Lost in translation
By Ken Livingstone
Morning Star, 28 May 2005
Tories on the London Assembly have got themselves seriously hot under the collar about an interview I gave to the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera during the general election campaign.
They alleged, with plenty of huffing and puffing at this week’s Mayor’s Question Time, that I had said that “war has now started between the United States and the Muslims.” They based this assertion on a BBC translation into English from the Arabic translation of what I had originally said in English. I assured the Leader of the Tory group, Bob Neill, that I had said no such thing and that I had in fact warned against a new cold war against Islam.
Bob Neill refused to accept my assurances that the translation was wrong. He paid no attention in the Assembly meeting to my suggestion that he should watch the original interview. Instead he wound himself up into a right old lather, dismissing the notion that the BBC’s transcript from the Arabic back into English may not be accurate as “a fantasy.” Playing to the gallery, his flourishes suggested that I probably thought the BBC was part of a Zionist conspiracy!
He demanded to know how it helped good community relations in London to have the mayor tell Muslim Londoners that they are at war with Americans living in London – a highly patronising and offensive view of the intelligence of Muslims in London.
Unfortunately for Bob Neill and his Tory colleagues, a comparison with the original English shows that the BBC translation is, indeed, wrong on several points of detail, including the one he has devoted so much energy to over the last few days.
In fact I actually said the following: “There are those in the policy establishment in Washington around President Bush who believe there is a clash of civilisations between the West and between Islam and that this is inevitable and we must gear up for it, almost a new cold war – after 50 years of Russia versus America now it will be America versus Islam and I want to avoid this. I don’t believe there has to be a clash of civilisations, this world is big enough that all civilisations should be able to live side by side in mutual respect.”
If anything this incident underlines the point I have made before about the reliability of the translations of various Muslim scholars and religious leaders – that we have to be careful not to rely too heavily on just one interpretation or translation from Arabic into English and that we have to be very careful about what we say flowing from those translations.
The Leader of the Tory Group on the Assembly got on his high-horse without checking his facts properly. When I assured him he was wrong he dismissed my assurances as a fantasy.
The Tories on the Assembly play a dangerous game with community relations when they try to manufacture artificial arguments of this sort. They should stop trying to score cheap points and be prepared to accept that they were wrong.
Bob Neill should retract his assertion that it was a “fantasy” that the BBC transcript was inaccurate. He should apologise for making all sorts of wild comments about Muslim Londoners and Zionist conspiracies.
The effect of Bob Neill’s performance was to obscure the reality of what was said on Al-Jazeera rather than enlightening the Assembly and by extension therefore wider public. It will be difficult for the media or the public to take the Tories’ next campaign of this sort very seriously.
The question of the “Clash of Civilisations” is one of the central issues of our age. It deserves to be considered carefully.
I hope that in future the Tories on the Assembly will pay greater attention to the facts rather than relying on those things that simply confirm their political prejudices.