Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fraudulent Translators


I’m a Gemini, an auspicious sign for translators. Geminis have a dual personality. On the one hand I observe the inevitability of Natural Translation and preach awareness of its usefulness. On the other hand, I’m a member of two associations of Professional Expert Translators. I don’t consider my two personas incompatible: there’s a time and a place for everything.

That said, a high-profile terrorist trial with international observers and reporters is, in my view and surely yours, no place for any kind of translator but the Professional Expert. Too much is at stake, and the lawyers are waiting to pounce in public on any uncertainty. It came therefore as a shock to read the following in the Indian press yesterday about the current trial in Mumbai (Bombay) of the alleged only surviving terrorist from the attack there last year.
In an embarrassment for the Mumbai Police in the 26/11 terror attack trial, a prosecution witness presented in court today as the translator of a note in Arabic allegedly left by the Lashkar-e-Toiba attackers, which said the attack was a pointer towards war, was found to have no knowledge of the Arabic script.
On Wednesday, Inspector Prakash Bhoite, who had investigated the attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel, had told the court that police had found two unexploded bombs near the hotel during the attack and one of them contained a note which said “Ammar Askari”.
A translator used by the police translated it as “Yeh jang ki aur ishara hai” or “This is a pointer to war”. The 10 Lashkar attackers and those named as fugitives have been accused of waging war against the country in the chargesheet.
On Thursday, Mukhtar Pirzade, the translator, testified in court and confirmed he had translated the note given to him by the Mumbai Police Crime Branch. An insurance agent in Bhiwandi, Pirzade is regularly used as a translator by the police [and presumably paid for it as a Professional Translator – BH].
But his testimony did not stand when he was cross-examined by Abbas Kazmi, the state-appointed lawyer for Ajmal Kasab, the lone attacker captured alive. Kazmi, who has lived in Saudi Arabia for a decade and knows Arabic, spoke a line in the language and asked Pirzade what it meant. When Pirzade said he could not figure it out, Kazmi translated it himself and said it meant “Where are you now?” Pirzade responded by saying that he did not know to read or write Arabic but could only understand it and that he had got the words in the alleged Lashkar note translated by a friend.
Kazmi also contested the translation and said that Ammar Askari was the first and second name of a person…

Not surprisingly, the judge upbraided the police. The truth is, Pirzade is an Urdu not an Arabic translator. (Urdu and Arabic use almost the same script.)
The reaction of the police chief was not reassuring.

“The words are Arabic, that is why we took the help of an Urdu translator. It is up to the translator to refer to any source he wants for translation. In any case, this issue does not have any bearing on our case,” he told The Indian Express.

The incident reminds me of something I was told by a Toronto lawyer in the 80s. He was of Polish descent and spoke Polish. Once he found himself in court representing a Polish client who could speak no English. So a court interpreter was called in. It took only a few moments for the lawyer to realize that the interpreter’s Polish was rudimentary and quite inadequate for the task. Rather than risk the delay of an adjournment, he took over the interpreting himself (something that would be disallowed today). Afterwards he asked the court official why that interpreter had been assigned to the trial. He was told that the man, who was Russian, had claimed he could interpret all the Slavic languages, and the naive court administration had taken him at his word.

I propose a term for Professional Translation or Interpretation passed off by people who know they aren’t really competent to do it: Fraudulent Translation.

Source: Mustafa Plummer. Can’t read Arabic, admits man who ‘translated’ 26/11 note. Expressindia, Sept. 11, 2009.

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