Last Monday, Der Spiegel editor Mathias Müller von Blumencron joined Bernhard Zand, the magazine’s Arabic-speaking middle east correspondent, in Baghdad. They’d scored a rare interview with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which they planned on conducting together.
That same day, The New York Times ran an op-ed by Barack Obama reiterating his support for a sixteen-month timetable for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq.
So on Tuesday, when the German journalists joined al-Maliki and a handful of aides for an interview pegged to the prime minister’s upcoming visit to their country, the op-ed was on people’s minds—even inside the locked-down Green Zone.
“It was very clear that [al-Maliki had] read it,” Müller von Blumencron told CJR. “It was kind of innocent how he came up with the sixteen-month thing. We didn’t ask him, he just brought it up.”
Innocent or not, the favorable mention of Obama’s plan drew their eye. ”We knew it could provoke some attention, but we had no idea how much attention,” says Müller von Blumencron.
It wasn’t until Saturday that Der Spiegel posted its interview with al-Maliki, which included this exchange:
SPIEGEL: Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq?
Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we’re concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.
And so were born the weekend’s headlines.
But things got complicated later on Saturday, when, after being contacted by American officials, Maliki spokesperson Ali al-Dabbagh (who was himself in the room for the Spiegel interview) issued a statement claiming that the prime minister’s statements to the magazine “have been misunderstood and mistranslated” without naming a specific mistranslation or misunderstanding.
And on Saturday and Sunday, while some news organizations, like CNN, reported the matter as a he-said-she-said, most outlets pointed out that the al-Dabbagh denial was remarkably vague and perfunctory. The discussion was haunted by the frustrating question of the statement’s accuracy; no one made a serious attempt to sort the truth out, to contact Der Spiegel to hear the tape for themselves, and to put the argument to rest.
Except the Times.
In a Monday story, the paper was first to report that the translator in the room had been Maliki’s, and giving its own self-described “direct” translation of the Obama quote.
“Obama’s remarks that — if he takes office — in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq… Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.”
How come that version is so different from Der Spiegel’s version?
“His original words were unprintable. It would have been embarrassing to him. So we edited it,” says Müller von Blumencron. “There are very few people you can do a Q&A with without editing for grammar. And you always have to make it shorter.”
Quite true. As any journalist could tell you, if a printed interview transcript reads like a punchy exchange, with each sentence a complete thought and each paragraph well formed, odds are someone has done a lot of tweaking to help the direct transcription along. But extreme care must be taken not to distort the speaker’s original meaning.
The editor’s hand gives any claim of misrepresentation a little credence—especially if there’s translation involved too. During the interview, Der Spiegel spoke in English, and after listening to each question repeated in Arabic, and hearing Maliki’s responses in Arabic, finally heard its answer in English via Maliki’s translator. Through it all, Zand would have been able to monitor each step of the translation for any slip-ups.