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7:16am Sun Dec 23, 2001 (Modified on 8:19pm Sun Dec 30, 2001)

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Osama bin Laden


Mistranslated Osama bin Laden Video - the German Press Investigates

by Craig Morris

A GERMAN TV show found that the White House's translation of the "confession" video was not only inaccurate, but even "manipulative".


ON December 20, 2001, German TV channel "Das Erste" broadcast its analysis of the White House's translation of the OBL video that George Bush has called a "confession of guilt". On the show Monitor, two independent translators and an expert on oriental studies found the White House's translation not only to be inaccurate, but "manipulative".

Arabist Dr. Abdel El M. Husseini, one of the translators, states,

"I have carefully examined the Pentagon's translation. This translation is very problematic. At the most important places where it is held to prove the guilt of Bin Laden, it is not identical with the Arabic."

Whereas the White House would have us believe that OBL admits that "We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy…", translator Dr. Murad Alami finds that:

"'In advance' is not said. The translation is wrong. At least when we look at the original Arabic, and there are no misunderstandings to allow us to read it into the original."

At another point, the White House translation reads: "We had notification since the previous Thursday that the event would take place that day." Dr. Murad Alami:

"'Previous' is never said. The subsequent statement that this event would take place on that day cannot be heard in the original Arabic version."

The White House's version also included the sentence "we asked each of them to go to America", but Alami says the original formulation is in the passive along the lines of "they were required to go". He also say that the sentence afterwards - "they didn't know anything about the operation" - cannot be understood.

Prof. Gernot Rotter, professor of Islamic and Arabic Studies at the Asia-Africa Institute at the University of Hamburg sums it up:

"The American translators who listened to the tapes and transcribed them apparently wrote a lot of things in that they wanted to hear but that cannot be heard on the tape no matter how many times you listen to it."

Meanwhile the US press has not picked up on this story at all, reporting instead that a new translation has revealed that OBL even mentions the names of some of those involved. But the item is all over the German press, from Germany's Channel One ("Das Erste" - the ones who broke the story, equivalent to NBC or the BBC) to ZDF (Channel Two) to Der Spiegel (the equivalent of Time or The Economist. More surprisingly, as I write the following site appears on Lycos in German: - but nothing under in English.

Instead, we read in The Washington Post of Friday, December 21, 2001 (the day after the German TV show was broadcast) that a new translation done in the US

"also indicates bin Laden had even more knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon than was apparent in the original Defense Department translation.... Although the expanded version does not change the substance of what was released, it provides added details and color to what has been disclosed."


TVI'll say. Aren't there any reporters in the US who speak German (or Arabic, for that matter)? An article in USA Today of December 20, 2001 sheds some light on why the original translation might not be accurate: "The first translation was rushed in 12 hours, in a room in the Pentagon".

So why didn't the new US translation find the same discrepancies as the German translators did? Read the article in USA Today against the grain:

"Michael, who is originally Lebanese, translated the tape with Kassem Wahba, an Egyptian. Both men had difficulties with the Saudi dialect bin Laden and his guest use in the tape, Michael said."

Why can a Saudi translator not be found in a multicultural country like the US, especially with the close business relations between the US and Saudi Arabia? [George] Bush Sr. probably knows any number of them himself.

Of course, if we ever hear about the German analysis in the US press, the reactions will be that some will never believe that OBL is behind the attacks no matter what you tell them. But actually, Americans are just as stubborn in refusing to face facts.

One moderator on Fox News complained to his interviewee that the European media were focusing too much on civilian casualties in Afghanistan. (I wondered which European languages this moderator could speak; a few weeks later, he happened to say on his show that he had had "three years of German". This, he claimed, would allow him to "do the show in German.")

His interviewee responded that, yes, the Taliban were very savvy manipulators of the media. So there we have it: Europeans get their information straight from the Taliban Ministry of Propaganda.

Craig Morris is a translator living in Europe. The original broadcast of the German show can be viewed in German at [this link].


Related items on this website:

 Article on German TV programme [in German]
  Issues and Opinions: The Alleged Video Tape: what America gains and loses from it
 Letter from Arabist Eric Mueller about these articles
 Articles in Saudi newspaper ash-Sharq al-Awsat
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