Whose news is it anyway?

There is no way back to an untranslated world: in our globalised era, we want to know what is happening elsewhere and we want to hear it from real people.

A panel debate last night in London discussed the fact that, from news gathering to the final piece presented to any audience, without translation there would be no world news - whether the task is carried out by professional translators, bilingual journalists, bridge bloggers or social media users well versed in their language and in English.

From the outset, reporting international news looks a straightforward matter: all different news services in various languages around the world are communicating the same information – based on the same facts – but often translated, contextualised and calibrated in each case for the sensibilities of local cultures.

It is, however, a huge challenge to go beyond merely reporting or translating news events in a seemingly impartial way. Responsible reporting implies the use of conscious and deliberate language. Does a haphazard approach not only make the translator invisible, but also do a disservice to readers in a globalized world?

Unravelling these linguistic challenges in just a couple of hours was the challenge set by Free Word Centre on hosting the panel ‘Whose News is it Anyway?’ yesterday evening. Chaired by Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN, the debate between journalist Liliane Landor, Controller of Languages at the BBC World Service, and linguist Biljana Scott, expert in diplomatic language based at Oxford University, gave the audience a sense of the importance of word choice and the role of translation in global news. The event was convened as part of the Free Word Centre’s Translators in Residence programme.

From newsgathering to the final piece presented to any given audience, without translation there would be no world news. This is true regardless of whether the tough task is carried out by professional translators, bilingual journalists, bridge bloggers or social media users well versed in their language and in English. Jo Glanville started off the debate by calling the attention to the invisibility of translators – whether this is their job title or not – who make international news possible. She quoted David Bellos’s view that “there is a collective unwillingness to track the language of the stories we are told by the media.”

Even within the English language there are expressions that require a degree of translation from readers, before they become too popular to have their connotations questioned. ‘War on terror’, ‘roadmap to peace’, ‘peace process’, not to mention the cliché ‘terrorist’, are examples of expressions that are charged, carrying invisible stories and peculiar meanings. In other instances, new terms emerge and become loaded with new meaning as a result of media developments and coverage of them. “What is a rebel?” asks Scott, explaining that the term used to mean someone who is involved in a rebellion, ultimately “doomed to fail”, but has now completely changed its definition in the light of the Arab Spring. “It now means people who have a justified cause and are going to succeed. The connotations have changed.”

Who coins these terms, and what are the intentions behind them? The possibility of tracking how these buzz terms emerge or starts through the media “is a difficult one”, says Landor. ‘Shock and Awe’ was an example that sprung to her mind. “I don’t know who coined it... but apparently within 24 hours the expression was mentioned around 700 times in different dispatches and news stories... and try translating ‘Shock and Awe’!” First recorded in February 2009, ‘Shock and Awe’ was the name of the battle plan based on a concept developed by Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade in 1996 at the National Defense University of the United States. Just a brilliant media spin?

Even when expressions sound like reasonably good metaphors for English speakers, they become a problem when seen through the realm of translation. Often these expressions mean nothing in other languages – including those spoken in countries they refer to – and it is not rare that they will lack suitable translations that would encompass the nuances of new and old word usages. “When you translate a metaphor you translate a whole worldview,” says Biljana Scott.

This is one of the reasons why just translating or conveying in other languages news written for an anglophone audience doesn’t work. During the past decade, the BBC World Service moved away from having one English newsroom with teams of translators, under the supervision of language editors, in favour of a system of 27 newsroom teams. These are staffed by bilingual journalists, filing reports in both English and their native tongues.

At the BBC, this multilingual force mediates, contextualises, interprets and re-writes the news to suit the audiences they know best. In order to suit the needs of everyone, sometimes reporters will provide three different versions of the same news piece: one for a very local audience with more knowledge of contextual background, a second for a more global audience fluent in the language spoken in the region, like Arabic, and then a third for an English speaking, global audience.

These versions may have different narratives, and represent the focus and values of the target audiences, but whereas there is indeed a sensitivity to language, the same is not necessarily true for cultures, explains Liliane Landor, who does not believe that there is country-specific ‘sensitivity’ in BBC coverage. “Take gay marriage for example. We are not going to do that piece of news ‘sensitively’ to the Arabic world. We do it as you do a piece of news as a journalist [...] as a citizen of the world.” Landor is responsible for all the 27 languages covered by the BBC World Service across radio, television and online.

It is when correspondents do not understand the language of the places they are covering, or when people on the ground cannot access the process of newsgathering because they do not speak English, that the procedures behind the making of international news become even more interesting. It is then that locals who can speak good English take the role of mediators between events and newsrooms worldwide. These ‘fixers’ are often translators too, barely acknowledged for the huge contributions of cultural and linguistic transfer that they make.

Having no visibility or status, local fixers act as interpreters and support ‘global’ reporters for all mainstream media outlets, acting in all stages of news development. They will interpret, translate, network, get contacts, contextualise the unfolding story and “sometimes practically write that story for you,” explained Landor. The dispatches they “help to write” will then be wired by the correspondent, and once in the newsrooms or news agency, the news is re-written in other languages, perhaps, ironically, even the original language spoken on the ground.

Digital and social media apparatuses used by bilingual citizens on the ground are fast becoming, however, one of the best tools for international newsgathering, even for the World Service. Curating these online voices to produce impartial reports – and then translating them in some 30 languages – is precisely what Global Voices Online, the project I work for, does on a daily basis. Relying on the work of multilingual volunteers and part-time editors living on the ground worldwide to report what they see and hear through digital media since 2005, Global Voices recognised early on how much the journalism industry would come to rely on social media.

There is no way back to an untranslated world, though: in our globalised era, we want to know what is happening elsewhere and we want to hear it from real people, so there is no use following the examples of the Ancient Greeks – who ignored anything that was not expressed in Greek, – or the Romans, who once managed to force every citizen in the world to speak Latin. Readers have become more discerning, more demanding, and are aware of the value-charged word choices that translation invites. In a world where translation can take place and its results can be disseminated faster than ever, mainstream media should translate with care. 

About the author

Paula Góes is a Brazilian journalist and translator based in London since 2002. She is an editor at Global Voices Online, an international community of citizens who report on blogs and social media from around the world, coordinating its Lingua project, which makes the Global Voices articles available in 30 languages.