Monday, February 26, 2007


For those of you (and there are a few) following the Brazil transcripts imbroglio very, very carefully, herewith the following translator's note, via the ever-diligent Richard Pedicini, chief of our Sao Paulo bureau. (Which happens to be our only foreign bureau, but it's one more than 99.9 percent of American news organizations have).

Translator's Note:
"Recent media storms about the Gol Flight 1907 crash investigation have centered on leaked transcripts of conversations between the Legacy pilots. The transcripts are translated - and very badly. That has misled press coverage. It may also mislead the Federal Police investigation, and possibly the Air Force investigation as well.

I'm going to give two examples of where the translation is unquestionably faulty, then look at how the translation was produced, and where it's being used.

On the question of the translation quality, the Brazilian press has retreated to its usual "he said/she said" stance, the notion that there are "two versions" to every story. And of course I can't compare the English and the Portuguese - I've only got the Portuguese, which I've translated back. But that is enough by itself to prove that the Federal Police translation has serious flaws.

Let's look first at a stretch of dialog reported in the Folha on February 18. In the printed paper, the equivalent of a full newspaper page is taken up with transcripts of dialogs. Two phrases are set apart, in bigger, bolder letters, above and below a diagram of the aircrafts' wings colliding. The first, labeled "Before the collision", says:

"Hot 2- Céu a 2.500. Eu não sei o que TX 35 significa... TN 25. Eu preciso aprender essa porra internacional. Merda."

"Hot 2 - Sky at 2,500. I don't know what TX 35 means... TN 25. I need to learn this International crap. Shit."

The same dialog with a bit more context appears again on the same page under the heading "Problems with the Radio".

But what does it mean?

On the PPRUNE Internet board, poster George Rock, an air transport pilot from Rio, says,
"The pilots were talking about Terminal Aerodrome Forecast - TAF. There was no relation to aircraft Radio Equipment. TX means Forecast Maximum Temperature and TN means Forecast Minimum Temperature."

Google provides us with the means of getting Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts online. If we go to and give the four-character ICAO Location code for Manaus's Eduardo Gomes airport, SBEG, and then hit the button, we can get the current TAF. We get alphabet soup, but significantly including TX and TN.

Let's try a less official source than . The display at tells us we're looking at the data for Eduardo Gomes airport, alright, but the TAF itself is still cryptic, but with TX and TN right at the end:

: SBEG 261100Z 261212 00000KT 9999 SCT008 PROB40 TEMPO 1216 09010KT
1000 TSRA BKN006 FEW025CB BECMG 1618 09007KT 9999 SCT015

BECMG 2224 00000KT FEW010 TX32/17Z TN24/07Z"
Fortunately for those of us who only ride in airplanes, there's an "Explain these data..." button. It calls a program at which translates all the raw data into English, including:
" Ceiling: 600 feet AGL"
Which seems to be what "BNK0006" means - broken clouds at flight level 6 - and at the end:
"Temperature: minimum 24.0°C (75°F) expected at 0700 UTC, maximum 32.0°C (90°F) expected at 1700 UTC"
Those of course are easy to match to the TN and TX in the raw data.

Certainly there should be a means of finding out just what TAF would have provided for Eduardo Gomes on 18:51 GMT on September 29, and comparing it with the values in the dialogue.

So Captain Rock, rocks: he can recognize what was being talked about. Eliane Cantanhêde, can't.

But even so - doesn't it show that the pilots were unfamiliar with the craft? Isn't it the smoking gun?

Well, no. What is shows is that one of the pilots can't translate Celsius to Fahrenheit in his head. Which, living in Brazil for fifteen years, I can't do either. If you tell me you took your temperature and it's 101 degrees, I know you have a significant but not dangerous fever; if you say you've got a 38.3 Celsius fever I haven't a clue. If you tell me 'the weather forecast is for a high of 35 and a low of 25, well, "I don't know what TX 35 means... TN 25. I need to learn this International crap. Shit."

A transcript leaked to Veja in December had the dialog just after the collision. The translated dialog can be found at:,,AA1428315-5598,00.html

Two of the entries clearly show translation problems. One is:

"Tudo bem. Nós estamos descendo. Declarando uma emergência. Senta." Which is, literally, "All right. We're descending. Declaring an emergency. Sit."

That last one-word sentence is telling. "Senta", or "Sit." What a strange thing to say. "Sit tight" seems to fit the situation far better. An equivalent phrase in Portuguese would be "Segure aí", "Hang on."

Also, both "We're descending" and "We're going down" translate as the phrase given in Portuguese. There are contexts in which they are equivalent; a pilot in normal flight could say "We're descending to 30,000 feet" or "We're going down to 30,000 feet". In the context of a plane that has just suffered a collision, the difference between the phrases is enormous.

