The Marketing of Yoani Sánchez: Translation as invention

Machetera and Manuel Talens - español

“There are no accidents.” – Sigmund Freud

As one might have expected, Bloomberg and Reuters dutifully shaded their reports on the recent visit to Cuba of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff with mentions of the Yoani Sánchez Twitter campaign to pressure Rousseff to intercede on Sánchez’s behalf and persuade the Cuban government to grant her an exit visa to attend a propaganda event in Brazil.

That’s not so surprising.  Sánchez is an egomaniac, for sure, insisting that anyone should care in the first place, when her compatriots Olga Salanueva and Adriana Pérez O’Connor have been denied entry visas by the United States for more than a decade to visit their husbands (Rene González Sehwerert and Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, two of the Cuban Five) unjustly imprisoned in the U.S.  - but if all she has to do is tweet and the press come running, judging the tweet as equal in value to Rousseff’s criticisms of the U.S. gulag at Guantánamo, well, that’s not really her fault – it’s just part of a marketing plan that counts on press complicity.

The interesting thing about this particular tweet however, was the way that the English language press went above and beyond simple translation and repetition, entering the realm of treacherous pure invention.  It’s hard to tell where the invention originated though, since both Bloomberg and Reuters used the same “mistranslation” – nearly word for word.

 Matthew Bristow and Cris Valerio, reporting for Bloomberg, wrote it this way:

The 36-year-old Sanchez, a critic of Castro’s government on a blog called Generation Y, referred to Rousseff’s persecution by Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship in her appeal for a visa to attend a screening in Salvador of a documentary she appears in. Sanchez has been blocked from traveling abroad for the past four years.

“I saw a photo of young Dilma, sitting on a bench blindfolded as men accused her,” Sanchez wrote Jan. 24 on Twitter. “I feel that way right now.”

Jeff Franks, for Reuters, wrote:

Last week, Sanchez wrote on Twitter that she had seen a photograph of “young Dilma, sitting on a bench blindfolded as men accused her. I feel that way now.”

A compelling image, for sure.  A young blindfolded woman, harassed by barking men.  Compelling, except for the fact that such a photo doesn’t actually exist.

The exact words from Sánchez’s tweet were:

#cuba Vi foto de @Dilmabr joven sentada en banquillo de los acusados y juzgada por hombres con la cara tapada. Yo me siento asi mismo ahora

An accurate translation might have been:

“I saw a photo of the young Dilma seated in the dock for the accused and being judged by men who were covering their faces.  That’s how I feel right now.”

Specifically, the mistranslation repeated by Bloomberg and Reuters interpreted the Spanish verb tapar, which means to cover, as vendar, which means to blindfold.  It’s hardly an innocent error given the circumstances of a military trial.  But the altered meaning is even worse in English, given that it’s not the accusing judges who are described as “covering their faces,” but Dilma Rousseff who is portrayed as “blindfolded.”

Not to mention Sánchez’s weak grammar in the original Spanish which begs for correction.  Even the Spanish language press couldn’t resist retouching the tweet.  Here’s how Argentina’s La Nacion fixed it:

“Vi la foto de Dilma sentada en el banco de los acusados y siendo juzgada por hombres que se tapan la cara. Yo me siento así ahora”

(Still well under 140 characters in case anyone thinks the original bad grammar was due to Twitter restrictions.)

And here is the photo.  No blindfolded Dilma.  Two men in military uniforms shielding their faces from the camera with their hands.

Thanks to Wikileaks, we’ve known for some time that Sánchez’s “interview” with Barack Obama was actually produced by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, not by Sánchez.  How is it that a Cuban blogger can count on such teamwork – a superpower’s diplomatic staff at her disposal and a press that edits and refines her tweets?

So who really dug into the archives for the Rousseff photo and prompted the conflation of Cuba’s immigration office and Brazil’s military dictatorship, through a translation designed to sharpen that conflation and render Sánchez’s plight even more poignant and tragic?  Marketing has always recognized the ancient law of contiguity as an essential concept: as human beings we have the tendency to associate ideas or images with the ideas or images that immediately precede them, and therefore the martyrdom evoked by the characterization of a blindfolded Dilma Rousseff harassed by vociferous Brazilian military men is not accidental, but a deliberate selection to create the effect for the reader that Yoani Sánchez is the new martyr for our time.  Keep in mind that most readers will accept at face value the translation proffered by the media and will not bother to look up the photo.

Who’s behind it all?  Bets, anyone?

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3 responses to “The Marketing of Yoani Sánchez: Translation as invention

  1. Yoani is a egomaniac. She couldn’t make living in Switzerland and come back to Cuba, where life is easier for her. She expects government to provide for her. Swiss government wasn’t good enough for her so she come back to Cuba.

  2. there is a long history of invented martyrs such as yoani…does anyone remember armando valladares? he was the “paralyzed poet” who claimed to be a political prisoner. after an international campaign for his release he was freed, and upon arriving in france, he regained his ability to walk. this is interesting since the book of poems that was published under his name was titled, “from my wheelchair”. the joke in cuba was that before arriving in paris, the plane made a stopover in lourdes…

  3. It is always difficult to know where Yoani’s inventions originate. There are hundreds of translations of her simple musing into English, but not a one of them are signed. The assumption is they come out of the USIS in Havana or from the NSA in Maryland or from the CIA linguist. “It’s hard to tell where the invention originated though, since both Bloomberg and Reuters used the same “mistranslation” – nearly word for word.” In Yoani’s book of blogs, she leaves out the questions and answers she supposedly sent to Obama through friends because she knows they show the questions and answers were written in the USIS in Cuba. You are trying to get real information out about the fraud Yoani, and you are doing a good job.

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