On and off in history there have been concerns about whether or not interpreters faithfully reproduce in the target language what the speaker said in the source language. Verdicts in court cases have hung on such questions, and rumors of interpreters deliberately manipulating or massaging meaning persist, despite high ethical standards and practical safeguards.
In important negotiations, each side usually brings its own interpreters, who monitor the work of the other side’s interpreters in addition to doing interpretation themselves. Interpreters often work in tandem, especially when the stakes are high, so as to prevent errors and omissions, as well as intentional misdirection. Also, proceedings are recorded, and often reviewed by third parties later for accuracy.
Nonetheless, rumors of misbehavior persist, especially after a United Nations interpreter famously launched an F-bomb at a speaker. The speaker having finished his remarks, the interpreter finished the interpretation, then, with his microphone still on and his finger off the cough button, expressed vigorously and vulgarly what thought of the speech.
One famous rumor: Decades ago a Swiss interpreter was challenged by the diplomat he was working with to explain why an irate accusation was received so calmly and warmly by his counterpart. When the diplomat asked: “What exactly did you say?” the interpreter supposedly told the diplomat: “What you should have said.”
More recently, at a conference in Europe, an interpreter handled a wordplay-based humorous story from the speaker by telling the audience to laugh because the speaker had just told a funny tale, rather than try to reproduce the humor in another language.
Most infamous, however, is the story of Lieutenant Colonel Ryoichi Naito, an English speaker in the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II who served as an interpreter for the investigation of Unit 731, the Japan’s biological warfare group during that war. On August 28, 1945, Lieutenant Colonel Murray Sanders, an American microbiologist attached to Fort Detrick (then called Camp Detrick), arrived in Japan to begin the investigation, which focused more on Japanese capabilities than war crimes, and eventually led to the “Report on Scientific Intelligence Survey in Japan September and October 1945.” However, Naito, a protégé of the head of Unit 731, gained considerable influence over Sanders, and managed to mislead him into believing that human experiments had not been conducted by the Japanese Imperial Military, thus saving himself and others in Unit 731 from prosecution as war criminals and burying a very ugly part of Japanese history.
The moral of the story is: trust but verify. In other words, as Mohammed said in the Hadith: “Trust in Allah, but always tie up your camel.”
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