Should interpreters have agency? Should they let their choice of words influence the course of events? Thus muses veteran translator Anna Aslanyan at the start of her engaging new book Dancing on Ropes. It’s a question many interpreters must ask themselves as they navigate the perilous waters of diplomacy.
It made me think of a news conference in 2002 when President Putin was visiting Brussels. Putin was challenged by a French reporter about the conduct of Russia’s war in Chechnya. His reply, at least as it was communicated to the foreign press corps by his interpreter, went like this: ‘If you want to become an Islamic radical and if you’d like to get circumcised, please come to Moscow. We are a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic nation. Please come. You are welcome, and everything and everyone is tolerated in Moscow.’
That raised a few eyebrows. But what Putin had said in the original Russian was even more pointed: ‘If you want to become an Islamic radical and are prepared to undergo circumcision, then I invite you to
Moscow. We are a multi-confessional country, we have experts in this field too. And I’ll recommend that whoever does the surgery performs it in such a way that, once done, nothing will grow back there.’
Instead of relaying word for word the president’s insinuation that the French journalist deserved to be castrated, the Kremlin translator had chosen to skim over it, though in the end news of the salty snub lost in translation got out anyway. It’s an incident that serves as a reminder of