwarranted slur on Denmark" and saying his country was a "paragon compared to the inhuman, totalitarian system" in the Soviet Union.

In 1977, the US president Jimmy Carter visited Poland and told the crowd that he wanted to understand their "desires for the future". The next day's papers ridiculed him as his translator had said he wanted to understand the Polish people's "lusts".

A much more deadly mistake nearly killed hundreds of Afghans in the recent war in Afghanistan. Leaflets were dropped in an area marked for bombing which were supposed to read: "Stay in your houses or we will kill you." The translation actually said: "Stay in your houses and we will kill you." The error resulted in hundreds of Afghan refugees wandering a deadly battleground.

At other times the "mistakes" are not as accidental as they may seem. When the US Government released a video tape of Osama bin Laden talking about the September 11 terror attacks in December 2001, officials said they had made great efforts to provide an accurate translation. However, an independent translation later revealed major omissions from the official version. In the independent translation, a Saudi Arabian dissident heard questioning bin Laden says he was smuggled into Afghanistan by a member of Saudi Arabia's religious police and claims that many senior Saudi religious leaders supported the September 11 attack. Saudi Arabia is one of America's most important allies and many believe that the omission was a deliberate effort to avoid embarrassing them.

But to see the translators' role in history merely as blunderers and manipulators is to miss nine-tenths of the story. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that translators have shaped the world we live in.

Western civilisation itself would be unrecognisable without their contribution. Works by great classical authors such as Aristotle and Plato reached us not through careful stewardship in European libraries - they were ransacked in the Dark Ages - but through a remarkable process of evacuation by translation into the libraries of the Arabic world.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, the rulers of the new Muslim empire wanted the philosophy and science of ancient Greece translated into Arabic and were prepared to pay vast sums to the translators who could do so. Hunayn ibn Ishaq, the most famous of the celebrated Baghdad school of translators, was paid the weight of his translations in gold (he used the heaviest paper he could find). The books Hunayn and his colleagues translated waited two centuries before they were once more slipped into camels' saddlebags to begin the journey back to Europe.

Again, translators were the key. In the 12th century, the famous Toledo school of translators in Spain began reimporting the great classical authors, together with great Arabic thinkers like Averroes and Avicenna, into Latin and Spanish. It was as if a light had been switched on: Europe suddenly had to cope with the intricacies of algebra, Plato and Aristotle's thought and the advanced medicine and science.

It was called the "12th century renaissance" and it was to form the basis of western rationalism's rebirth in 14th-century Italy. The other great pillar of western civilisation as it emerged from the Middle Ages was the Church. Early Christian thinking was partly based on a translation, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. By the 14th century its official texts were translations from Greek into Latin. Perhaps because of this heritage, revolution, when it came to the Church, came in the form of translations.

It started with John Wycliffe in England. As part of a campaign for Church reforms he produced the first English Bible in 1382 which was soon banned by a Church that saw the independent translation for what it was: a threat to its centralised control of dogma.

In 1516 came a new Latin translation by the Dutch humanist Erasmus of the Greek New Testament. Erasmus called for a return to the original text of the Bible and within five years Martin Luther was working on a German translation of the Bible which was to change Christianity for ever. As Protestantism spread across Europe, so did new translations of the Bible which were vital to the emerging Churches' independence from Catholic dogma.

An Englishman living in Germany, William Tyndale translated some of the original Greek texts of the Bible into English after meeting Martin Luther in 1524 and was immediately met with calls for his death. All copies of his translations found in England by the Catholic authorities were burned and their readers persecuted. In 1536, Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake but months after his death, he had his revenge on the Catholic church. Henry VIII, who had just broken with Rome, ordered Tyndale's translation to be placed in every church in his kingdom. Eighty per cent of the Church of England's authorised version of the Bible is still Tyndale's prose.

Just as a translator-inspired Renaissance and a translator-directed Reformation began to transform western civilisation, translators found a new opportunity to express their power. In 1492, Columbus discovered America and it was translators rather than soldiers who did the most to establish European domination of the continent. Supported by relatively few soldiers, the Spanish relied on diplomacy to divide and rule the powerful native empires they encountered and it was translators such as Do$a Marina - a native slave and one of the most powerful women in Mexican history - who enabled them to do it. Marina, the translator for Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, is credited with persuading native rivals of the Aztec emperors to join the small Spanish army and keeping the Aztec emperor Montezuma committed to peace long enough to allow Cortes to destroy him.

If superior military technology provided the iron fist of European imperial expansion, sophisticated diplomacy based on the work of interpreters and translators was its velvet glove. They were often complicit in tricking natives into giving up their independence. In New Zealand, for instance, it has been argued that the Maori version of an 1840 treaty, which the British claimed gave them sovereignty, actually only talked about the British having control of white people in the country.

Translators helped set up and run the political and legal institutions that consolidated imperial control and it was often translators who shaped the culture of the colonies. At the start of the 20th century, for instance, the Dutch, faced with growing nationalism among their subjects in Indonesia, responded not by banning nationalist publications but by issuing a flood of cheap Indonesian versions of European romantic novels. Not only were these books highly effective in depriving the nationalists of readers, their tales of heroic Europeans guiding child-like natives helped bolster the imperial regime.

Translators have not always been on the side of authority. In Fascist Italy, intellectuals expressed liberal ideas, which would have landed them in prison if they came from their own pens, by producing a flood of translations of US literature. In India, two of the most important nationalist leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, both chose to translate the sacred Hindu text of the Bhagavad Gita during the struggle for independence from Britain. They saw this as vital to building a culture of resistance to colonial rule and their translations of the text reflected radically different ideas about that resistance. Tilak argued the Gita's tale of violent struggle was a call to militant nationalism. Gandhi said its violence was metaphorical and emphasised the non-violent nature of its struggle. Both traditions have powerfully influenced Hindu nationalism since Independence.

The translators' power is perhaps best expressed in the old joke about a Mexican bandit and a US sheriff: the bandit held up a bank in Tucson but was captured by the sheriff after a long chase. The sheriff, who couldn't speak Spanish, asked his deputy to ask the bandit where he'd hidden the money. The Mexican said he had forgotten. The sheriff put a gun to the bandit's head and said to his bilingual deputy: "Tell him that if he doesn't tell us where the money is right now, I'll blow his brains out." On hearing the translation, the bandit broke down and said, in Spanish: "It is at the bottom of the tree below Sundance ridge." Impatient, the Sheriff cocked his gun and asked the deputy for the translation. The deputy replied: "He says you haven't got the guts to pull the trigger."

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