Dispatches from Berlin: news translation in the golden age of foreign correspondence

Abstract: This article sheds light on the news translator’s role in shaping conflict during the interwar period, the “golden age” of foreign correspondence. It examines the correspondence between the Manchester Guardian editor and his foreign correspondents during this politically and journalistically significant epoch, showing how they could shape the political debate.

Keywords: news translation, translation flows, foreign correspondence, politics, interwar period

A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business, like any other, and has to pay in the material sense, in order to live. But it is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and influences the life of a whole community; it may affect even wider destinies.

(C.P. Scott 5 May 1921)


The first two decades of the twentieth century were characterised by ideological polarisation, political unrest, economic turbulence, and armed conflict. Fuelled by continuing industrialisation, improvements in armament technology, such as the invention of poison gas, contributed to making this era the “most murderous” in history (Hobsbawm). However, there was another element that was new in this era and that distinguished the First World War from any previous armed conflict: “[T]he speed of information through mass communication” (Messinger 15). The invention of the telegraph accelerated the pace at which information about developments at the front became available. Moreover, improvements in the printing process meant that newspapers could be produced much faster and at lower prices. Information thus became affordable to the general public. Messinger argues that, as the First World War progressed, “officials became increasingly aware that control of information could mean the difference between victory and defeat” (15). The possibility of exploiting the mass media’s evident ability to mould public opinion - the threshold any political action must pass within democracies - spurred an increased interest in propaganda as a means to influence public opinion, and the mass media as a vehicle to disseminate propagandistic messages. In this context, Lippmann proposed as early as 1922 that the selection and exclusion of topics by the media had an influence on the political sphere (Dearing and Rogers 9).

As a result of these developments, those involved in the production of news suddenly found themselves in an exalted and influential position. On the front line of this revolution were the foreign correspondents, the journalists reporting on international news and affairs. Indeed, Hamilton has described the prominence of foreign correspondents in the reporting of the inter war years as “a golden age”. He develops this further: “News was momentous. News outlets were plentiful. Living costs abroad were low. In no era have so many foreign correspondents travelled so freely” (Hamilton 194 quoted in Sambrook 5). In Berlin, for example, foreign correspondents found themselves reporting on rising tensions and political machinations that would ultimately contribute to the outbreak of the Second World War. Working across cultural and linguistic borders, it was their responsibility to capture the statements made by German politicians and make these accessible to their audiences at home. This usually involved translating extracts of texts and speeches, then recommending which should be prioritised for publication. Very few foreign correspondents, however, considered themselves to be formal translators, despite the fact that they regularly performed translational acts pertaining to all the different stages of the translation process (Bassnett and Bielsa 63). It would seem that in the context of international news and foreign correspondence, the journalistic and the translational tasks were often so closely intertwined that they could hardly be kept apart or examined separately (ibid.).

Within Translation Studies, the role translation and translators play in the production of international news has attracted increased interest over the past two decades, producing a wealth of academic papers. While product-orientated researchers have convincingly shown how translation contributes to particular representations of political events (e.g. Brook; Brownlie; Schaffner), scholars focussing on the process have afforded us valuable insights into the different stages of the news production process and the working conditions of the journalist- cum-translator (e.g. Bassnett and Schafner; Bassnett and Bielsa). However, studies investigating news translation within historical context remain scarce and much is still to be learnt about the news translator’s scope of action in shaping emerging and on-going political conflicts. Addressing these lacunae would make a valuable contribution to translation history, and provide a backdrop against which the contemporary news translator’s function within the production of international news can be examined further.

Aiming to shed light on the news translator’s role in shaping conflicts, this article investigates the correspondence between the Manchester Guardian editor and his foreign correspondents during the politically and journalistically pivotal interwar period. The focus lies on unravelling the motives that guided (I) the selection and exclusion of information about the Third Reich for translation and publication and (II) reasons that caused textual interventions once the foreign correspondents had submitted their articles to the editor. The focus on these two elements is justified since agenda-setting and framing research have provided strong evidence for their political impact. By conducting such a case study, this article will contribute to a better understanding of the opportunities and constraints that condition the foreign correspondent-cum-translator’s work.

This article will begin with a brief outline of the general characteristics of news translation. Given the article’s focus on selection and exclusion of information, the notion of translation flows is discussed in some detail. This exploration is followed by the presentation of the case study. Exploring the correspondence between the foreign correspondents and the editor, the article then locates relevant motives for the selection and exclusion of information within the Manchester Guardian, but also within the socio-political and socio-economic context of the news production process. Finally, the findings of the case study are drawn together and discussed in view of the role translation and translators play in shaping emerging conflicts.

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