Western News Agencies Mistranslate Iran’s President Speech – It Is Not The First Time Such ‘Error’ Happens

26 June 2019 — Moon of Alabama

Yesterday the news agencies Associated Press and Reuters mistranslated a speech by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. They made it sound as if Rouhani insulted U.S. President Donald Trump as ‘mentally retarded’. Rouhani never said that.

The agencies previously made a similar ‘mistake’.

A 2005 speech by then President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was famously misquoted. Israel should be wiped off map, says Iran’s president headlined the Guardian at that time. Others used similar headlines. The New York Times wrote:

Iran’s conservative new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Wednesday that Israel must be “wiped off the map” and that attacks by Palestinians would destroy it, the ISNA press agency reported.

Referring to comments by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, Ahmadinejad said, “As the imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map.”

The statement was used by the G.W. Bush administration and others to whip up hostility against Iran:

Ever since he spoke at an anti-Zionism conference in Tehran last October, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has been known for one statement above all.

As translated by news agencies at the time, it was that Israel “should be wiped off the map.”

Iran’s nuclear program and sponsorship of militant Muslim groups are rarely mentioned without reference to the infamous map remark.

Here, for example, is R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, recently: “Given the radical nature of Iran under Ahmadinejad and its stated wish to wipe Israel off the map of the world, it is entirely unconvincing that we could or should live with a nuclear Iran.”

However Ahmedinejad never used those words:

“Ahmadinejad did not say he was going to wipe Israel off the map because no such idiom exists in Persian,” remarked Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan and critic of American policy who has argued that the Iranian president was misquoted. “He did say he hoped its regime, i.e., a Jewish-Zionist state occupying Jerusalem, would collapse.” Since Iran has not “attacked another country aggressively for over a century,” he said in an e-mail exchange, “I smell the whiff of war propaganda.”

Jonathan Steele, a columnist for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper in London, recently laid out the case this way: “The Iranian president was quoting an ancient statement by Iran’s first Islamist leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, that ‘this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time,’ just as the Shah’s regime in Iran had vanished. He was not making a military threat. He was calling for an end to the occupation of Jerusalem at some point in the future. The ‘page of time’ phrase suggests he did not expect it to happen soon.”

Despite the above and other explanations the false “wipe Israel off the map” translation never died. Years later it still reappeared in Guardian pieces which required it to issue multiplecorrections and clarifications.

Now, as the Trump administration is pushing for war on Iran, a similar mistranslation miraculously happened. It were again ‘western’ news agencies who lightened the fire:

The Associated Press @AP –

7:52 utc – 25 Jun 2019

BREAKING: Iran’s President Rouhani mocks President Trump, says the White House is “afflicted by mental retardation.”

Farsi speakers pointed out that the Rouhani never used the Farsi word for “retarded”:

Sina Toossi @SinaToossi –

13:49 utc – 25 Jun 2019

A lot of Western media is reporting that Iranian President Rouhani called Trump “mentally retarded.” This is inaccurate.

Regarding Trump, he just said “no wise person would take such an action [the new sanctions imposed].”

Reza H. Akbari @rezahakbari –

15:58 utc – 25 Jun 2019

Absolutely incorrect. There is a word for “retarded” in Persian & Rouhani didn’t use it. Prior to him saying “mental disability” he even prefaced his comment by saying “mental weakness.” Those who speak Persian can listen & judge for themselves. Here is a video clip of Rouhani’s comment: link

But the damage was already done:

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump –

14:42 utc – 25 Jun 2019

Iran leadership doesn’t understand the words “nice” or “compassion,” they never have. Sadly, the thing they do understand is Strength and Power, and the USA is by far the most powerful Military Force in the world, with 1.5 Trillion Dollars invested over the last two years alone..

….The wonderful Iranian people are suffering, and for no reason at all. Their leadership spends all of its money on Terror, and little on anything else. The U.S. has not forgotten Iran’s use of IED’s & EFP’s (bombs), which killed 2000 Americans, and wounded many more…

….Iran’s very ignorant and insulting statement, put out today, only shows that they do not understand reality. Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration. No more John Kerry & Obama!

Reuters, which also peddled the mistranslation, gleefully connected the dots:

WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump threatened on Tuesday to obliterate parts of Iran if it attacked “anything American,” in a new war of words with Iran which condemned fresh U.S. sanctions on Tehran as “mentally retarded.”

Today BBC Monitoring put out a Linguistic advisory to set the record straight:

Iran’s president did not call Trump ‘retarded’

In a televised speech on 25 June, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke of “mental incapability” and “mental disability”  in the White House.

Reuters and many other Western media outlets inaccurately rendered the terms Rouhani used in English as the highly offensive “mentally retarded”.

A word-for-word translation of Rouhani’s remark would be: “They have become stricken with mental incapability [Persian: natavani-ye zehni]. The White House has become stricken with mental disability [Persian: ma’luliyat-e zehni]. They don’t know what to do.”

The most precise Persian equivalent for “retarded” would probably be ‘aqab mande’, which captures the same notion of being slowed or delayed in development or progress.

However, the damage is done.

Even as Rouhani never called Trump or the White House ‘mentally retarded’, the claim that he did will live on for ages. It will be used to condemn him and Iran.

Thirty hours after it appeared, the ‘Breaking’ AP tweet quoted above is still up. It was retweeted more than 25,000 times. The Reuters report is still on its website. Hundreds of media outlets reproduced the false claim these agencies distribute.

It is hard to believe that such significant mistranslations of official ‘enemies’, left without a timely correction, happen accidentally.

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