The other phrase in the Veja dialogues, is the one most quoted. "É, o TCAS está desligado." "É" is a complete one-syllable sentence; it means "It is." There is no English phrase that translates best as "É". "Yes" or "Yeah" are better as "Sim". Even "It is" - which would make no sense in the context - would be better as "Ele é."

Another difficulty is the word "desligado". The English "off" and "turned off" both translate as "desligado", but difference in meaning between the two is significant: "off" merely means not functioning at the moment, while "turned off" implies some normal action was taken to place it in that condition.

[Federal Police] Chief Sayão gave his view to the Folha, at " :
"The dialogs were fundamental to establish that the [anticollision] equipment was turned off. The truth is that [the conversation] was translated [in the inquiry] in the same way it was in 'Veja' magazine. It is a faithful translation. 'Off', in English, is 'desligado', there is no other translation", affirmed Sayão.

Without seeing the original English it's impossible to be certain, ... but on the limited available evidence, the translation is not good. Certainly not good enough for investigating an accident that took the lives of 154 people, and certainly not good enough to be "fundamental" to accusing two men of causing it.

Who made the translations? Catanhêde responded to criticism of the translations by dodging the question, in an article in the February 21 Folha. She says that the transcriptions were made by the National Transportation Safely Board (NTSB) in Washington, and further that they "are included, in the simultaneous investigations by the Air Force and the Federal Police, already translated to Portuguese. The Folha copied the principal segments from the version in the hands of Brazilian investigators, already translated into Portuguese."

In a February 23 interview in O Estado, Sayão explains where the translations come from:
When did the transcript reach your hands?
In English, in November. Translated (by experts of the superintendency in Cuiabá), in December.
So the Portuguese translations were done by the Federal Police's staff in Cuiabá, Mato Grosso, population 542,861. In all fairness, it's no doubt a better English-Portuguese translation than the FBI office in Little Rock could produce with its in-house talent. But it is not good enough.

This is not the worst translation in the history of Brazilian aviation: that distinction belongs to the Brazilian Air Force's translation of the French accident report on the July 11, 1973, crash of a Varig airline near Orly. That translation actually added and removed paragraphs to reduce Varig's fault, and its indemnifications. It was not merely bad, it was intentionally wrong.

An additional concern is that the Air Force investigation may be relying upon the Federal Police's translation, and that it as well wind up viewing one of the principal sources of information on the crash not directly, but in the fogged mirror of a bad translation. It may not be a fun-house mirror like the Orly crash, but it will make the truth harder to see.

A problem the Brazilian press faces is that the Federal Police translation is an "official translation." An American might feel that a bad translation with an official stamp on it is still a bad translation. Brazilians give official seals, and official sources, and official accusations, far more credibility than they deserve. If everything official were correct and well done, a free press would be unnecessary. But the press here never questions an official version that tells them what they want to hear."

--end of translator's note

Joe Sharkey's Note:

Regarding translation challenges in Brazil, all I can say myself is that I was struck by certain translating oddities during our all-night interrogation session at Federal Police headquarters in Cuiaba two nights after the crash. I was questioned for about one hour by a police commander. Here's how he worked. He asked questions in Portuguese. A very nice woman who apologized to me for her English then translated the questions to me (in what I nevertheless regarded as pretty good English). I answered her in English. She then translated my replies to the Federal Police commander in Portuguese. HE, in turn, dictated, in Portuguese, his own version, presumably a summary, of my replies to a man sitting at a big teletype-looking machine with a keyboard. The man typed away laboriously.

When my questioning was finally over, the transcript was printed out in Portuguese, and I was given the lengthy copy to look over and sign. At the suggestion of the military adjunct to the U.S. consul, who was in the room, I (and all of the other survivors who were questioned that night, including the two American pilots) signed as ordered, but added the words: "I neither speak nor understand Portuguese."

That was the last I ever saw of my transcript, which has of course now become a part of the criminal investigative file. I was not given a copy of it, which struck me as odd. For all I know, I confessed in Portuguese to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.

Which I absolutely deny.

But that was my own personal experience with the, let's say, casual attitude the police authorities seemed to have toward translation, at the very start of what would soon become a very serious criminal investigation.


1 comment:

chie said...

Translation is to understand the exact meaning of a text in one language and convey it accurately in another. The result will be genuine content, not the mere shadow of an original one.It might look like an unnecessary cost increase at first glance, but I'd always recommend using language professionals for technical translation, the risk you run without them is sure to cost you much more in the end.