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Faulty Translation of a Speech Leads to Criticisms of Rep. Ilhan Omar
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Faulty Translation of a Speech Leads to Criticisms of Rep. Ilhan Omar

A viral video that prompted calls for her resignation featured incorrect subtitles.

Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on September 20, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has faced criticism for her remarks in a January 27 speech at a Minneapolis event marking recent elections in her home country of Somalia. Rhoda J. Elmi, the deputy minister of foreign affairs for the Republic of Somaliland—a small breakaway state on the horn of Africa that is not recognized by any foreign nation—tweeted a video of the speech with English subtitles that landed Omar, who had addressed the largely Somali American crowd in her native language, in hot water with critics. 

Those critics have homed in on two specific statements: 1) “we are an organized society, brothers and sisters, people of the same blood, people who know they are Somalians first, Muslims second,” and 2) “the U.S. government will only do what Somalians in the U.S. tell them to do. They will do what we want and nothing else. They must follow our orders and that is how we will safeguard the interest of Somalia.”

Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, the Republican majority whip, demanded that Omar resign from office.

On January 31, Emmer also demanded an ethics investigation into Omar’s remarks.

“Her comments are frankly a slap in the face to the Minnesotans she’s elected to represent, and it is a dereliction of her oath of office. In fact, I would argue it’s in direct contradiction to the oath she took for that office,” Emmer said in a January 31 interview for Twin Cities News Talk. “Time and time again, Rep. Omar has demonstrated that her priorities are not with America or our allies.” 

However, the Minnesota Reformer—a St. Paul-based nonprofit news outlet that covers Minnesota politics and policy issues—published an article Thursday featuring two independent translations that conflicted with the subtitles referenced by Elmi and Emmer.

Red flags shot up for Reformer journalists when they noticed that seemingly nobody had confirmed that the subtitles reflected an accurate translation of Omar’s remarks. “If you look in the story that [Emmer] shared, it says they could not independently confirm the authenticity of the translation, which I found to be a little shocking,” J. Patrick Coolican, Reformer editor in chief, told The Dispatch Fact Check.

Coolican spoke to a Somali-American source with language certifications who provided the Reformer with an initial translation. When that translation differed from that of the video, deputy editor Max Nesterak worked with a court interpreter to have a second translation provided. The two independent translations were almost identical, and both differed in important ways from the subtitles provided in the original video of Omar. Significantly, both of Omar’s most controversial quotes in the video were mistranslated.

“If you look at the transcription, that’s not really when she said at all,” Coolican explained.

Instead, according to the Reformer’s translation, Rep. Omar actually said, “We are people who know that they are Somali and Muslim,” and, “My answer was that the U.S. government will do what we tell the U.S. government to do. That is the confidence we need to have as Somalis. We live in this country. This is the country where we pay taxes. This is the country that has elected a woman from your community. For as long as I am in Congress, no one will take over the seas belonging to the nation of Somalia and the United States will not support others who seek to steal from us. So feel comfortable Somali Minnesotans that the woman you sent to Congress is aware of this issue and feels the same way you do.”

Omar defended her remarks in a January 28 tweet, saying that interpretations of her remarks were “slanted” and “completely off.

In her speech, Omar discussed the issue of Somali unity and criticized a recent deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland to allow Ethiopia—the highest population landlocked country in the world—access to the unrecognized breakaway state’s coastline. Somaliland’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, who is opposed to Omar’s position on the issue, posted the original mistranslation of Omar’s speech. “There’s so much motive here to distort what [Omar] is saying and to create a mess for Omar in her domestic politics,” Coolican said.

Despite the Reformer’s translations clarifying Omar’s remarks, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is still moving to force a House vote to censure Omar. Greene introduced a resolution accusing Omar of making “treasonous statements” that directly quotes the inaccurate translation of her remarks. On Thursday, after the Reformer had already brought the mistranslation to light, Greene read the false translations verbatim on the floor of the House.

Rep. Omar, Rep. Emmer, and Rep. Greene’s offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment. “The attacks being lobbed against me are not only completely false, they are rooted in xenophobia and Islamophobia,” Omar said in a statement to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “This is a manufactured controversy based on an inaccurate translation taken entirely out of context.” 

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Alex Demas is a fact checker at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in England as a financial journalist and earned his MA in Political Economy at King's College London. When not heroically combating misinformation online, Alex can be found mixing cocktails, watching his beloved soccer team Aston Villa lose a match, or attempting to pet stray cats.