Who Translated Vladimir Putin’s Op-Ed?

Vladimir Putin‘s op-ed in the New York Times (September 12 in the print edition) inspired reader curiosity (as well as heated online discussion, with some commenters forgetting that the opinion pages are exactly that — opinions). Public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote a blog post about how the op-ed came to be, explaining that an American p.r. firm working for Russia (which was later identified as Ketchum by the Guardian) approached the Times editorial department about the piece. Sullivan went on to say that editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal

said there was no way of knowing whether Mr. Putin himself wrote the article – “with a public official you can never know,” because they tend to have staffers who write their speeches and other communications. But, he said, it needed virtually no editing and went through almost no changes. “It was an amazingly good translation,” he said.

Surprisingly, however, especially for such an “amazingly good translation,” the op-ed was missing one important piece of information: the fact that it was a translation and the name of the translator. I emailed Sullivan on September 12 asking if the paper has a policy on acknowledging that a text was translated, but did not receive a reply. While many professional translators encourage the signing of translations as a matter of professional responsibility and credit, there’s also a larger issue at stake: the Times is denying readers a vital piece of information about Putin’s op-ed. Here’s the conclusion of my email:

Some foreign leaders from non-English speaking countries, such as Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, might know English well enough to write an English op-ed. Most do not. In some cases, the original language a writer uses could be significant. Does a Belgian op-ed writer use French or Flemish? Does a Barcelona op-ed writer use Spanish or Catalan? We don’t live in a monolingual world. Inserting “translated from the XXX by YYY” provides meaningful information about the linguistic and cultural background of foreign leaders — or any foreign op-ed writers — and the countries they represent.

In the days following the op-ed, many media outlets speculated whether Ketchum had in fact written the op-ed for Putin, something that the firm denied, telling PR Week that “the opinion piece was written by President Putin and submitted to The New York Times on his behalf by Ketchum for their consideration.” Amazingly, in the midst of this debate over whether or not Putin actually wrote the op-ed, no one asked the obvious question: who translated it? An email I sent to Ketchum’s media department asking this question went unanswered. If Ketchum can name a translator, then (taking them at their word), the piece was written in Russian, presumably by Putin, even with input from speechwriters or staffers. If Ketchum can’t say who translated the op-ed, then things look a lot murkier.

Photo by Kate Deimling.