Sea of oil / Meer von Öl

Calpundit, on June 4, had an entry on the Paul Wolfowitz quote the Guardian got wrong. The entry is headed Translation Woes. I know that Wolfowitz was saying ‘we had to fight Saddam because there is so much oil in Iraq that he can keep his régime going for ever, whereas in North Korea we expect the economy to break down sooner or later’.

But what is new to me is this story that the German paper Die Welt had a translation of Wolfowitz which misled The Guardian. The entry – and above all the comments – discuss whether there was a translation mistake by Die Welt or by The Guardian. The original, German and Guardian quotes are given.Here is the original quote:

bq. Look, the primarily difference — to put it a little too simply — between North Korea and Iraq is that we had virtually no economic options with Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil. In the case of North Korea, the country is teetering on the edge of economic collapse and that I believe is a major point of leverage whereas the military picture with North Korea is very different from that with Iraq.

It seems to me that Die Welt did miss out ‘too simply’, but when it wrote ‘schwimmt auf einem Meer von Öl’ it was a correct translation. The Guardian (which apparently had the correct quote four days earlier – I haven’t checked) writes ‘swims’, which is probably a Germanism.

I really can’t see that it was the translation that caused the misunderstanding, though. The Guardian writer who quoted Wolfowitz stopped reading too soon, or didn’t think about the meaning of the words. Calpundit:

bq. Are there any fluent German speakers out there who can read the Die Welt article and compare it to the DoD transcript? If so, leave your remarks on the accuracy of the translation in comments.
UPDATE: Via comments, it looks like it was Die Welt that did the bad translation. The Guardian’s main fault was accepting the quote without re-verifying it.

The comments on the translation are interesting. But the back-translation of Die Welt is even more wrong than Die Welt itself! Another person says the German translation ‘skewers Wolfie’, and quite likely deliberately. A third says you need professional translators.

It is possible that Die Welt left out the final sentence about leverage. The discussion reminds me of the widespread belief (not shared by me) that Kennedy went to Berlin and said he was a jam doughnut. It has the feel of the beginning of an urban legend (‘German press deliberately distorts American’s words’).

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