Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Years ago, as I stood amidst Indian officials and foreign diplomats at a reception I was invited to at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, interpreting a speech given by one of the Arab Ministers of Oil, I learned my first lesson on the rules of translation.  The lesson was taught to me by the Minister himself, who turned out to know more English than an Englishman, even though he had insisted on speaking in Arabic.  Thanking me for jumping in to his rescue [by offering to translate for him when his interpreter did not show up at the event], and praising my translation skills and ability in manipulating his words to strengthen his message, did not prevent him from offering me a piece of advice. He cautioned me to avoid doing that in the future for fear that I might do more harm than help.  Looking back at that situation, I realize how right he was. Fortunately, then, I was politically motivated in the same direction as the Minister, so my manipulation of the message and the salt and pepper I added to it worked in both sides' favor.  But that will not always be the case. 

Unfortunately, the political situation then was not as toxic as it is today.  A politically motivated translator today can do much harm, because he or she has the power to conceal or add things that are not faithful to the source message, and thus might mislead the reader of the target language. This raises the question: What happens if a native translator of a language is required to translate something for the enemy, the contents of which might impact the outcome and the reaction to the resulting text? Will the translator do the job faithfully, or will he or she choose to omit or add words to the target text to soften the language or hide a threat?  

It is a fact that the practice of deliberate translation manipulation has become more acceptable over the years by the translation world, and is referred to as a cultural political practice in which a translator acts more as a cultural mediator than a faithful translator of the original text. While this is understood and acceptable when dealing with literary material or simple TV commercials, it is quite risky, for example, if this is followed in the translation of an ISIS statement the contents of which might be very crucial. Who is to check or know if the translator has omitted or altered the message? Most translation companies in the United States use quality control managers who do not even read the language. Their quality control is limited to ensuring that each paragraph in the source document has a corresponding paragraph in the target file, and that the item is in the right order, etc.  For the past 15 years, I have managed several contracts that specifically dealt with Islamic counterterrorism, during which time I saw this happen again and again. While most of the Muslim translators did the job without altering the text, and if they did, it was out of poor translation skills and not intentional alteration, I had to keep a close watch on a couple of them, who were politically motivated, and often chose to conceal or mistranslate some of the text in the item they came across, or even ignore it altogether. Had I been negligent, many translation jobs would have never surfaced, or would have been modified to mislead our government and our counterterrorism agencies.

Of course, there are other political causes that are not related to Islam or the Muslims, in which a translator might act in the same deceptive manner to serve a political agenda, as one Russian interpreter, many years ago, tried to change and manipulate the love message Mother Teresa was giving at a high level event in Moscow, Russia. 

So, am I saying not to hire a Muslim translator to translate Islamic doctrine or terrorist related material? No, I am not.  What I am saying, if you do not know the translator well enough, and do not have a background check on them, you are better off not hiring one for this type of work, and if you do, make sure you get a second translator to check the work. I am basing my judgment on real life experience as a manager and a translation business owner who during the past 15 years managed several government translation contracts specializing in counterterrorism.  There is so much at stake, and many lives worldwide endangered, so please when you hire a translator in your fight against ISIS and similar Islamic groups, think twice about whom you hire. It does not matter if he/she is American or not.  Take this situation for example and ask yourself if you can trust such a translator to translate an Islamic statement against the USA: Two months ago, I approached one of the freelance Arabic translators in the US, who happens to be an American citizen of Somali Muslim background, and asked him to translate a church group emblem describing Jesus Christ’s teachings in ten words-Love, Forgiveness, Humility, etc. with full anger and pride he rejected the job and said that he will not do it for any price. Do you think that someone with this attitude can do an honest job in translating a statement that might benefit Christianity, or another that might damage the image of his religion? Be smart and beware.

Miranda Hirezi-Mugnier

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