Today’s fake news pedantry

How does fake news get propagated? There are many answers. One is bad translations. Did Vladimir Putin really say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the ‘greatest tragedy’ of the 20th century? Many would say not. The official translation is that the collapse was ‘a major geopolitical catastrophe’, which though similar is actually very different. Did ex-President Ahmadinejad of Iran really say that Israel must be ‘wiped off the map’? Some say yes, but others like Juan Cole argue that what he actually did was express a hope that someday Israel would disappear – again similar, but fundamentally different. The point here is that dodgy, or at the very least contestable, translations can rapidly gain a life of their own and be accepted as absolute truth. They then spread far and wide as a sort of fake news.

Which brings us to this week’s revelation that Vladimir Putin was once an artilleryman. While at university, it seems, he had the rank of reserve artillery lieutenant. This previously unknown detail from Putin’s past soon appeared throughout the Western press. The Guardian, for instance, reported that,

Vladimir Putin has revealed that he commanded an artillery battalion during the Soviet period, a detail of his shadowy biography that was previously unknown.

Putin made the comment during a visit on Monday to St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress, where he pulled the lever on a cannon that fires a daily salute at noon over the Neva River.

“I received the rank of lieutenant as an artilleryman, as the commander of a howitzer artillery battalion… 122mm [calibre],” Putin said, according to video footage posted by the Kremlin. He gave no further details.

Other press outlets leapt onto the battalion commander bandwagon. ‘Putin reveals for the first time that he commanded an artillery battalion,’ says the Daily Mail. ‘Vladimir Putin says he once commanded an artillery battalion,’ claims NewsweekAnd so on.

Except Putin didn’t say anything of the sort.

An artillery unit consists of individual guns grouped together into batteries (normally four to eight guns per battery). Batteries are then grouped into battalions (which the Brits sometimes call regiments, though Russian regiments are larger, consisting of several battalions). Assuming six guns a battery, and three batteries per battalion, an artillery battalion might have 18 guns. That’s a lot for a junior reserve lieutenant to command.

The Russian term for an artillery battalion is ‘divizion’ (дивизион), which shouldn’t be confused with ‘diviziia’ (дивизия), which is the equivalent of the Western term ‘division’. But Putin did not say that he had commanded a divizion; he said he had commanded a ‘vzvod’ (взвод). More precisely, his exact words were: ‘ Я получил звание лейтенант как артиллерист, командир взвода управления гаубичной артиллерии’, which translates roughly as ‘I received the rank of lieutenant, as an artilleryman, commander of the control platoon of howitzer artillery’.

So Putin did not say that he commanded an artillery battalion. What he actually said was that he commanded a platoon.

Did anybody get this right? I’ve been able to find only one outlet which did – Sputnik News (though even this managed to screw things up by talking about an artillery ‘division’, which is probably a confusion with the Russian word ‘divizion’, i.e. battalion). Thus Sputnik tells us:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on 7 January that he had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant as platoon commander of a howitzer artillery division.

‘It turns out, we are both artillerymen. I was promoted to lieutenant as an artilleryman, platoon commander of a howitzer artillery division… 122-millimetre [calibre]’, Putin stated.

I realize that this may appear stunningly pedantic. Battalion, platoon, what does it matter? It matters because in the first place, if you can’t get basic facts right, you don’t deserve to be trusted; and second, because it tells us something about how ‘fake news’ spreads. Someone says something which others consider a juicy story, and then they just repeat it. Along the way, nobody bothers to check the facts. The result is completely false headlines which will no doubt soon be repeated far and wide as established truth.

The battalion commander story was obvious nonsense. Anybody with a tiny bit of knowledge of military affairs should have realized that a reserve lieutenant could not possibly have commanded a battalion. The Guardian, which got it wrong, is of course a bastion of top notch journalism, despite publishing such bloopers as last week’s claim that Viktor Suvorov’s Icebreaker theory (that Stalin intended to attack Germany in 1941) ‘now has broad acceptance among historians’ (it doesn’t, and has been thoroughly debunked in great detail by Gabriel Gorodetsky and others). Sputnik, on the other hand, which got it right, is a purveyor of fake news and ‘disinformation’. Go figure!

