Volume 15, No. 1 
January 2011

  Izak Morin


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by Denzel Dyer

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  Translators and the Computer
Overcoming the Digital Divide through Machine Translation
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Computer-assisted translation tools: A brief review
by Ilya Ulitkin

Interpreting the Remarks of World Leaders: The case of the interpreters for the Indonesian and Mexican Presidents
by Isak Morin

  Literary Translation
Into Brazilian Portuguese: Culture and the Translation of The Glass Menagerie
by Marco Túlio Túlio de Urzêda Freitas and Dilys Karen Rees

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  Translation Journal

Interpreting the Remarks of World Leaders

The case of the interpreters for the Indonesian and Mexican Presidents

by Isak Morin
Cenderawasih University, West Papua, (Indonesia)

1. Introduction

nterpreting is "a form of translation (in the wider sense) in which (a) the source-langauge text is presented only once and thus cannot be reviewed or replayed, and (b) the target-language text is produced under time pressure, with little chance for correction and revision" (Munday 2009, p.133). In practice, there are two modes of interpreting: consecutive and simultaneous where the former refers to the interpretation of the speech after few sentences without notes but relying solely on the memory whereas the latter refers to the carrying on the interpretation throughout the speech and finished almost at the same time as the original (Jones 1998, pp.5-6). In this respect, the interpreter always goes through the three basic steps of the interpreting process: "comprehension, conversion and delivery" (Hale 2007, p.14). He listens for understanding the message in the source language, "needs to make strategic mental choices to decide what is the most appropriate and most accurate rendition in the target language" (p.21), and delivers "the verbal output after the previous two phases have been completed." (p.24). Under time pressure during this process the human mistakes and errors, which can be either linguistic or cultural, are unavoidable. Larson's (1984) translation continuum can be used to show that the interpreting task may also fall on a continuum from very literal, to literal, to modified literal, to near idiomatic, to idiomatic, and then may even move on to be unduly free.

Interpreting the remarks of political leaders is a risky task for the interpreter because these remarks are political statements that sometimes contain sensitive issues. These may bring a negative consequence in a bilateral relationship if they are misinterpreted or rendered incoherently. The following are two cases of misinterpreting that occurred separately to two different Presidents' interpreters when their diplomatic representatives took over their roles to avoid embarrassment.

2. The President's remarks and their interpreting.

2.1. The remarks of President Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia

Interpreting the remarks of political leaders is a prestigious but a risky task for the interpreter.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made his first formal visit to Indonesia on June 12-14, 2008 and met President Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono. After their bilateral meeting at the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta on June 13, both leaders gave a press conference for the domestic and the foreign journalists about their bilateral agenda items, including the travel warning for Australians against visiting Indonesia. In such a situation, the interpreter is supposed to mediate between both leaders with the journalists present. The following is the transcript of the comments from the President and its English translation regarding the issue of the travel warning by the Australian government to its citizens, which sparked spontaneous reactions from both sides during and after the conference:

"Tentunya menyangkut kebijakan Australia yang berkaitan dengan 'travel warning' saya pahami sebagai kebijakan untuk melindungi warga negaranya tetapi saya juga menyampaikan dengan terbuka bahwa keadaan di Indonesia sudah baik, normal dan pulih kembali" (...but I also tell you frankly that situation in Indonesia is good, normal, and improved, my italic and translation)

"With regard to travel warning issued by Australia, I can understand that this is the responsibility of a government to protect its citizens but I do look forward to this advisory being lifted" (my italic for emphasis)

(ANTARA News, June 14, 2008)

The Australian reported on June 13, 2008 that "the Prime Minister appeared to bristle when the interpreter said the President believed that the warnings should be revised." Mr. Rudd responded to this statement by saying that Australia has its National Threat Assessment Centre, which makes its own decisions; therefore "he refused to lift travel advisories warning tourists of possible terrorist attacks in Bali despite Indonesia's assurances that the security situation has returned to normal" (The Australian June 13, 2008).

In response to the Prime Minister's remarks, the President's spokesperson, Andi Malarangan, told the journalists right after the conference that there had been a mistranslation by the President's interpreter. And "within minutes, Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told Australia's ambassador to Indonesia, Bill Farmer, that Indonesia believed travel advisories were entirely a matter for Australia to decide upon" (The Australian June 13, 2008).

The italic sentence in the last part of the interpreting transcript above was considered an interpreter error because in the original statement the President did not explicitly mention 'lifting the travel warning' but he only explained that the situation in Indonesia was good, normal, and improved.

From the Speech Act's perspective, the interpreter was right because he understood that the implied message behind the President's statement was a request to lift the travel warning. In addition, culturally the interpreter was also correct because the President expressed his request in an indirect way as is customary in the Indonesian culture. Therefore, in practical terms, this statement is not merely a matter of describing a situation, but rather a polite request. And, logically, why would the President want to describe the safe condition in Indonesia at this high-level conference? There must be an implied reason. So, the utterance "...tetapi saya juga menyampaikan dengan terbuka bahwa keadaan di Indonesia sudah baik, normal dan pulih kembali" (... but I also tell you frankly that situation in Indonesia is good, normal, and improved) had a practical purpose,by conveying the implied message: 'Please visit Indonesia. Don't worry about your safety because the security situation has returned to normal'. Nevertheless, the interpreter was in a position where he had no chance to defend himself against the accusation because the Australian journalists had blown this case out of proportion in their electronic and paper news without subjecting it to a careful linguistic and cultural analysis. Also, for political reasons, the President's spokesperson and the Foreign Minister took over the interpreter's role and put a blame on him, even though this was unjustified linguistically, pragmatically, and culturally. Presumably, if the interpreter had interpreted the President's words literally, he would have avoided the criticism he had to endure.

