Mistranslating Chirac

Why the U.S.-French split is worse than you thought.

Even though the split between the United States and France on Iraq has been getting lots of ink, English-language press accounts are actually underplaying how bad it is. What makes Chatterbox say that? Two French words: “preuves indiscutables.”

By far the most alarming thing French President Jacques Chirac has had to say about Colin Powell’s Feb. 5 Security Council speech is that Powell hasn’t proved that Saddam has biological and chemical weapons. On CNN’s NewsNight With Aaron Brown, White House correspondent John King reported that Chirac

said with President Putin standing by his side … that he has yet to see undisputed proof [italics Chatterbox’s] that Saddam Hussein has … weapons of mass destruction. That took the White House off guard, one senior official saying “He knows better, he has seen the same evidence we do.”

Similarly, a Feb. 10 Reuters dispatch (which turned up on MSNBC and Web sites for the New York Times and the Washington Post) had Chirac saying, “On this issue, I do not have undisputed proof [italics Chatterbox’s].” The “undisputed proof” formulation also appeared in staff-written stories in USA Today, the Dallas Morning News, and on the BBC.

Why is Chatterbox harping on the phrase, “undisputed proof”? Because it’s not as damning as it first sounds. By saying that Powell had failed to provide undisputed proof, it was conceivable that Chirac was leaving himself wiggle room later to say, without fear of self-contradiction, that he found Powell’s evidence indisputable. As a purely factual matter, it would be incorrect for anyone to maintain that Powell’s proof is undisputed, because the Iraqi government disputes it. (The Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations accused the United States of doctoring the intercepted Iraqi phone conversations that Powell played before the Security Council.) But just because something is not undisputed (i.e., is disputed) that doesn’t mean it’s not indisputable (i.e., is disputable). That the world is round is disputed (you’ll always find some nut-bar to say it’s flat), but the world’s roundness is nonetheless indisputable.

Chatterbox, a newly minted Iraq hawk, doesn’t know how many other hawks took solace in this hair-splitting, but it turned out to be for naught, because it was based on a mistranslation. According to Le Figaro, this is what Chirac said in the original French: “Je n’ai pas à ma connaissance de preuves indiscutables dans ce domaine.The phrase, “preuves indiscutables” does not translate to “undisputed proof.” It translates to “indisputable proof.” Chirac does not find Powell’s proof indisputable. (Not everyone got this wrong, incidentally. Kudos to the Associated Press, Agence France Presse, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, and—in a staff-written story—the New York Times for running the correct translation.)

Chirac’s belief that Powell’s proof can be sensibly disputed is widely shared by other Europeans, as June Thomas demonstrated Feb. 6 in Slate’s “International Papers” column. Even in Britain, an enormous to-do was made over the fact that an intelligence dossier Powell cited was based partly on material plagiarized from a publicly available academic study. Never mind that this academic offense had no bearing on the veracity of the dossier itself. (Jeffrey Goldberg had a piece in the Feb. 10 issue of TheNew Yorker arguing that too littleintelligence takes into account information that’s already in public circulation.) The evidence laid out by Powell was, to be sure, circumstantial. He did not lift a missile loaded with VX above his head and proclaim, “I found this inside Saddam’s grandfather clock!” But he did provide a wealth of visual and aural information that made a case at least as persuasive as that against O.J. Simpson, which was also circumstantial. O.J. was acquitted, but it’s nonetheless widely (and, Chatterbox thinks, correctly) believed that the case against him was … indisputable.

It remains possible that Chirac will need no further evidence to come around. (French politicians do not share their American counterparts’ fetish for consistency in their public statements.) Chatterbox doubts that bullying will do the trick. But he would like to invite Chirac and other Europeans who believe that Powell’s evidence can be disputed to offer some alternative explanation for what the totality of Powell’s evidence shows. Saying that Powell’s case can be disputed is the lazy way out. If you don’t believe Powell, dispute him.