The Columbia Journalism Review has a maddeningly sloppy and incomplete, but also interesting and informative article about how the Maliki remarks came to be translated so differently by the New York Times and Der Spiegel. It turns out that, not only did Der Spiegel rewrite the critical passage without telling anyone, it also rewrote the whole interview, while pretending that it was a verbatim exchange.
The piece quotes Der Spiegel‘s second version of the remarks (the author of the piece seems blissfully unaware of the first version) and then the New York Times translation, and notes the differences:
How come that version is so different from Der Spiegel’s version?
“His original words were unprintable. It would have been embarrassing to him. So we edited it,” says Müller von Blumencron. “There are very few people you can do a Q&A with without editing for grammar. And you always have to make it shorter.”
Quite true. As any journalist could tell you, if a printed interview transcript reads like a punchy exchange, with each sentence a complete thought and each paragraph well formed, odds are someone has done a lot of tweaking to help the direct transcription along. But extreme care must be taken not to distort the speaker’s original meaning.
The editor’s hand gives any claim of misrepresentation a little credence—especially if there’s translation involved too.
“Quite true,” the author nonchalantly responds to the claim of the Der Spiegel editor that, of course, you always have to change the content of an exchange you represent to be verbatim remarks. You have to make it shorter!
So, for example, if a guy says something about the need for national security improvements, you take it out! Voilà! Shorter!
The CJR article is very congratulatory of the New York Times for seeking out the original version, and makes a big point of noting that Maliki was provided the transcript and had a chance to object to any inaccuracies:
There’s something else that journalists calling Der Spiegel would have learned. “We have a policy at Der Spiegel when we do a question and answer session to provide a transcript to our counterparts in case they want to have a minor thing changed,” says Müller von Blumencron, who says Zand verified that Maliki’s aides received the publication-ready advance copy. They had no response, and presumably no complaints, before its release.
Why would they? The original version they reviewed is presumably the same version that Der Spiegel originally published, before rewriting the passage without telling anyone. (Again, the CJR author appears to have no idea that this happened.)
But of course we have been told that the New York Times was “provided” a copy of the remarks. Turns out that’s not true either. They apparently weren’t given a copy; they were just allowed to listen:
According to Müller von Blumencron, Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise and her translator met with Zand in Baghdad, where he played them the relevant quote.
The article does not say how many times the reporter and her translator were allowed to listen to the passage. It may have been only once.
In a remarkable display of arrogance, Der Spiegel will not release the tape. But they say they’ll play it for anyone who asks:
Der Spiegel has no plans to release the tape (“We don’t see a need to improve upon our credibility by, say, putting the audio on the web.”) but is happy to play it—in person, over the phone—for any journalist interested in verifying.
“Anyone who wants to hear it can hear it,” says Müller von Blumencron. “But no one else has asked.”
I’m asking. My quick perusal of the Der Spiegel site didn’t reveal contact information, but I’m juggling a million things nowadays and didn’t have time to look closely. If anyone knows how I can contact this editor, tell me.
Meanwhile, I love that quote: “We don’t see a need to improve upon our credibility by, say, putting the audio on the web.” Well, friend, I do. Your credibility is pretty much shot in my eyes, with your admission that you’re rewriting allegedly verbatim interviews to make them shorter and save “embarrassment” to the subject of the interview — and then rewriting the rewrite, in a critical area, without telling anyone (apparently thus fooling the Columbia Journalism Review, among others). Yeah, I think your credibility could use a little shot in the arm, and releasing the audio might be one way to do it.
P.S. This is a media criticism post, not a “Maliki doesn’t really agree with Obama” post. I’m not arguing that Maliki doesn’t really agree with Obama. I say that for the benefit of idiot lefties who will claim otherwise if I don’t explicitly say so (some still will, even though I have said otherwise).
I think conservatives have to come to grips with the fact that, differing translations aside, Maliki has clearly indicated some level of comfort with something closely resembling the Obama plan. The exact level of agreement has been muddied by the irresponsible secret rewrites of this interview by Der Spiegel, but all translations (and subsequent events) point to Maliki generally being on board with something like Obama’s plan — and if conservatives aren’t facing up to that, and are using the translations as an excuse, they should stop.
Of course, we’d never be in this position had we followed Obama’s advice on the surge, but that’s another story.
Thanks to reader im bowie, who seems to think the CJR article somehow shows me “off the mark” on this story. If I was “off the mark,” it was in failing to suspect just how sneaky Der Spiegel had actually been.