Imagine that you are a politician or an expert commentator, and a Russian state-controlled TV channel calls you and asks for an interview.
You are aware that some Russian media outlets spread disinformation; nevertheless, you agree to the request, thinking that you simply need to formulate your answers very carefully.
When the interview is broadcast, you appear on the TV screen saying something quite different from what you said when the interview was recorded.
How did that happen?
The trick is simple: If you don’t speak Russian, and the interview needs to be dubbed, you lose control over your own comments and leave it to the discretion of the TV channel to decide how your words are rendered.
As reported by Stephen Ennis for BBC Monitoring, this kind of manipulative mistranslation was apparently used to change statements by two British pundits in March and in June this year. Both had agreed to be interviewed by the same current affairs programme, Itogi Nedeli (Results of the Week), which is broadcast by NTV – a nationwide Russian network, owned by the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom.
Tim Wilson, a British politician, cartoonist and former member of UKIP, made his own parallel recording of the interview he gave to NTV. The BBC compared Mr Wilson’s recording to what was aired and concluded that when Mr Wilson in the Russian rendering says that Theresa May has her “neck on the block” and that David Cameron has calmly left to watch “the country fall apart,” it bears no semblance to the English original.
Similarly, when the BBC confronted John Curtice, a Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, with what he had appeared to say about Boris Johnson on NTV, his reaction was: “Complete misrepresentation!”
The BBC reports that NTV has now removed and re-edited the items in question, following complaints from the two British commentators. According to Professor Curtice, NTV also offered him an apology, whereas Mr Wilson says he has not received an apology, in spite of complaining to the network. NTV has not replied to requests for comments.
Russia’s political leadership in the Kremlin issues weekly guidelines, instructing the dominating media outlets in which topics and messages should be transmitted; and apparently, all parts of the output – even translations – can become subject to this state streamlining.
In 2016, the state TV channel Rossiya 24 interviewed a number of people in Paris who did not recognise their own words when France’s Canal Plus confronted them with they had appeared in the Russian dubbing.
In 2018, NTV was accused of manipulating interviews with Danish politicians. The story was covered by Denmark’s Radio24Syv and backfired on NTV as well as on Russian diplomats who tried to defend Gazprom’s TV network.
Inosmi – a state-controlled portal which offers Russian readers first-hand insights into international media in the form of translations – also uses manipulations to control the perception of its publications.
Finally, returning to the situation outlined above: Should you, after all, decide to accept the request for an interview with a Russian state-controlled outlet, our advice is: Learn to speak Russian – or at least do what Mr Wilson did and produce your own recording of the interview; it could come in handy.