calling for a retranslation

So translation is the hardest thing in the world to do well, so no criticism of the translator intended here, but: There’s something very weird about the translation of bin Laden‘s speech.

As Aljazeera has translated it, near the end bin Laden says this:

And for the record, we had agreed with the Commander-General Muhammad Ataa, Allah have mercy on him, that all the operations should be carried out within 20 minutes before Bush and his administration notice.

It never occurred to us that the Commander in Chief of the armed forces would abandon 50,000 of his citizens in the twin towers to face those great horrors alone at a time when they most needed him.

He goes on to refer to the Pet Goat incident, so we know he’s referring to the morning of September 11. But what does “carried out within 20 minutes before Bush and his administration notice” mean? Is bin Laden saying he gave the US warning (“notice”) before the attack — which would explain the weird look on Bush’s face before he was told the attack had actually occured?

Is there someone out there who can do better with the translation?

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28 Responses to calling for a retranslation

  1. Jeff says:

    Perhaps the phrase could be read as “… 20 minutes before Bush and his administration react

  2. Eric Albert says:

    I agree with Jeff — I read it as “we wanted to complete all of the attacks within 20 minutes so the Administration couldn’t react to stop any of them.”

  3. lessig says:

    But then what does the next sentence mean. If the attacks were to be carried out before Bush could react, then Bush would not have “abandon[ed]” his citizens. The claim that he “abandon[ed]” them implies he could have done something different, doesn’t it? That’s why I always thought the Pet Goat stuff was not very significant. Surprising — would you really just sit there if you had just learned we were attacked — but not significant — what could you do about it? But if you had warning, and had decided not to do anything, then sitting there after noticed about the attack had occured (see the weird way “notice” works) sitting with the Goats is consistent.

  4. Phil Hunt says:

    I think the next sentence — “It never occurred to us that the Commander in Chief of the armed forces would abandon 50,000 of his citizens in the twin towers” — is meant to imply that if Bush had acted promply and ordered evacuation of both towers when the first was hit, there would have been less casualties.

  5. Sarah D says:

    I also agree with Jeff, bin Laden wanted the attacks completed within twenty minutes because he presumed that was the shortest possible time in which Bush would be able to find out about the attacks and give orders to shoot down all planes which hadn’t voluntarily landed.

  6. lessig says:

    So again, Phil Hunt’s comment is inconsistent with Sarah D’s: If he wanted the attack to occur quickly enough that Bush couldn’t react (Sarah’s point) then there is no point to saying Bush “abandon[ed]” anyone, since then he wouldn’t have been able to order any planes shot down (Phil’s point).

  7. Anon says:

    Sitting with the Goats aside for the moment….

    There are interesting differences between Aljazeera’s transcript and CNN’s.

    Here is one of them: where Aljazeera has:
    “So he took dictatorship and suppression of freedoms to his son and they named it the Patriot Act under the pretences of fighting terrorism.

    In addition, Bush sanctioned the installing of sons as state governors and did not forget to import expertise in election fraud from the regions presidents to Florida to be made use of in moments of difficulty.

    All that we have mentioned has made it easy for us to provoke and bait this administration.

    And for the record, we had agreed with the Commander-General Muhammad Ataa, Allah have mercy on him[…]”

    CNN has:
    “And he moved the tyranny and suppression of freedom to his own country, and they called it the Patriot Act, under the disguise of fighting terrorism. And Bush, the father, found it good to install his children as governors and leaders.

    We agreed with the leader of the group, Mohammed Atta[…]”

    The spineless CNN translators and editors didn’t include the bits about election fraud in Florida, making it easy to provoke and bait the administration, and bin Laden’s call to Allah to have mercy on Atta.

    How disingenuous that CNN markets their services with the Orwellian phrase, “Trust CNN.” Please. Anyone seen any other translations? Also, I thought I heard that Aljazeera only played a portion of the recording; what about the rest of it?

  8. Larry, I read that to mean all planes should hit their targets within a twenty minute window so as to have fully executed the operation before a counter-attack could be launched.

    As for the commenter (Anon) above who quotes CNN’s translations, it is absolutely appalling to me that they left content out (about the election process.) Boggling.

  9. Carlton Vogt says:

    I think you may be looking at his speech for a logic and chronological coherence that just isn’t there. It seems to me to be a lot of loosely related statements just stitched together. For example, he talks about Bush in one paragraph and his father in the next. Then he talks about the Patriot Act — almost as if it were passed by Bush the Elder — then he talks about election fraud in Florida.

