14 June 2007

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Calls for the Dissolution of Jerusalem City Council

For anyone with an interest in translation, or for that matter anyone concerned with the presentation and distortion of facts, the looming/escalating Iran crisis is one of the most interesting of recent years. The hinge is the famous quotation by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – usually translated as “Israel must be wiped off the map”. This is the most widely used and recognised translation, but it hits many pitfalls. A word-for-word translation gives:
“This regime that occupies Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.”
That he is actually quoting (misquoting in fact – the Ayatollah said “stage of time”) someone else is the first reason to distrust the hysteria around it, but is not interesting in the same way as the translation. The latter part can be interpreted in a variety of ways – literally it makes little sense, so most would assume it is an idiom, and it is, according to most translators, an idiomatic way of saying ‘vanish completely’. However, using ‘vanish’ in an active form instead of ‘be wiped’ in the passive implies internal forces instead of a hypothetical nuclear attack. Even more complicated, some languages, like English, are more profligate with passives than others, some, such as Spanish, have no passive form, and most Indo-European languages can imply passive meaning with active forms, or use the same form for passive, reflexive and intransitive verbs. Could ‘vanish’ also mean ‘vanish itself’ or ‘be vanished’? This is the first problem the translator faces – different methods of expression in different languages.

The “regime that occupies Jerusalem” is even more complicated. Firstly, the linguistic problems – does ‘regime’ have the same negative connotations as in English? It is more likely taken directly from French than from us, where it can also mean a diet. Could this also be the case in Farsi? Most languages do not distinguish between ‘occupies’ and ‘is occupying’, which do we think he meant? The whole phrase, however, hits a new problem. It clearly means Israel, but does it mean Israel as a whole, just the parts occupying Palestine, just the parts occupying Jerusalem, the whole country or just its ‘regime’? Most would doubt this phrase meant the whole country, George Bush, for example, spoke of destroying the ‘regime’ of Iraq, but, we assume, hoped not to destroy the entire country. However, there are also personal political issues to take into account. Many in the Iranian government refuse to call Israel by name, therefore this would simply be one of the many euphemisms commonly used as simply ‘Israel’. This in turn infects literal use of these phrases in the same way ‘passing water’ is always tainted with urination. Even the seemingly simple modal verb, ‘must’ can carry a wide variety of meanings, levels of certainty, strengths of intention and implications.

This table shows a variety of possible meanings, simply connect the columns and choose whatever statement best suits your agenda.
This regime occupying Jerusalem
must
vanish from the page of time
The entire State of Israel
must
be dissolved
The Jewish people
never have existed
The current Israeli administration
will
be destroyed
The Israeli people
redraw its borders
The military occupation of Palestine
should
end
Israel’s post-1967 borders
be omitted from historical record
The Israeli political system
shall
be wiped from the face of the earth
Jerusalem’s local government
be brought to an end

Anything from “The military occupation of Palestine must end” to “All Jews will be destroyed” to “Jerusalem’s local government should be dissolved” is possible, and most translations and interpretations in the West approximate the second. Considering Ahmadinejad’s history of belligerence towards Israel, the more belligerent translations are perhaps more likely, but how certain can we be of this history? Ambiguity and distortion are unavoidable in translation of any kind, and there are other kinds of translation involved in building up a picture of a nation and its main character.

The Holocaust is a concept that requires particularly careful translation. It is a peculiarly European part of history, in which Iran had no involvement. The Holocaust, for countries outside of Europe and America, is a less weighty historical event than it is for the nations who were involved in forming and liberating the camps For Jews it is even more different - who could argue that ‘ha-Shoah’ means exactly the same to Israelis as ‘der Holocaust’ does to Germans? Its importance concerning the rights of Jews within society is also minimal in countries who, having expelled their Jewish population, are no longer concerned with the issue. However the resulting creation of Israel is more emphatic where Israel is more of a political issue. Oddly enough, Holocaust denial translates more easily into Western consciousness, being in both societies a prelude to anti-Semitic rhetoric, which too is often surprisingly similar. Even calling the Holocaust a ‘myth’ is rife with difficulties. The famously devout C.S. Lewis, speaking to the famously mythology-obsessed J.R.R Tolkein, described Christianity as “True myths, myths that really happened”. Is it not possible for blatantly true events to take on the social and literary function of a myth?

The difficulty of translating words, euphemisms, idioms, metaphors, even historical events, should make us wary of our perceptions of any culture. I don’t doubt that anti-Semitism is driving much of Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and policy, but there are many circular arguments that we use to confirm this. We believe he called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, this translation is confirmed by his attitude to the Holocaust, which is confirmed by his calling it a ‘myth’. We know ‘myth’ to be an accurate translation because of his history of anti-Semitism, which we see in his belligerent rhetoric towards Israel. His belligerence towards Israel, combined with his stated ambition to wipe it off the map shows he cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons, and his desire to wipe another country off the face of the earth is proof that he is trying to acquire them.

Subtle nuances will always be lost, or more likely altered, in translation, but overall this is seldom a problem. But subtle changes in meaning build up, especially when they feed off and contribute to a distorted and probably prejudiced picture of their background. We have a tendency to take accurate translation for granted, even though we get most of our translations from the Middle East from one source – the Middle East Media Research Institute, whose connections are perhaps dubious. Plans for the invasion of Iran are already being made, and especially plans for its media-friendly justification, and we should always be wary of hearing our enemies’ words via our mouths.

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