Lead New York Times terrorism correspondent Rukmini Callimachi uses Google Translate to convert Arabic into English despite acknowledging the service is unreliable, raising questions regarding American media’s capacity for accurately covering international terrorism. While the Islamic State is retreating in Iraq, Islamic terrorists have struck in Jordan, Germany and Turkey over the course of just the past few days. And Al Qaeda offshoot Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly Jabhat Al Nusra, has gained support throughout the Muslim world for its resistance to the Assad regime and its allies in Syria.
Yesterday, Callimachi tweeted, “Speak of the devil, ISIS appears to have just claimed the Berlin attack. Here’s the post from their Nashir channel and a Google Translate.” She included a screenshot of the Google Translate result:
Despite recent reports alleging that Google Translate has radically improved, the service remains ineffective at translating Arabic. Arabic is a complex language with a highly technical grammatical system and often unwritten short vowels. It also exhibits what’s known in linguistics as diglossia, whereby the spoken dialects differ greatly from the language commonly used in formal situations.
Hence Callimachi’s Google translation fell far short of the mark. It says, “Urgent security source told the depths: run over port operation in the city of Berlin German is a soldier of the Islamic state …”
That’s not even close. Here’s a better translation of the original statement:
“Security Source to A’Maq Agency: The man who executed the run-over operation in the German city of Berlin is a soldier for the Islamic State and executed the operation in response to calls to target nationals of international coalition states.”
Google mistranslates “the man who executed” as “port,” fails to identify A’maq as a proper noun referring to a news outlet, and inexplicably omits the word “agency,” among other problems. These deficiencies did not stop Callimachi, however, from relying on Google’s work and drawing conclusions from the mistranslation. Fortunately, this time her analysis seems to have avoided relying on any of Google’s multiple errors.
Callimachi regularly relies on Google Translate in her analysis of the Islamic State. On July 26 of this year, she tweeted the following:
Google’s translation makes similar errors as the prior tweet in addition to completely overlooking the fact that the original text refers specifically to two executors of the attack. (Arabic verbs undergo a special conjugation when the subject is a duo).
Callimachi is well aware of the problems associated with Google Translate. She criticized another Twitter user for his or her inability to speak English and told them “Google Translate makes you sound illiterate.” In 2014 she tweeted about how an Al Qaeda social media campaign “stumbled” due to its reliance on Google Translate. And she blocked another Twitter user for saying, “don’t cover ISIS if you use Google translate for Arabic.”
Speaking Arabic may not be a requirement for effective reporting on terrorism in the Middle East, though it certainly helps. Islamic terrorists are active in countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Turkey, where the predominant language is not Arabic. That said, effective reporting certainly requires accurate translation. Callimachi need not understand Arabic herself, but she does need regular and rapid access to a human translator who does. Google Translate does not cut it. Rranslation services are available, but either Callimachi or her boss at the New York Times have decided that they’re not worth the fee in these situations.
Callimachi joined the New York Times in 2014. Previously she worked for the Associated Press as the West Africa Bureau chief based in Dakar, Senegal, where she admits covering terrorism “casually and without much interest.” She is an accomplished journalist who reached the finals for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and won “the Distinguished Writing Award for Nondeadline Writing from the American Society of News Editors” in 2013. With her transition to the New York Times, Callimachi moved to the United States and shifted her attention from West Africa to international terrorism.
When Callimachi joined the Times, the group currently named the Islamic State had recently conquered the Iraqi city of Fallujah following a protracted protest against the Shia-dominated Nouri Al Maliki regime. Fallujah is located fewer than 40 miles from Iraq’s city, Baghdad. As President Barack Obama attempted to downplay the threat, comparing it to a junior varsity basketball team, the group was kicked out of Al Qaeda and began gaining ground in both Iraq and Syria. Obama wanted to be the President who defeated Al Qaeda and ended the Iraq war, not the one who let Al Qaeda’s power reach unprecedented heights and sent ground troops back to Iraq.
And so Callimachi’s reporting began to focus more and more on what the New York Times and others referred to as ISIS (technically inaccurate since the final Arabic word refers to the larger region, “the Levant,” not the nation state of Syria). Hence the Times’ top terrorism correspondent has only been focusing on the topic for two to three years. And while she has indeed produced some high-quality reporting on the topic, her consistent use of Google Translate is a major red flag.
Nor is Callimachi an exception. She instead exemplifies the bluster and blunders of mainstream American journalism. Our press corps simultaneously rails against “fake news” and spreads inaccurate narratives about the most important issues of our time. The implications go deeper than tweets and news articles.
As President Barack Obama’s former “foreign policy guru,” Ben Rhodes, told the New York Times,
“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus. Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
Rhodes exploited the press’ ignorance to spread what the Times described as “actively misleading” propaganda, in support of the Iran Deal. We can be sure foreign actors are engaged in the same type of media manipulation towards more malicious ends. As Donald Trump prepares to enter the White House, Russia intervenes in U.S. politics, and the Islamic State continues to plot attacks on Western targets, our country deserves a press corps that takes the time to check officials’ claims and accurately translate statements. This does not, however, appear to be the press corps we currently have.