The weight of words in an age of terror


Translators to explore perils of translating politically loaded language in time of conflict

Traduttore, traditore: For professional translators, this Italian expression meaning "translator, traitor" is a motto, a caution and an apt reminder that translation can be a terribly sensitive job. In an age when political and strategic decisions of enormous consequence are often made based on texts translated from languages relatively new to Western security and intelligence experts, the role of words themselves and the people who translate them has taken on whole new proportions.

On December 6, the McGill University Translation Studies program will host the international conference Language and Security: Translating in an Age of Terror, as part of an ongoing collaboration between McGill and the French military college Centre de recherche des Écoles de Coëtquidan Saint-Cyr on translation of language and security.

"Recent translations of texts by Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda operatives were done by translators who did not necessarily have a grasp of the cultural nuances of the terms used in these writings,"explains James Archibald, director of McGill's department of translation studies. "Certain translations sometimes reproduce — with no explanation — concepts with sociopolitical connotations and value systems that are difficult to translate and too often incomprehensible to readers."

Dr. Archibald cites Arabic words such as sharia, jihad and fatwah as being widely misunderstood and misused in official documents. "These borrowed words compromise not only the wording of texts in the target language but also have serious repercussions on the strategic decision-making that follows," he added.

The conference will be held on Wednesday, December 6, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 688 Sherbrooke Street West, in room 1041.

Contact Information

Céline Poissant
McGill University Relations Office
celine.poissant [at]
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