Stolen in Translation

New Statesman – Just before you accept Johann Hari’s apology ….

It now appears that Mr Hari has made quite a habit of pinching quotes given to other interviewers, and claiming that they were given to him. Just look at this:

“It is possible I have something of this . . . tragic sense of life,” he [Chavez] acknowledged. He recalled that on the eve of the 1992 rebellion he had said goodbye to his wife and three children, and led his soldiers out of their barracks. He was the last to leave. After locking the big front gate, he threw away the key. “I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life,” Chávez said. “So it is possible that one has been a bit . . . imbued with that . . . ever since, no?

Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, The Revolutionary, 10 September 2001

The spectre haunting Latin America – the spectre of Hugo Chavez – furrows his big, broad brow, pats my knee, and tells me about the night he knew he was going to die. “I will never forget – in the early hours, I said goodbye to my wife and three little children. I kissed them goodbye and blessed them.” He knew in his gut he was not going to survive that long, bloody day in 1992, when he and his allies finally decided to stage a revolution against the old, rotten order loathed by the Venezuelan people. “I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life,” he says, looking away. “So it is possible that, after surviving, one has been a bit… imbued with that sense ever since, no?

Johann Hari, The Indepedent, Hugo Chavez – An ‘Exclusive’ Interview, 14 May 2006

Oliver made an important point about Hari’s swiping of quotes relating to Antonio Negri yesterday, that given the fact the quotes were lifted from a translation, Hari had plagiarised not one, but two people. And the same is true here. God knows I’ve been translating plenty of stuff of late, and a lot of the time it’s a damn pain in the ass, trying to preserve as far as possible the original meaning, making sure you neither lose the flow and coherence of the original, nor do you freight the translated version with a load of other stuff that just obscures what the original thrust was.

You can obsess over some of these points endlessly, since there’s never a perfect option to be chosen, and sometimes it can come out rather clunky, and we can see in Anderson’s translation above -albeit without the original words to which we can refer- some of these tensions coming to the fore. For example, the ‘no?’ at the end is not a locution used all that commonly in English and generally when it is used it is recognisable as the sort of thing a non-native speaker might say. But the point is to convey as fully as possible the sense of what the person is saying in their own language, and not to emphasise the foreignness of that person. So the problem with the ‘no?’ here is that it imbues -to use an excellent word- Chávez with a degree of foreignness in his expression, by bringing to the fore an unusual locution that is not unusual at all in Spanish.

Now I am not saying at all that Anderson is committing word crimes for doing this: for one, it might not have even occurred to him that this is what he was doing, second, it most likely preserves the flow of the original, and the event of Chávez confiding something to him, in a way that ‘know what I mean?’ would definitely not. So perhaps he has made the most sensible decision given the overall task he has undertaken.

The point being that this decision, as part of the whole process of bringing these words into existence, is a considerable act of labour – from arranging to conduct the interview, second, to conducting the interview in such a way that Chávez makes the disclosures that he does (and doing so in the original language), through translating the words not only in such a way that they give an accurate account of what Chávez says, but so that they also convey the overall feel of the encounter. But Hari copies and pastes the quote into his own interview and passes it off as though he himself had been responsible for Chávez saying what he did. That is a scandalous form of lying and probably worse than if he had simply made up his own stuff.

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1 Response to “Stolen in Translation”


  1. 1 Tomboktu July 5, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    Such a pity. I really liked his stuff in the Independent (the one that escaped Sir Tony’s clutches).


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