An inexact translation brought a Christmas gift of a wave of propaganda


At its session on December 19th, Parliament passed a law that specifies, among other things, when it is considered a crime, when relations take place with a foreign intelligence service. Such communication is legally considered a relationship that is contra or in opposition to the Republic of Estonia.

The announcement of the adoption of the Act was published in Estonian on the same day on the website of Parliament. The Russian translation however was incorrect: „A relationship that is contra or in opposition to the Republic of Estonia“ is translated as „ Negative attitude towards the Republic of Estonia“. In this wording, the text gives a false impression that the law would punish thoughts and opinions that criticize Estonia.

No one pays attention to the inexact translation until the morning of December 25, when the ERR Russian-language portal publishes news about the new law, which has been prepared using the website of Parliament. The headline uses the inexact translation; „ Negative attitude towards the Republic of Estonia becomes a crime“. The same headline was published by the Russian-language section of Postimees.

The fact that the news headline is in conflict with the content is immediately noticed in Estonia. The error is discussed on somes or Social media, and ERR and Postimees are informed about the matter. As of the afternoon of December 25th, the news headlines have been corrected on these portals. The editor-in-chief of the ERR Russian-language portal, Ekaterina Taklaja issues an apology on Social media. The text on Parliament’s website was corrected on the 27th of December.

The correction unfortunately is late. The inexact headline is grabbed by the Russian media and spreads rapidly. The original article in ERR is referred to: That people will be punished for having negative attitudes towards Estonia. Interfaks, Lenta, Vzgljad, RenTV and others write about it (links can be found on our search robot, Propamon, in the December 25 news.) Izvestija adds to the fake news with a commentary that Russia is also planning to adopt a law where offending the State or officials will be a crime.

However, the fake news did not receive such a wide release in the Russian media, that Propamon would have shown a red flag. The Russian news agency Rosbalt even published news announcing that the original story was flawed and that the European Union deputy, Yana Toom noticed the mistake. To date the Postimees news has a corrected headline but the lead-in to the article still uses the inexact sentence.

Why did the inexact headline spread so quickly? It is suited to the Kremlin’s propaganda rhetoric against Estonia, bullying the people here because of their ideas, especially those who speak Russian. If the wrong headline had not seemed strange to the Estonian editors, it would have been even more plausible for Russian journalists and readers.

What can we learn from the incident? Errors happen to everyone, but just correcting the text and apologizing is not enough. Instead, we should communicate with the Russian media agencies that have published the fake news, let them know about the misunderstanding and ask that a corrected version of the news be published. For example, in the case of the Golden Mask in 2017, such communication worked well, this has also been applied to errors in the Western media.

There have been propaganda incidents based on language and translation misunderstandings in Estonia previously.

Pictures: screenshots of the news.