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24 thoughts on “Today’s fake news pedantry”

      1. I often am. ‘Sardonic’ is another word which has been used to describe my style. I hope most readers understand…

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      2. I was being sarcastic.
        as reader, yes admittedly, I am a fan of it in all its stages from irony, sarcasm to cynicism. And if are drawn to it, i guess, i must mirror it.

        dedicated to Lyttenbourg, gone?:
        … in hindsight, there may have been a much longer ‘aura’ (as experienced as bio-psychological symptom) on SST, demands I better mark one of those instances, Let’s say with “irony alert”. Up to an admittedly cynical comment of mine. From there on matters went downhill. Up to the suggestion, I maybe was many people writing under my aka.

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  1. Could it be that they deliberately mis-translate?

    As part of the information war – the western media use the fact that the vast majority of the public cannot understand Russian.

    The powers that be then control the narrative and tell us what he said.

    These type of juicy quotes about shooting artillery fit in with image the KGB spy assassinating enemies etc

    This is nothing knew – Did Kruschev for example say during the Cold War “we will bury you”

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  2. Dear Professor Robinson, following your example of pedantry, I’d like to correct what I see as an imperfect understanding of Russian military terminology on your part, with all due respect. The long strings of genitives can confuse even native speakers, and Putin’s phrase should be parsed as “[взвода управления] гаубичной артиллерии” rather than “взвода [управления гаубичной артилерии]”. The term “взвод управления” can be translated as “control platoon”; it is a sub-unit of a battery responsible for reconnaissance, signals, and command support. A very rough analogue in US Army artillery, as far as I can tell, is the Fire Direction Center.

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  3. Interesting, in the German Bundeswehr my Zug (Platoon) had 4 howitzers (PZH2000) not one.

    A “Trupp” had one.

    The battery had 8 howitzers, and the batallion 32.

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      1. Russian wikipedia says that a divizion has 2-4 batteries, and the following platoons: отдельные взвода при нём (взвод обеспечения, взвод управления дивизиона, взвод управления начальника артиллерии полка, дивизионный медицинский пункт) и 3 самоходных батареи. В каждой самоходной батарее было 3 взвода: взвод управления и 2 огневых взвода). Going by this, and by Agrostis’ comments above, then it seems likely that Putin was saying that he commanded either the взвод управления дивизиона or one of the взвод управления of the batteries, so I will amend the post accordingly.

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  4. Ha, ha!! It all reminds me of President Mission Accomplished’s dramatic carrier landing aboard the USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, in which he and his stage-management team went above and beyond the call of duty to create the impression the President was a bona-fide carrier aviator who could take his place in the air wing tomorrow if he had to, right down to the painted “George W Bush Commander-in-Chief” right below the cockpit window of the plane in which he arrived.

    http://www.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS/05/01/bush.carrier.landing/

    Virtually everything about Bush’s warrior newsbomb was a lie – he did not have to arrive in a jet because the carrier was too far out at sea for him to arrive by helicopter, and in fact the carrier had to be maneuvered so that the photo could feature the big ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner without the readers and viewers seeing North Island in the background.

    Meanwhile the notion that Bush flew out to the carrier to thank the crews personally because “These are the men and women who fought a war to keep us free, to protect us and to save us”, as professional liar Ari Fleischer claimed, is so preposterous he should have been laughed out of the room. Iraq never threatened Americans’ freedom in the slightest, and the country only dug in for war when it had exhausted every possibility of averting it and could see America was determined to attack it no matter what it said or did.

    And all the zeal that went into exposing those lies was founded in political partisanship – the Democrats were and are no more interested in the injustice of the Iraq invasion than they are in learning to make Parmesan cheese. They just wanted to make sure the next administration was made up of Democrats.

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  5. Thanks for correcting this mistranslation, Professor.
    I have also been on my own personal quest (or call it a hobbyhorse, if you will) to correct a longstanding mistranslation from Russian.
    Traditionally the Leninist slogan of the April Theses Вся власть Советам! has been mistranslated as “All power to the Soviets”, which is actually the literal translation, but in practice is a sinister-sounding mis-translation.

    The Russian word власть in the mundane sense of the word just means “government”. This word is used every day by Russians as the colloquial synonym for the more formal term правительство.
    Hence, what the Bolshevik slogan actually meant, in a rather mundane (less dramatic) way, was “Switch the government [from the Duma] to the local councils.”