    It’s all rather disjointed. So, I think that trying to exegete anything meaningful by looking from one paragraph to the next is a fool’s errand.

    But, I also think that in looking at the “20 minute” paragraph, he used the word “notice,” which would seem to imply that they wanted the operation over before the scope of it was detected. This would be what you’d want if you thought that there would be some armed response to four planes breaking contact with ATC at the same time — and which we didn’t get because people on the ground dithered.

    I don’t see that paragraph and the next one being necessarily related as many other paragraphs in the piece aren’t either.

  10. Nate says:

    I also read the CNN translation as well as the Al Jazeera translation and noticed that there doesn’t yet seem to be a full and complete translation. Does anyone know of one? I’d love to know what’s in the missing minutes, although it’s clear that they at least in part contain the names of Bush administration officials since it was said that certain individuals received notification since they were named in the video. OK, so someone, somewhere must have a full translation, including whatever damaging stuff they said about the BushCo folks. Anyone have a link yet?

    As for Larry’s question, I also read it as we had better get this operation over quickly before Bush notices and reacts to stop us. I think instead of “notice” it should be “noticed.”

    The weird look on Bush’s face? I always assumed it was a “Well, this is it” look, since he had been warned about bin Laden’s intentions in general. Not specifically, but detailed enough for Ashcroft to refuse flying commercial airlines in the month or two before 9/11 (nice of him to use that information privately but not tell anyone else). So Bush was probably thinking to himself, “It finally happened. Should have listened more carefully.”

  11. I read it as if Bin Laden expected Bush to be actively involved (as Commander in Chief) in any counter-measures.

  12. Tom says:

    CNN translates “notice” as “were aware of what was going on”, which supports my interpretation of the al Jazeera translation. Atta and bin Laden apparently assumed that 20 minutes would be enough for the FAA to order the skies cleared and for the President to authorize the Air Force to clear anything that wasn’t cooperating, but hijackers were able to crash American 77 into the Pentagon nearly an hour after American 11 hit 1 WTC. “abandon” is probably a reasonable translation (CNN has “leave”) of a word bin Laden chose for rhetorical effect.

  13. Heidi says:


    I assumed that the reason there are separate paragraphs is that we got an edited video. Not all of it has been released. Maybe the answer to Lessig’s question is in the parts we don’t see?

  14. Meghan says:

    I think that maybe the key to understanding bin Laden’s statement is “to face those great horros alone“. It seems that he’s expressing surprise (or disgust?) that Bush would take so long to even speak to the nation, express his shock/outrage, show support and solidarity with his citizens that were experiencing this horrible tragedy.

    Looking at it closely, I read it as:
    We agreed we would have (at most) 20 minutes before Bush responded. It never occured to us that he would sit there, doing nothing, while his people were dying, and not even show his support and sympathy for his citizens, despite the presence of the press filming him already.

    I admit I didn’t read the rest of the translation, but based on what others are saying about it, it seems like he was in general, expressing further the weakness of our commander and our nation.

  15. Jeremy says:

    MEMRI gives the following translation of this passage:
    “We agreed with the general commander Muhammad Ata, may Allah have mercy on him, that all operations should be carried out within 20 minutes, before Bush and his administration would become aware. We never imagined that the Commander in Chief of the American armed forces would abandon 50,000 of his citizens in the twin towers to face this great horror alone when they needed him most. It seemed to him that a girl’s story about her goat and its butting was more important than dealing with planes and their “butting” into skyscrapers. This allowed us three times the amount of time needed for the operations, Allah be praised.”

  16. anon observer says:

    Good blog article on the difference between the two translations, as well as links to (biased) analysis of the parts even Al-Jazeera left out.

    Glad to know the media is censoring our news for our own good. If we don’t have real power, just the fake power of one vote each, they’ll treat us like children.

  17. Max Lybbert says:

    I understood it that Bin Laden was thinking of a dictatorship, where local officials wouldn’t have the authority to make decisions. Therefore, Bush would be the one actually calling the shots and deciding to evacuate.

    Of course, we have footage of Bin Laden telling his top supporters that he didn’t expect to actually topple the towers, just to collapse the upper floors.

    For the record, Bush has no more connection to Afghanisatan and Bin Laden than any other modern President. Fahrenhype 9/11 (produced by a former Clinton advisor), clears that up pretty well.

