Peace and reconciliation - the perils of mistranslation

Peace and reconciliation – the perils of mistranslation

A mistranslation of an important point of Bill Clinton’s speech during the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide not only betrayed the actual intent of his words but may have inadvertently hindered the reconciliation process in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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By Marie Cleland

Last week Bill Clinton attended a memorial ceremony held to mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unbeknownst to him, an important point made in his speech was mistranslated. The error not only betrayed the actual intent of his words but may have inadvertently hindered the reconciliation process. How serious are these kinds of errors and do they have any lasting bearing upon attitudes or politics in the region?

Dejan Dilberović, from Sarajevo, who first brought attention to the mistranslation made this comment,

Wrong translation makes a world of difference. While former President Clinton was giving his speech, near the end he was finishing by saying ‘’Redeem’’ to both sides of the conflict (redeem your suffering). The official translator was instead translating, “ Remember” in Bosnian. This makes a world of difference. This translation was heard by the polititians and civilians. For them, to remember is to return to the painful past, whereas to redeem means to give a whole new course for the future.

’Redeem the sacrifices of those (the victim’s corpses) that have been found, and those who are going to be found. Redeem the bombs, and the promises for peace’’ – Clinton

Instead of “redeem”, the translator translated “remember”. She would have been a little confused and in the end she had to fill in her own translation, because how do you remember bombs and victims in the same sentence, so she paused at 9:59 to make up the sentence. Bless her heart, but the difference between these two words can mean the difference between war and peace, future and past.

Dejan further explained that it is likely that the translator didn’t understand the context in which Clinton was using the word “redeem”, since the former president was perhaps speaking spontaneously at that moment rather than from his prepared text. For such events, surely the best translators are required as they are, for instance, at the Hague Tribunal?

It was remarkable, and especially so since Clinton’s words are heeded, he being the main political VIP there, and because of USA involvement in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In further consideration, the translation is completely wrong. To remember what? We already know it all. To remember means to think about it until revenge rises. It was an altogether horrible translation for such an event. To redeem is to bless the world with ‘never again’, to have lasting peace, healing, a future and hope. To meditate in her sense, is the call for a continuance of the cycle of violence, until the next best opportunity. Clinton said “redeem the bombs that were dropped” (this refers to the international intervention of bombing by the USA-led NATO on Serb positions), but to remember, that would serve only to give a whole new perspective of pain.

After first visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2000 and 2001, Marie Cleland lived with her husband and family for three years in the mountainous Visočica region of Bjelimići and in Sarajevo. Marie is based in New Zealand and having completed a BA in History, now works in mental health and continues to visit Bosnia whenever possible. Marie assists in editorial work for Sarajevo Times which helps keep her abreast of current events in the region.


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