Sunday, May 31, 2009

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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