“A Muslim man alleges he’s become a terror suspect simply because of a workplace quip — he says all he did was (text) his sales staff to "blow away" the competition at a (New York City) trade show,” reports the Canadian Press.
After Saad Allami sent that text from Canada one year ago, he was arrested, though later released. Now, citing that the language was obviously figurative, he is suing authorities in Quebec for damages.
Plenty of arguments are being made both for and against the zero-tolerance policies being practiced by some international security agencies. Regardless of where one stands in those debates, international travelers must be aware that heightened security measures increase the probability idioms, slang expressions and even bad jokes alluding to violence may be misunderstood in the worst possible way.
After tweeting that they were going to “destroy America,” British tourists Leigh Van Bryan and Emily Banting were arrested last month in Los Angeles, then deported and barred from re-entering the United States. Unfortunately, the furor resulted from misunderstanding British slang.
“They asked why we wanted to destroy America, and we tried to explain it meant to get trashed and party,” Banting told the Daily Mail.
This is not the first time a lack of complete context and excessive concern about aggression have caused a misunderstanding of this sort. In 1956, when Cold War tensions were high, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made an off-hand comment about the United States that was translated as, “we will bury you.”
The reported quote fueled existing U.S. sentiment that communists were eager to invade America and kill its citizens. However, when Brigham Young University linguistics professor Alan Melby researched the comment more completely, he uncovered some crucial context.
“In Soviet Communist rhetoric, it is common to claim that history is on the side of Communism, referring back to Marx who argued that Communism was historically inevitable,” writes Melby. “Khrushchev then added that Communism does not need to go to war to destroy Capitalism. Continuing with the thought that Communism is a superior system and that Capitalism will self-destruct, he said, rather than what was reported by the press, something along the lines of ‘Whether you like it or not, we will be present at your burial,’ clearly meaning that he was predicting that Communism would outlast Capitalism.”
Similarly, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been quoted as saying, “Israel must be wiped off the map,” an English idiom suggesting the total destruction of Israel and its people. However, various translators and linguists have insisted that is a mistranslation and the essence of what Ahmadinejad said was more akin to calling for regime change. That is not to say Iran is no threat to Israel, only that Ahmadinejad probably did not threaten war when delivering the often-cited speech in question.
Knowing of these mishaps, should we disregard all threats that pass through multiple languages or cultures with the assumption that they are really outrageous misunderstandings? Doing so would create its own set of hazards.
Unfortunately, when it comes to national security, organizations like the U.S. National Security Agency must walk a treacherous tightrope. Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, the NSA was often accused of being too alarmist about every potential threat and of “crying wolf,” even when it came to threats from Osama bin Laden. The attacks made everyone take every threat a little more seriously. Intelligence agencies have the difficult burden of trying to discern which threats are serious and which are not.
Based on arrests in the last year, international businesspeople and tourists will be wise to note that violent figurative language can put global travel in jeopardy. Even when intentions are purely innocent, avoiding such easy-to-misunderstand slang and idioms can help avoid the miserable inconvenience of being barred from entering another country. Just as we should not make snide remarks about bombs while waiting in an airport security line or tweet — as U.K. resident Paul Chambers did — a “joke” about blowing an airport “sky high,” we will also avoid foreign travel delays by watching our language in other areas.
Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at Brigham Young University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten.