Sunday, May 31, 2009

Famous Example 2: Holocausting Palestine

What exactly did Matan Vilnai threaten the Palestinians with a bigger one of? Ynet says a “Holocaust”, the BBC is more cautious: it gives the Hebrew word and explains it. But what is a “Shoah”? Even without the BBC’s help, you should still be suspicious of the word “Holocaust”. Firstly, we are talking a word of immense cultural significance, and one that naturally has very different significance to Jews and non-Jews. Whatever word it is may be impossible to translate reliably. Secondly, we are dealing with a Greek lendword, which you would not generally expect Hebrew, Arabic or other languages without Christian roots to use as much. So, as a non-Hebrew speaker, before you even click on the BBC link you should expect to see an entirely unknown word, probably ending in ‘h’ and full of ‘sh’s and unpronounceable things at the back of the throat. Thirdly, did he threaten “a” holocaust or “the” Holocaust? Many languages, such as Russian or Japanese, do not use ‘a’ or ‘the’. A subtle distinction, but is it one Vilnai or the translator added? Finally, ‘Holocaust’ is a very general word used for a very specific event – you can have nuclear holocaust, cannibal holocaust, zombie holocaust, but take away the adjectives, add a capital and you have a very real event. Expect other languages to do similarly, which means there may be alternative connotations and alternative usages.

This turns out to be the case – the BBC tells us that the Hebrew
שואה shoah
means “catastrophe”. (Although there is also the word ‘Churban Europa’, or ‘European destruction’ and actually coined earlier in Yiddish). ‘Catastrophe’ is a fairly everyday word. So expect its non-genocidal connotations to be more common. But how serious a catastrophe? Motorway pile-up serious? Or red wine on a white dress serious? I don’t know. The only way I can think of of finding out is to see what the reaction in the English-language Israeli press is. Haaretz only seems to mention it in passing, and the Jerusalem Post treats him as an indiscrete, Duke of Edinburgh figure. From this we can conclude one of two things. Either
  1. the Israeli press, even left-wing publications like Haaretz, is so murderously callous towards Palestinians and has such little perspective on its own history that it thinks almost nothing of threats of genocide in Hitler’s own words, or
  2. it’s not such a powerful word, being closer to ‘catastrophe’ and therefore more mundane in its associations, and Vilnai is just a cretin who needs to be kept away from sensitive situations at all times.

The reaction of Vilnai himself confirms the second. He tries to backtrack. He says that he didn’t mean genocide. Imagine this in English. Nobody, not even Prince Phillip, could threaten an entire people with a “Holocaust” and put it down to poor choice of words. Some might argue you could get away with it in a hot-house of hate like Israel, but even if that were the case, could you still survive on the world stage? Nobody would even try. From this we have learned that, as one would expect, in Israel the language of the Holocaust works in a rather different way to in Europe, and we’ve also gleaned a new, slightly untranslatable Hebrew word and the vital knowledge that we should treat it carefully if we don’t want to look like an arse.

Interestingly enough, ‘catastrophe’ is one of the ways
النكبة al-nakba
is translated. Could Vilnai have been ineptly referencing that “catastrophe” instead of the Nazi “catastrophe”? Let’s have a look. Go to the Wikipedia linked above. Go to ‘languages’ and click on ‘עברית’. That’s Hebrew for ‘Hebrew’, as you can tell from here. Ignore the article and look at the title. You’ve got a translation into Hebrew written by a native speaker. This is a good trick with wikipedia. But you probably don’t understand any of the funny Hebrew squiggles. No problem. Just google ‘Hebrew alphabet’. Lots of Jews are keen to help you. So that first one is a ‘h’, the next one is an ‘n’, then we’ve got a ‘k’, a ‘b’ and a ‘h’. So it looks like we’re dealing with ‘nkbh’. But, even though Israelis say
הנכבה ha-nakba
as well, I imagine they’re taught in school or from the papers that it means ‘catastrophe’/‘shoah’. So that could still be a factor. Or it might not. Who knows?

So why can’t we trust this ‘Holocaust’ story and what did we learn?

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Famous Example 1: Wiping Israel

Plenty of stuff's already been written on the famous Ahmadinejad/Israel/map quote, but I want to have a look at the mainstream translation itself: Now, I have no idea what
بايد از صفحه روزگار محو شود
actually means, but I can get a lot of information from the phrase that first hit the headlines:
Israel must be wiped off the map
Now, you should see immediately one thing to be wary of: the idiom. Persians probably don’t say “wiped off the map”. As far as I know, which admittedly is not that far, nobody says it except us English speakers. One idiom has become another. The Guardian article, in fact, uses two, later upgrading it to “off the face of the earth”. Next, notice the victim: Israel. Names of countries are constantly used to mean all kinds of things: the geographical entity, the historical power, the government or its representatives, the people, or the vague set of interests. Countries are a very common synecdoche. “Israel” could mean any of those things, and more besides, given as its “people” can be and has been used to mean both its citizens and the entirety of world Jewry. And without context, we have no way of knowing which one Ahmadinejad wanted to do whatever it was he wanted to do to. This otherwise brilliant article, for example, and I’m sure there are others, doesn’t hesitate to tell us in no uncertain terms exactly what Ahmadinejad meant, despite having no more idea than anyone else.

We can also have a look at a direct translation: This article makes some interesting points, particularly that we can actually recognise one word – ‘regime’ – and immediately debunk claims that he is threatening the population.
"The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.
Firstly, it’s vague. Secondly, ‘this regime’ sounds awkward in English. This implies a bad or hasty translation, even in a word-for-word job. Articles and limiting words work very differently in different languages – Slavic languages barely use them, for example Czech gets by on ‘this’, ‘one’ and ‘some’. French and Arabic stick ‘le/la/les’ and ‘al-’ in front of everything. Clumsy articles should set off alarm bells.

Thirdly, ‘must’ also sounds a little unnatural. It’s not a common word in spoken English and this again implies a clumsy or difficult translation. Modal verbs also vary a lot more between languages than you would expect. The German ‘müssen’ covers ‘must’, ‘have to’ ‘need to’ ‘definitely’, ‘necessarily’ and others, ‘sollen’ covers ‘have to’ ‘should’ and ‘supposed to’. We can’t be sure whether Ahmadinejad was using ‘must’ to stress necessity or inevitability. ‘Must’ in English can cover both.

Finally ‘vanish’ is an intransitive verb, whereas ‘wipe’ is transitive. This makes it particularly tricky – the lines between intransitive, reflexive and passive verbs are surprisingly different and surprisingly narrow in many languages. For example French, German and Czech all say "I shower me/myself" and not just "I shower". In many languages some intransitive verbs are formed as reflexives and reflexives can be used as passives and in Spanish, reflexives are the only way to form passives. In Hebrew they are also one and the same. He could have said ‘vanish’ or he could have said ‘be made to vanish’ or he could have said ‘cause itself to vanish’. I don’t know how this works in Farsi. What we do know though, is that he was using very, very vague terms to describe Israel and we should think twice before putting words in his mouth.

We also now know some instant Farsi: ‘Rezhim’ means ‘regime’, it turns out. But foreign lendwords often mean different things – remember the first time your French teacher told you off for using ‘actuellement’ or ‘contrôler’ wrong? Does ‘rezhim’ mean the same thing in Farsi as ‘regime’ does in English? I don’t know, ask an Iranian. But I do know I’ve often been lazy with false friends at times, and at others I’ve found myself frustrated that the English equivalent, while basically meaning the same thing, has subtly different connotations or usages.

So what parts of this phrase can’t we trust?

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What is Translation for the Monolingual?

The problem with translation is that those who need it are largely unable to examine it, and those who can examine it have little need of it. The more you need it, the less you understand it, and we generally take accurate translation in the news for granted. In fact, we tend to forget that it even happens a lot of the time, unless a particularly tricky issue comes up. Even if we do spot a difficult translation, the debate is always a limited one, and only fluent speakers of both languages can really comment with any authority. And of course, having lots of people from the same country or culture dominating the debate can prejudice it. You can’t really do much about that. You can only really argue in depth about translations if you know the language. But even if you don’t know a word of a the source language, by careful reading of the English version and thinking about what you know about other languages, you can often spot the potential pitfalls and difficulties the translator faced. That is what this blog will attempt to do, sort of as and when it crops up in the news and blogosphere and stuff.

If you are interested in contributing to this experiment, please comment.

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