New Delhi: Countries that take diplomacy seriously go to great lengths to produce authenticated English transcripts of all diplomatic interactions and pronouncements made in the public domain so that inaccurate transcriptions or mistranslations do not produce confusions – or worse.
While the Ministry of External Affairs meticulously follows this principle for its statements, the defence ministry clearly does not. As a result, the US State Department and Pentagon ended up putting words into defence minister Rajnath Singh’s mouth this week when they published a transcript of his opening remarks at the recent 2+2 dialogue in which they incorrectly had him referring to “reckless aggression” on the India-China border.
It took three days of media queries — queries which the Indian side tried to downplay — before the US State Department revised its transcript to remove the words which the video recording of the remarks clearly showed Rajnath Singh never made.
On October 27, Indian and US leaders in charge of their country’s foreign and defence portfolios sat down for their annual ‘2+2’ dialogue in New Delhi.
According to a video recording of the opening remarks, Defence minister Rajnath Singh said in Hindi that the partnership between India and the US was becoming more important due to current challenges. “Excellencies, Aaj ke samay mein jo challenges hum face kar rahe hai, uske wajah se humari partnership aur bhi mahatvapurn ho jati hai, aur bhavisya ko (inaudible) adharit karti hai… (The challenges that we are facing currently makes our partnership even more significant and give a future direction),” he said.
However, in the transcript released by the US State Department on October 27, this line does not appear Instead, Singh is quoted as stating, “Excellencies, in the area of defence we are challenged by reckless aggression on our northern borders…” The transcript for Singh’s remarks ends abruptly here, with the rest just deemed ‘inaudible’. This same transcript was also replicated on the US Defence Department’s website.
If Singh had actually referred to “reckless aggression”, it would have been the first direct, public reference by an Indian leader to the ongoing six-month-long military stand-off with China during the dialogue.
Unlike both the US secretaries of State and Defence, Michael Pompeo and Mark Esper, who mentioned China by name in their public remarks, their Indian counterparts made no such explicit comment on their giant neighbour in the north.
The ministry of external affairs had released external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s opening remarks, but the defence ministry never issued Singh’s statement.
During the weekly briefing on Thursday, the Ministry of External Affairs was asked to clarify the confusion over Rajnath Singh’s transcribed words. “I am a bit surprised at this question as the video is out in the public domain and I would urge you to look at them,” replied the MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava.
The US finally changed the official transcript on October 30. Instead of “reckless aggression at northern borders”, Singh is quoted to have said more staidly, “Due to the challenges that we are facing today, our partnership has become even more important and it determines our future”. A linked footnote at the end of the document stated, “As Delivered in Hindi”.
The US embassy in New Delhi also added that the transcript had been initially made on the basis of the Hindi-to-English interpretation service provided by the Indian side. “The original U.S. transcript of the 2+2 opening statement was prepared from an audio recording of the Indian Government interpreter’s English-language delivery to US participants,” said the US embassy spokesperson.
In the audio of the interpretation, heard by The Wire, the interpreter comes to an abrupt stop after “northern borders”, and does not translate the rest of Singh’s statement in Hindi.
There is still no clear explanation as to how the Hindi words for “challenges that we are facing today” came to be interpreted as “reckless aggression on our northern borders”. One possible theory is that the interpreter was asked to interpret from a written text – which was subsequently revised, but never conveyed to her.