Douglas Adams’ “Babel fish” creation in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy allowed different races across galaxies to understand foreign languages by inserting a fish in their ear. An unfortunate side effect was that “by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, [the Babel fish] caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”
When President Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea at the United Nations this week the poor translator was like a Babel fish, communicating with honesty and accuracy what the President said, where the situation perhaps demanded something more diplomatic. Trump’s words in English were: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself and its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea”. In English, and especially given Trump’s tendency to use over the top phrasing, “totally destroy” could mean removing North Korea’s leadership or crippling its economy with sanctions. The Chinese translator chose a translation more akin to “eliminate”, which made Trump’s inflammatory words sound even worse.
The UN’s official interpreter rendered the phrase as 完全消灭 (pronounced wanquan xiaomie). Wanquan means “completely” or “totally,” and xiaomie, means “annihilate.” The second character of the word xiaomie, 灭 (mie) is used also in such terms as “extinguish,” “wipe out” and “eradicate”.
By translating Trump’s words into an extreme term in Mandarin, the UN translator made them sound even worse in Chinese than in English – having said that, the phrase “totally destroy” is hardly diplomatic, and drew gasps from his audience. Later TV reports in China used 摧毁 (cuihui), meaning like “ruin” or “destroy.” The UN translator’s more extreme translation is not wrong; it’s just a question of interpretation. And President Trump has form with previous remarks about North Korea including threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. At least with human translations you get a second chance, whereas a Babel fish would feed everyone the harsh translation with possibly dire consequences.
“May you live in interesting times” says an ancient Chinese curse. It’s certainly an interesting time to be a UN interpreter. Perhaps we should stop translating Trump live, and translate him only after pausing and thinking… if you need thoughtful translations that will not make your audience gasp in dismay, you know where to come! firstname.lastname@example.org