2.2. Remarks of President Felipe Calderón, Mexico

President Felipe Calderón of Mexico made an official visit to President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday, May 19, 2010. He delivered his speech in Spanish, which was rendered in English by his interpreter. The following is how the interpreter rendered Calderón's comments on the tough new immigration law in Arizona during the arrival ceremony.

"We can do so with a community that will promote a dignified life and an orderly way for both our countries, who are, some of them, still living here in the shadows with such laws as the Arizona law that is placing our people to face discrimination"

(The Associated Press, May 19, 2010)

After the ceremony the Associated Press (AP) reported that the English translation was considered poor by the American viewers. Such "a halting and grammatically incoherent English translation marred President Felipe Calderón's arrival ceremony at the White House Wednesday, rendering his remarks difficult to understand at times." (the AP, May 19, 2010). The Mexican Embassy agreed that the translation was poor; therefore it provided the White House with the following one as a replacement:

"I know that we share the interest in promoting dignified, legal and orderly living conditions to all migrants workers. Many of them, despite their significant contribution to the economy and to the society of the United States, still live in the shadows and occasionally, as in Arizona, they even face discrimination"

(The Associate Press, May 19, 2010)

From these transcripts it is clear that the President's interpreter did not perform his job as well as was expected by the Mexican delegation and the American viewers. His delegation blamed him and explained that he was not the one who regularly translates for Mr. Calderón. This means either that the interpreter was not accustomed to the President's way of thinking and his way of expressing his ideas, or that the interpreter had been assigned to this job in the last minute due to the absence of the regular interpreter.

Aside from the blame, Jones (1998) argues that some mistakes and errors may occur during interpreting because of a variety of reasons: the interpreter "can mishear a word, not hear a word at all (which can have dramatic consequences if that word is 'not'), misunderstand a word or phrase, misconstrue a speaker's logic, interpret incorrectly a reference by the speaker that was merely implicit in the original, make a slip of tongue, say something incorrectly" (p.119). The Mexican President's interpreter may have stumbled on some of these problems. Comparing his interpreting with the transcript from the Mexican Embassy, it is apparent that (a) the interpreter did not hear the phrases such as 'all migrant workers' and 'despite their significant contribution to the economy and to the society of United States'; therefore these phrases disappear totally from the interpreting, and (b) the interpreter miscontrued the President's logic; therefore the interpreting was structurally incoherent and hard to understand by the audience. However, it can also be assumed that the interpreter knew about the new law imposed for the Mexican migrants in the State of Arizona, and therefore he added 'Arizona law that is placing our people to face discrimination' to his interpreting.

3. Summary

Interpreting the remarks of political leaders is a prestigious but a risky task for the interpreter. It is risky because the interpreter may be brought into an embarrassing situation when the interpreting is considered wrong and it is publicly criticized. It is believed that both Presidents' interpreters experienced a psychological hardship due to the criticism directed at them. They may also have lost face before the Presidents, their bosses.

Such cases are more unlikely to happen in conference interpreting and community interpreting because the "conference interpreters, as a general rule, are provided with material to research and papers to prepare before their work commences" (Hale 2007, p.10). On the other hand, "community interpreting takes the interpreter into the most private spheres of human life. It takes place in settings where the most intimate and significant issues of everyday individuals are discussed" (pp.25-26). In contrast, political speech interpreting takes the interpreter into the public view physically and electronically; therefore, the interpreter's strengths and weaknesses are not hidden from the audience. This means that interpreters for conference interpreting and community interpreting may have a better chance of avoiding embarrassment than political leaders' interpreters do.

As a practical matter, the case of the Indonesian President's interpreter is not a misinterpretation of the message, but a clash between the ways two different cultures convey a message and respond to it. The President expressed his request indirectly as a culturally polite way and common practice among the Indonesians.This implicit request was rendered by the interpreter in such a way that it was clear enough for the Prime Minister to understand it in his western culture. The response from the Prime Minister is direct and to the point. The Indonesian authorities felt embarrassed at the thought that the President might have suggested the revision of the Australian policy on travel advisories. The interpreter was victimized in this cultural conflict because of the sensitivity of the political issue.

On the contrary, the case of the Mexican President's interpreter, there was a misinterpretation of the message. The audience found it difficult to understand the message because it was conveyed in a grammatically and structurally incoherent way. The Mexican diplomatic representatives in the USA provided the English translation transcript for the White House in order not to jeopardize the results of the President's visit.

Mass media reportage plays an important role in relaying the interpreting to a wider audience and in assessing whether or not it is accurate, clear and natural. But, at the same time, it may also promote or damage an interpreter's reputation.


ANTARA News. (2008) Media Australia Soroti Salah Penerjemahan Seputar Isu "Travel Warning", Brisbane: Antara News. June 13, 2008 www.antara.co.id/print/1213447180. Franklin, Mathew and Stephen Fitzpatrick. (2008) Indonesia alerts to stay: Rudd, Jakarta.

The Australian, June 14, 2008. www.theaustralian.com.au/news/indonesia-alerts-to-stay-rudd/story.

Frey, R, Len Roberts-Smith and Susan Bessell-Browne. (1990) Working with Interpreters in law, health & social work, Mount Hawthorn: Hawthorn Press.

Hale, Sandra B. (2007) Community Interpreting, New York:Palgrave MacMillan.

Jones, R. (1998) Conference Interpreting Explained, Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.

Larson, Mildred L. (1984) Meaning-Based Translation: A Guide to Cross-Language Equivalence, Lanham, New York and London: University Press of America, Inc.

Munday, Jeremy. (2009) The Routledge Companion to Translation Studies, London and New York: Routledge

Werner, Erica. (2010) Calderón visit marred by poor translation, Washington: The Associeted Press. May 19, 2010. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37238436/ns/world_news-americas/.