Monday, April 6, 2009

Lost in Translation-- foreign quotes and sources in journalism

Today the lecture talked about quotes in journalism. I don't really want to spend too much time discussing whether quotes should be kept verbatim despite grammatical mistakes and fragmented sentences. To me, there is no doubt about cleaning up quotes. Language fillers such as "you know" and "uh", and grammatical mistakes do not mean anything substantial. Fixing these does not alter the meaning of the quote at all. Unless they reflect the source's character that is essential to the story, they should be left out for the good of both readers and the source.

But this reminds me of one thing: when it comes to a foreign language speaker, do not take the quote at its face value. It might be altered during the process of translation with or without anyone's intention.

When I worked as an intern with L.A.Times' Beijing office, my job is more like that of a fixer--to help the reporters there, who does not know much Chinese language or the society undergoing changes, understand better. A big part of the job is to help them interview Chinese sources.

Once, the bureau chief was doing a story on Chinese government's newly enforced ban on plastic bags in supermarkets nationwide. Over the phone, the Chinese scholar on environmental protection wanted to say that the new ban on such a large scale is too rash and unrealistic. He used a Chinese idom which sounds similar to an English word that I've learned, "horseback", which means “made or given in a casual or speculative way; approximate or offhand”(Random House Dictionary). So when I translated this sentence, I said that this is a horseback decision. But perhaps the word is not widely used in this way. The bureau chief asked me, "what decision again?" "Horseback." "Does he mean that it is like jumping onto the bandwagon?"But back then, I did not know what this idiom means. Meantime the scholar was waiting at the other end of the line for me to finish translating this part so that he could go on. I did not have time to think twice, so I simply assumed this paraphrase was correct and said "yes." Later on, I realized that I actually changed the meaninng of the quote with no "actual malice," but that was after it came to print.

On another occasion, the bureau chief wanted to do a story about Taiwan's offering ridiculously big amounts of money to swing nations such as Honduras and El Salvador in order to establish diplomatic relations with them and win support in the United Nations. The Taiwanese scholar that we interviewed through telephone said this foreign policy is nicknamed "kaizi" diplomacy. Kaizi in Chinese means a man who constantly gives money in large amount to women that he is attracted, hoping to please them and get something in return, but gets duped. In that instant, the only simlar expression in English that I could come up with is "sugar daddy," which has the "giving money or gifts to women for favors in return" part, but does not have the "getting duped" part of meaning as "kaizi" does. The reporter used my translation "sugar daddy" anyway, since he doesn't understand Chinese and couldn't tell what was missing in the translation.

So next time when you come across a non-English speaker being quoted in a news story, you should be aware that maybe the quote is not exactly what he said. Maybe the degree of the emotion is exaggerated or understated; maybe the translator would miss something when taking notes; maybe the translator filters what is said by the source deliberately; maybe he would simply use expression mistakenly like I did. These happen quite often even though the reporter or the editor has no slightest intention to fix or alter quotes; they don't even know what is going on during the process of translation. And that is inevitable because of the translator's insufficient English skills, lack of a proofreader, or the untranslatable expression.


  1. This is a great post. It makes me wonder, though, whether this is all relative. Would someone in, say, Italy really care about what goes on in America or Kenya? It certainly is important to some people, but extremely pointless to others. Rather than wondering if international news is important to Americans, I would wonder what individuals in other countries think, too.

  2. Hmmmm...somehow, this comment was supposed to be on your most recent post, and it popped up here. How odd.

  3. Wow, I guess I never really thought about this - and I am glad that you make mention of it. When I took French, I always found it confusing to translate English sentences because they became all jumbled up and sometimes couldn't be translated accurately.

    This is problem indeed, and I thank you for teaching me some new Chinese words. I think that newspapers should feel that way - if there isn't a proper translation then the acutal word should be used and then a definition given.

    We could all stand to learn a new word, for the sake of accuracy :o)

  4. This kind of stuff is fascinating to me. As journalism spreads further into the international sphere, I think it's important for publications to have permanent positions such as the one you worked for at the L.A. Time Beijing bureau.