Behind Omid Scobie-gate lies an age-old maxim: always blame the translator | Anna Aslanyanthedigitalchaps


In 1977, Jimmy Carter visited Poland. It was a dismal December day, and Steven Seymour, hired to interpret during the arrival ceremony, got very cold while waiting for the presidential plane in the freezing rain. Carter began his address with a greeting, before going on to say: “When I left the United States this morning …” Seymour’s translation, “When I abandoned the United States …”, made the Polish-speakers in the audience chuckle. The president then said he was there to “understand your desires for the future”. Seymour’s rendition of it, translated back into English as “I desire the Poles”, was reported in newspapers around the world.

Back inside from the cold, Seymour admitted he might have used the occasional infelicitous verb. Most of the sensationalist coverage, however – “grab at the Poles’ private parts” and suchlike – had been made up. Seymour, who died in 2014, is warmly remembered by his former colleagues, who recently forwarded me a copy of a letter from his archive. It begins with “Don’t let the exaggerated criticisms disturb you” and is signed “Your friend Jimmy Carter”.

Last week, another language professional came under fire when a Dutch translation of Endgame, Omid Scobie’s book about the British monarchy, was released by Xander, a Haarlem-based publisher. It contained something absent from the original: the names of the royals who supposedly speculated about the skin colour of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s unborn baby. When the discrepancy was flagged, Xander “temporarily” withdrew the book from sale, citing an “error”. One of the Dutch translators, Saskia Peeters, spoke to the Daily Mail. “As a translator, I translate what is in front of me,” she told it. As a fellow translator, I understand very well her outrage at the insinuation that she added the names.

Translation is like rubbish collection: people notice it only when something goes wrong. This oft-used metaphor has a whiff of disrespect, which in turn can lead to scapegoating, a game as old as translation itself – whatever goes wrong, blame the translator. Back in the early days of the profession, the dragomans of the Ottoman empire knew what a dangerous business they were in. One of them, Alexander Mavrocordato, a powerful figure in 17th-century politics, moved between the sultan’s court and prison. His travails began in 1683, when he was jailed and fined a colossal sum, either over some mistake he had made when interpreting or simply because someone had it in for him.

In 1945-46, when 36 interpreters worked under enormous pressure at the Nuremberg trials, one of the alternate judges called them “touchy, vain, unaccountable, full of vagaries, puffed up with self-importance of the most explosive kind, inexpressibly egotistical, and, as a rule, violent opponents of soap and sunlight”. The interpreters soldiered on. Some decades later, the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses brought on a wave of violence. Hitoshi Igarashi, the first Japanese translator of the book, was murdered in 1991, while Ettore Capriolo and William Nygaard, who translated it into Italian and Norwegian respectively, survived physical attacks.

Mistranslations are unavoidable, especially when you are working under time constraints. I remember kicking myself after interpreting as “drunk” an expression that meant something closer to “tipsy”. On another occasion, I had to fetch a dictionary to reassure someone that I hadn’t invented the word “feckless”.

According to the Daily Mail, the Dutch translators of Scobie’s book were given the original to “transcribe” – a slip showing how little is understood about the translation industry. As anyone familiar with publishing knows, books, even in one language, harbour numerous potential sources of error: an editor circulating a draft, say, and neglecting to send an update, followed by a copyeditor failing to spot the difference. With each additional link in the chain – for instance, when an agent is involved – the risk of miscommunication increases. Whoever was responsible for the offending passage, it’s hard to imagine the translators in that role. Yet their employers seem in no hurry to clear up the confusion. Neither Xander nor HarperCollins, Scobie’s UK publisher, has responded to my requests for comment.

Translation is an art, a craft, a trade; it’s also a practice that few understand but many criticise. This game involves three main players: the source, the target and the intermediary. Two of them are unable to fully grasp what’s going on, so when they start losing, their instinct is to blame the one in the middle. The latest AI advances mean that certain translation jobs can be automated. In some cases, it’s a win-win, yet there are examples demonstrating that it’s not as safe as entrusting dustbins to robots. Machine translation tools can result in your asylum application being refused or your car being illegally searched. The world will always need real translators – and not as the first people to blame for rubbish piling up on the page.