Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

Good translators speak for others, not for themselves. So why is a translator for Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman being prosecuted as a co-conspirator?


Translation is the art of erasing oneself in order to speak in another’s voice. Good translators speak for others, not for themselves. So when NYU graduate student Mohammed Yousry took on the job of translating Arabic for lawyers representing Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric convicted of conspiring to bomb several bridges and tunnels around Manhattan, Yousry agreed, like any good translator, to follow his lawyers’ lead. For doing his job, he now faces the possibility of twenty years in prison as a supporter of terrorism. He is scheduled to be sentenced in a federal court in New York in September.

His case has received far less attention than that of his more prominent co-defendant, civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart, but if anything his conviction is even less defensible. I criticized Stewart’s conviction last year [see Cole, “The Lynne Stewart Trial,” March 7, 2005]. Stewart undoubtedly contravened an administrative agreement when she issued a press statement on behalf of the sheik at a time when she had sworn not to facilitate his communications with the general public. But failing to adhere to an administrative agreement is not a crime, so prosecutors trumped up the charges by claiming that she had criminally defrauded the government and provided material support to terrorism. They then tried her and Yousry in the most prejudicial way possible. They played irrelevant tapes of Osama bin Laden for the Manhattan jury. And they refused to sever the trial of Stewart and Yousry from that of Ahmed Sattar, who had engaged–without Stewart’s or Yousry’s knowledge or approval–in egregious and plainly criminal conduct, issuing a fake fatwa from the sheik urging followers to “kill Jews everywhere.”

Yousry was essentially held liable for his part in Stewart’s “crime” of issuing a press release purporting to represent the sheik’s views on a cease-fire in Egypt. But Yousry did not even sign the administrative agreement that Stewart contravened. He was a translator, not a lawyer, and he relied on the lawyers to make the decisions about what could be communicated to the sheik, and about what could be said about the sheik to the outside world. It was Stewart’s decision, not Yousry’s, to issue the press release in question, and he played no role in that decision. In fact, Yousry, a nonpracticing Muslim married to a Baptist who raised their daughter as a Christian, was never a follower of the sheik’s and had publicly accused the sheik of seeking to replace one form of totalitarianism in Egypt with another.

The government’s theory was that by translating the sheik’s words, which Stewart eventually issued in the press release, Yousry was a co-conspirator in the crime. But the notion that Yousry was a conspirator is belied by the record. Unbeknownst to Yousry, the government taped the prison meetings with the sheik, as well as Yousry’s phone conversations. In the prison meetings, Yousry and the sheik were often the only ones in the room who spoke Arabic. Had they truly been co-conspirators, they could have plotted all sorts of illicit activities without the lawyers or the guards knowing. Yet the tapes show that Yousry never talked to the sheik about anything that was not approved in advance by the lawyers, and never communicated the sheik’s words to anyone other than the legal team. Yousry consistently sought advance approval from the lawyers as to what he could discuss with the sheik and adhered to their instructions at every stage.

Following the lawyers’ lead would not be a defense in every situation, of course. Had Stewart told Yousry to shoot one of the guards to assist in a jail break, it would be no defense that he followed her instructions. But translating the sheik’s words was exactly what Yousry was hired–with government approval–to do. The lawyers then decided what to do with that information. It was not Yousry’s decision. But it is Yousry’s freedom that will be taken away.

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