Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Lost in translation

(This post is a collaboration between Idealistic Pragmatist and Respectful of Otters.)

Rivka over at Respectful of Otters was in the middle of putting together a post about Bush's visit to the U.S. Gulf Coast, and wanted to lead with the horrifying report Laura Rozen received from a reader:

"Dutch viewer Frank Tiggelaar writes: There was a striking dicrepancy between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV.

ZDF News reported that the president's visit was a completely staged event. Their crew witnessed how the open air food distribution point Bush visited in front of the cameras was torn down immediately after the president and the herd of 'news people' had left and that others which were allegedly being set up were abandoned at the same time.

The people in the area were once again left to fend for themselves, said ZDF."
Rivka looked around for more information, and found that the story had spread to more than a hundred other blogs by Monday night, all of them quoting Laura Rozen's commenter, none of them providing a link. That began to seem strange. ZDF News is the German equivalent of the NBC Nightly News in the United States--a respectable mainstream institution with a broad nationwide presence. It seemed probable that if they'd reported something as shocking as food distribution points being set up only during Bush's visit, it would be easy to find out more.

So Rivka turned to Idealistic Pragmatist, who is an English/German bilingual, and asked her to look through the ZDF News site for the story. A second post at War and Piece provided a video link and a link to a summary, to get her started. IP discovered that the blogosphere--beginning with Laura Rozen's Dutch commenter--had gotten several crucial facts about the story wrong. Although the images do show Bush visiting a New Orleans food distribution point, there is nothing in the New Orleans segment that suggests the distribution point had been specifically set up for Bush, and in fact nothing that even represents his visit as staged:
[This comes about a third of the way through the broadcast, all of which has thus far been about New Orleans.]

Voiceover (over pictures of Bush visiting New Orleans): And U.S. President Bush actually did come to the region of the catastrophe today. He spoke with flood victims and toured a site where they were passing out supplies; one of the few in existence, mind.

Bush (in voiceover translation; partly the English is audible, and partly it's been reconstructed from the German): We're gonna stabilize the situation; we're gonna bring water and food. I was traveling with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army today. People are gonna see compassion pour in here.
It isn't until a later part of the story--a part that details Bush's visit to Biloxi, Mississippi--that the charges of Potemkinism are mentioned:
Anchor: President Bush also paid the almost completely devastated small town of Biloxi a quick little visit as a part of his tour. Claudia Rüggeberg in Biloxi, how did the citizens react to the visit from the President?

Claudia Rüggeberg: There was a lot of variation. We talked to people here after the visit: one woman said a symbolic visit like that was better than none at all, and it was good that the President was showing his face there and looking at the situation up-close. Others tended to react with desperation. One woman burst into tears and said, full of rage, that the President shouldn't come here, he should finally see to it that help comes. All of the people, his whole entourage, these cars, they should be loaded up with supplies and not with bodyguards, and he shouldn't play the good samaritan here, and a staged visit like this doesn't help. And it actually was the case that all of a sudden this morning helper personnel showed up here, people who cleared away the rubble, who went through the houses in search of bodies, but exclusively along the route where the President traveled. Two hours ago the President left Biloxi again, and all of the helper personnel along with him.

Anchor: We know that President Bush promised quick help. Can that be felt where you are? For example, is there clean water and food?

CR: There's nothing here at all. Aside from what was cleared aside by the helper personnel this morning, the rubble is lying all over the street exactly as it was several days ago after the storm. There are no reasonable provisions; there's an emergency medical station and otherwise nothing. There is a stench of decomposition across the entire city. There are bodies that haven't been covered up in the buildings. Everything has been reduced to rubble, and help--from what we can see here and what others from other cities have also said--isn't coming.

Anchor: Thank you in Biloxi, Claudia Rüggeberg.

(Translation by Idealistic Pragmatist, based on her transcript of the ZDF video.)
Looking at the transcripts, it seems easy enough to figure out what happened. Laura Rozen's commenter, who appears to have been reconstructing from memory a news story he'd seen on TV, elided the New Orleans segment (which had Bush speaking at "one of the few" supply distribution points) and the Biloxi segment (which had cleaning crews working only along Bush's route, and disappearing afterward). Combined, these two segments became a story about supply distribution points disappearing after Bush's visit.

That story fit in well with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu's report that construction equipment had been brought in to the levee for Bush's visit, and then removed again. And it also fit in well with the lefty blogosphere's traditional distrust of the American media ("There was a striking discrepancy between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV"), and their perceptions that foreign reporters are more likely to get it right.

The fact that the story fits so well with our current frames for interpreting Katrina news may explain why, when War and Piece posted a translation the day after the original report, no one (including Laura Rozen) seemed to notice that the translation was substantially different from the original story. It's natural that rumours are flying everywhere right now. But we should be careful about what we do with unsourced news, especially when it confirms our biases. We here at Respectful of Otters and Idealistic Pragmatist are hardly Bush supporters, but we do think it's important to set the record straight. It's easy to lose the subtleties--or even the main point--of a news story that isn't in your native language. But we need to be careful not to undercut the points we're trying to make with even unintentional amplification. The news coming out of the U.S. Gulf Coast, including the biting commentary by ZDF news, is damning enough as it stands.


AWR said...

Take it from a professional translator with almost 20 years of experience, this is what you get when a wannabe dabbles in translation (and that includes many journalists out there who claim some knowledge of another language). Translation requires at least 4 years of academic training and lots and lots of experience (not to mention talent!).

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I'm not a professional translator (as you can probably tell yourself by the stiltedness of my translation; sorry about that), but I've done enough of it that I know how difficult it is, and I have nothing but respect for the people who do it for a living. The problem here wasn't in the translation, though--as we mentioned, the translation that was posted the next day was actually pretty accurate. The real problem was in the original slightly-askew recall of the first commenter, and more importantly, the way everybody jumped on the bandwagon and took his summary as gospel.

The Heretik said...

Funny how bandwagons work. We did see something like that in the run up to the war in Iraq. Your point on one's original frame of reference is well taken. Plenty of other examples of the president in some POTEMKIN COUNTRY abound.

This is to make no apology for citing the Rozen piece. I am one of what are probably more than a hundred people who have cited that one bit. That was one of many cites in the body of what I wrote.

If one returns to the concept of the frame, consider now what kind of painting sits on the wall in our political house. Some see stories and discount the whole for one failing detail. "Reality" should be so harsh a judge. Others see details and come to impressionistic, unfocused judgments awash with prior feeling.

Somewhere in here is a truth, which the mind, the heart and the soul of the viewer must discern. And so we end always with story. Story flawed, and story true. The stories we tell tell more about us than we know.

Where is truth in this? I will leave it to better minds than mind. Thanks for setting the record straight, Idealistic Pragmatist

Thomas Nephew said...

I've posted about this story as well; I think Tiggelaar may have seen a 2d ZDF clip that strongly _implied_ a food distribution center Bush visited was phony ("hastily built," clients "surprisingly calm") but didn't say that the center was torn down.