Friday, January 20, 2006

Inventing Osama: Lies, Damned Lies and Conveniently Incompetent Translations


Lex Luthor didn't exist, so he had to be invented. How else would they have sold the comics?

A rare piece of investigative journalism was broadcast to 100 million German-speaking TV viewers in December 2001. Craig Morris's accurate account of that investigation appeared online in English only three days later. Today, to the best of my knowledge, the story has still never been picked up by anyone in the British or US media; nor has a single journalist or producer seen fit to repeat the experiment, using other independent translators.

Why not?

Why not, exactly?

Mistranslated Osama bin Laden Video - the German Press Investigates

by Craig Morris 7:16am Sun Dec 23 '01 (Modified on 8:19pm Sun Dec 30 '01)

A German TV show found that the White House's translation of the "confession" video was not only inaccurate, but even "manipulative".

Mistranslated OBL video - Germany’s Channel One investigates

On 20 December 2001, German TV channel “Das Erste” broadcast its analysis of the White House’s translation of the OBL video that George Bush has called a “confession of guilt”. On the show “Monitor”, two independent translators and an expert on oriental studies found the White House’s translation not only to be inaccurate, but “manipulative”.

Arabist Dr. Abdel El M. Husseini, one of the translators, states, “I have carefully examined the Pentagon’s translation. This translation is very problematic. At the most important places where it is held to prove the guilt of Bin Laden, it is not identical with the Arabic.”

Whereas the White House would have us believe that OBL admits that “We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy…”, translator Dr. Murad Alami finds that: “‘In advance’ is not said. The translation is wrong. At least when we look at the original Arabic, and there are no misunderstandings to allow us to read it into the original.”

At another point, the White House translation reads: “We had notification since the previous Thursday that the event would take place that day.” Dr. Murad Alami: “‘Previous’ is never said. The subsequent statement that this event would take place on that day cannot be heard in the original Arabic version.”

The White House’s version also included the sentence “we asked each of them to go to America”, but Alami says the original formulation is in the passive along the lines of “they were required to go”. He also say that the sentence afterwards - “they didn’t know anything about the operation” - cannot be understood.

Prof. Gernot Rotter, professor of Islamic and Arabic Studies at the Asia-Africa Institute at the University of Hamburg sums it up: “The American translators who listened to the tapes and transcribed them apparently wrote a lot of things in that they wanted to hear but that cannot be heard on the tape no matter how many times you listen to it.”

Meanwhile the US press has not picked up on this story at all, reporting instead that a new translation has revealed that OBL even mentions the names of some of those involved. But the item is all over the German press, from Germany’s Channel One (“Das Erste” - the ones who broke the story, equivalent to NBC or the BBC) to ZDF (Channel Two) to Der Spiegel (the equivalent of TIME or the Economist - visit

http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/0,1518,174025,00.html

if you can read German). More surprisingly, as I write the following site appears on Lycos in German:

http://www.netzeitung.de/servlets/page?section=1109&item=172422

- but nothing under lycos.com in English.

Instead, we read in the Washington Post of Friday, December 21, 2001 (the day after the German TV show was broadcast) that a new translation done in the US “also indicates bin Laden had even more knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon than was apparent in the original Defense Department translation.... Although the expanded version does not change the substance of what was released, it provides added details and color to what has been disclosed.”

I’ll say. Aren’t there any reporters in the US who speak German (or Arabic, for that matter)? An article in USA Today of 20 December 2001 sheds some light on why the original translation might not be accurate: “the first translation was rushed in 12 hours, in a room in the Pentagon”. So why didn’t the new US translation find the same discrepancies as the German translators did? Read the article in USA Today against the grain: “Michael, who is originally Lebanese, translated the tape with Kassem Wahba, an Egyptian. Both men had difficulties with the Saudi dialect bin Laden and his guest use in the tape, Michael said.” Why can a Saudi translator not be found in a multicultural country like the US, especially with the close business relations between the US and Saudi Arabia? Bush Sr. probably knows any number of them himself. [...]

Craig Morris is a translator living in Europe. The original broadcast of the German show can be viewed in German here
A transcript of the programme is available here.

Why does this story matter? Because it amounts to a sensation: proof positive that the White House has been forging evidence to justify the War on Terror. It is now January 2006; Afghanistan and Iraq have already been invaded and occupied; Iran and Syria are currently being lined up. Even if the Bush Gang claim, implausibly, that the mistranslation was just another fuck-up (the Incompetence Excuse, Vol. 358), they cannot deny that they have never corrected those useful errors since the tape was released. And that conveniently untruthful translation from the Arabic was what convinced most people that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks. In fact, the notorious Home Video is practically the only evidence ever presented that Bin Laden did what he is alleged to have done. As demonstrated by two veteran journalists on Germany's longest-running TV current-affairs programme, that "evidence" is a shoddy fake.

4 comments:

sdRay said...

My name is Ray and I just started a new blog about the confession music. Its a place where you can chat about the confession music confidentially. I hope you will come and check out www.MySecretConfessionSpace.com. Thanks for letting me post on your site.

Anonymous said...

also, a prerequisite for an authoritative translation, the translator must be comfortably conversant in the Gulf Arabic dialect, if not the Saudi one.

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