New Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi didn’t pull any punches with his hosts at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Iran last week.
“The language was blunt, Mursi spoke with clear and calm ferocity,” blogs Imran Khan of Al Jazeera.
Pointing a finger at the brutal Assad regime in Syria, an Iranian ally, Egypt’s newly elected leader said, “We express our solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people against an oppressive regime that has lost legitimacy. This is not only an ethical duty, but also a political and strategic necessity.”
Mursi urged the world to support Syria’s rebels, and the Syrians walked out during his speech. But Syria wasn’t even mentioned in the translation provided by Persian-language media in Iran. Every time Mursi mentioned “Syria” in his speech, it was translated into Persian as “Bahrain.”
Adaptation for local audience is one thing in localization, but this clumsy lie has created a diplomatic storm. A formal diplomatic protest by the Bahraini foreign ministry condemned “the tampering by the Iranian media and replacing Syria with Bahrain in the speech delivered by President Mohamed Mursi at the opening of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran.
“Such an abuse and distortion of the facts is rejected and is regarded as interference in Bahrain’s domestic affairs and a violation of the norms.”
The Iranians claim inadvertent error. “In a verbal mistake, this translator said ‘Bahrain’ instead of ‘Syria’ and this became a pretext for Western media,” according to Iran state TV chief, Ezatollah Zarghami. He stressed that “Iran’s media coverage was so broad and perfect” that the Western media’s attempts to abuse the shortcoming was to no avail.
Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa tweeted, “Iran has to apologize to Bahrain if what happened was a mistake. However, if it is not, then its credibility is still as we know it.”
Shaikh Khalid isn’t the only skeptic of loose Iranian translations in tight diplomatic situations. There is a lot of word shift when translation gets sensitive in Iran. For example, “Arab spring” is translated as “Islamic awakening,” perhaps to suggest to restive Iranian citizens that its just some thing that Arabs do.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Tehran last week and strongly criticized Iran’s human rights record and lack of transparency over its nuclear program. That news went unreported in Persian-language media. And Bahman Kalbasi, New York/UN Correspondent for BBC TV News’ Persian-language service, tweeted that Ki-moon’s speech was also “drastically mistranslated.”
The Iranian government operates under the assumption that it can control information in Persian with some major misdirection. It doesn’t seem credible, but maybe credibility is not a value for the Iranian government. How easy is it for Iranians to check government translations, or to get the facts in other languages?