Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Fun With Translation

From Secrecy News, a rather splendid example of the dangers of treating intelligence data as the literal truth. Perhaps someone needs to share this with Tony Blair, the Bush Administration, and the US Congress the next time they decide to go to war at on the say-so of the spooks:


Another linguistic challenge for intelligence agencies arises from the distortions that are introduced by translation and then exacerbated further by retranslation into a third language or even back into the original source language.

Thus, a recent story from the Beijing daily newspaper Keji Ribao,
translated into English by the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information
Service (FBIS), reports that "the latest generation of US military
surveillance satellites" includes systems named "Wine Jug" and
"Folding Chair."

But there are no such systems.

What happened here is that, as in a child's game of "telephone," the original content was altered in each translation and transmission until it became practically unrecognizable.

Allen Thomson, a former CIA analyst and specialist in national security space, was able to pierce the linguistic veil.

"Folding Chair," he explained, must be a reference to the satellite
program"Jumpseat," as it is known in the open literature. Likewise,
"Wine Jug" is a retranslation of the codename "Magnum."

It is clear from the context, though not to the FBIS translator, that allusions in the same article to the French surveillance spacecraft "Cherry" and "Zenong" actually refer to the CERISE and Xenon systems.

See the article 'Reconnaissance Satellites Can Peek Into Your Privacy' by Hou Jing, originally published in Keji Ribao, May 26, 2004, and published in translation by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service last week.

Of further interest, the article states that China has "successfully
launched 17 individual surveillance satellites."

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