  18. Jardinero1 says:

    Uhh, excuse me. Osama is a physically ill, near dying with renal problems, homicidal lunatic. Why is anyone trying to read anything into any translation of a statement made nearly three years after the fact. His statements have as much veracity at this point as the schizophrenic panhandler outside my office.

  19. Perhaps Bush did know. By the time he was given the twenty minute warning. he evacuated the towers. What then? There were still several hundred passengers on those planes. Was he maybe supposed to have them taken down?? Was he being set up to be the most horrid and uncaring President in history??

    Mind you I am no fan of Bush’s but I dont understand what he really could have done in tweny minutes. He could have caused a mass panic in the towers. Twenty minutes is not enough time to evacuate buildings the size of the towers. It is not enough time to mobilize.

    Either way it was a “comedy of errors” or prehaps tagedy would be a better word.

    Love and Light

  20. Daniel says:

    I had a couple of reactions while reading the different translations of the bin ladin message. One is that I think most times when he says Bush he is referring to George H. W. Bush and not our current president. The other is that Iraq feels like it was a setup.

    If we had real intelligence that showed a link between Iraq and Al-Queda, is it possible that they wanted us to think there was a link? Bin Ladin has been telling the Arab world for years that we were going to invade and occupy an oil-rich Arab nation. He knew of our dislike for Saddam and the history of Saddam and G.H.W. Bush. Could he have used that to get us to attack?

  21. Perhaps Juan Cole will translate.

  22. Nate says:

    Remember, nobody expected the towers to collapse, so it’s not as if we had foresight about twenty minutes. At the time we figured the buildings would stand. As it happens, it took close to an hour for them to fall. Plenty of time for evacuation, if they had only told people to do it. What could Bush have done? For a start, talk to his people and get the whole details about what was going on. Maybe they could have scrambled jets earlier and prevented the Pentagon attack. Who knows? We’ll never know now, but c’mon! What kind of leader just sits there mutely after being told that his country was under attack? Whoa! Real inspiring.

  23. Nate says:

    Here’s a good site with lots of translations of the message:

  24. Max Lybbert says:

    Nate, I found accounts by people actually in the room with Bush at the time to be very inspiring. One is on Fahrenhype 9/11, by a lady who clearly states that she voted for Gore, and will vote for Kerry.

  25. Nate says:


    I believe you. I haven’t read about those reactions recently, but have in the past and I understand how people project onto others their own feelings (good or bad). I realize that my critical view of Bush is likely to color how I viewed his sitting there.

  26. Noor says:

    Having read that paragraph in the Arabic transcript, I think Bin Laden is saying that they had agreed with Atta to conduct/complete all operations in twenty minutes, before Bush and his administration find out about the attacks. I don’t think Bin Laden is saying that he informed Bush of the attacks. The word that Bin Laden used is literally translated as “notice” but in this context, it really means “informed” or “find out.”

  27. Stuart Buck says:

    Larry —

    I read bin Laden’s comments — for what it’s worth — as saying this (the brackets are explanatory):

    “[A]ll the operations should be carried out within 20 minutes before Bush and his administration notice [i.e., notice that something wrong is happening and have time to respond in some fashion].

    [But in fact, we didn’t carry out the attacks in 20 minutes. Flight 93 was late taking off, and it was 1.5 hours between the time of the first hijacking and the time that Flight 93 crashed.] It never occurred to us that [we wouldn’t need to finish in 20 minutes because] the Commander in Chief of the armed forces would abandon 50,000 of his citizens in the twin towers to face those great horrors alone at a time when they most needed him.”

    Make sense?

  28. O'Brien says:

    Bin Laden has released several tapes since 9-11 don’t you think that if he had authorised one of his terrorists to inform the US adminstration of an impending attack and the administration had done nothing Bin Laden would have made much more of an issue of this in other tapes?

    Considering everything Bin Laden says and does is intended to incite hate towards Bush and villify him as a cruel evil man if he thought that Bush refrained from acting to save so many lives surely he would have mentioned it at every opportunity he could.

    Also don’t you think that Bush is quite a rash character his impulsive nature in deciding to attack Iraq would definately imply that he is. Surely if such an impulsive character had notice of such an attack he would not just sit there listening to kids reading about goats!

    As for the confused look it is George W your talking about maybe he was just struggling to keep up with the story!

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