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    1. Harry Shukman, who taught me years ago at Oxford, once gave me an MA thesis written by one of his previous students which claimed to have discovered a disconnect between the first and second halves of Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’. As I recall, the first half contains a lot of stuff along the lines of Вся власть Советам!, but the second half entirely ditches all that and instead talks about the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. The thesis argued that this was because the first half was written before the July Days, when Lenin believed that the Bolsheviks could gain control of the Soviets, whereas the second half was written shortly afterwards, when Lenin had decided that the Soviets were a lost cause as far as the Bolsheviks were concerned, and so he was no longer interested in Вся власть Советам!. After the Kornilov revolt, the Bolsheviks began doing much better in the Soviets, and so Вся власть Советам! was resurrected.

      In short, Lenin never truly believed in Вся власть Советам!, or at least only believed in it as long as they were Bolshevik-controlled Soviets. Вся власть Советам! was just a slogan, an instrument for gaining power, to be ditched when not useful. What Lenin truly believed in was Вся власть Большевикам! Or perhaps more accurately, Вся власть Ленину!

      I found it quite convincing.

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      1. This is actually mind boggling, you guys supposedly study this stuff professionally for decades and can’t even get basic terminology right,

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      2. Oi! Well, there may be a grain of truth in some of that; but my main point is that the general translation “All power to the Soviets” is, in essence, a MIS-translation, albeit technically correct.
        In the situation of dual power that then existed, there were 2 institutions (the Duma and the Soviets) both carrying out governmental functions. Just focusing on the April Theses, what the slogan actually meant was “All the government (not just half of it) should be switched to the Soviets”. My keep point being that the Russian word власть should be translated as “government” and not “power”.
        Obviously, Lenin saw the Soviets as the vehicle by which the Bolsheviks could complete the “permanent revolution” and leap over the bourgeois phase to the proletarian dictatorship. That part is true.
        As for the Вся власть Ленину! , come on, Prof, that’s just a cheap shot! Lenin wasn’t stupid enough to want to be a total dictator on his own, he saw his political party as running the government and hoped to remain head of that party.
        Just like is done everywhere. One might as well say Theresa May seeks absolute dictatorship — no, she just wants to be head of her party, and her party head of the government — is that so wrong? It’s what every politician wants.

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      3. Yalensis, dictatorship means dictator. See, it’s easy
        For me dictatorship of the proletariat is more is misrepresented,
        All governmental power or something to counsels is nor so far off.

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      4. To Zzz: Well, there’s sort of 2 things going on right here. The Professor introduced the “dictatorship” theme, and that’s a whole n’other ideological discussion. Probably a non-fruitful one, since everybody has their unmovable position on Bolsheviks, one way or another.
        But just focusing on the purely technical issue of correct translation from Russian to English, something I believe in, even apart from ideology, I believe I am on uber-solid ground. And I don’t even think the Professor disagrees with me on this particular technical point, he just objects to Lenin himself and had to say something negative about the man. Like, he thirsted to be a bloody dictator, however normal and banal his slogans.

        Anyhow, here is an example I just saw this morning in this piece:

        «Но я считаю, что можно не любить власть, но нельзя не любить свою страну.

        Correct translation: “I reckon that it is possible to not love one’s government, but it is not permitted to NOT love one’s country.”

        Just another banal example, of a million others, that in colloquial Russian, now, as in Lenin’s time, the word власть simply means “government” in this context.

        My only point being that the usual Westie translation of “All POWER to the Soviets” makes the slogan sound way more sinister than it actually was. “Power” is a very semantically loaded word. “Government” – not so much.
        Okay, I rest my case. We can debate the April Theses and the July Days at a different time.

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  6. I don’t know about the artillery platoon thing; this really does sound like journalistic sloppiness.

    But in many cases (like Ahmadinejad/Israel) it can hardly be anything but deliberate misinterpretation, purposeful demonization.

    And it doesn’t have to be mistranslation. One episode that stuck in my mind was Putin saying in an interview (back in 2014) that ‘we are not going to war with the Ukrainian people’ … ‘if we were to make the decision to go to war, it would only be for defending Ukrainian citizens, so heaven forbid anyone in the Ukrainian military would attempt to shoot at their own civilians, while we’re standing behind them’.

    Something like that. This was widely presented by the Russian opposition – all in Russian, no translation – as an evil plan to use Ukrainian civilians as human shields in military operations.

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  7. Some one can explain me how experience of commanding artillery whatever is mean something, shady, or even newsworthy and how size make difference,

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  8. Isn’t artillery ‘platoon’ actually called a section? When I was in the Finnish army 1983-84 we had 2 guns per section and 2 sections per battery, total 4 artillery pieces.

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    1. I used the term ‘platoon’ because that’s the literal translation of the Russian word. Putin used the same word as for an infantry platoon.

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