Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Translation and propaganda

Horrifying news from Palestine - a Hamas Mickey Mouse is telling Palestinian kids to "annihilate Jews"! Or not. In fact - after running on a wide range of media, few of whom I suspect will bother to correct their story - this story was independently quickly exposed by several sources, such as Angry Arab, Ali Alarabi, and Brian Whitaker; MEMRI (the Israeli secret services-linked outlet that provided it) made the mistake of providing a video allowing any Arabic-speaker to confirm their mistranslations. With just a bit of spin, the kids' show in question was turned from merely propagandistic to verging on Bond-villain-esque:
* nqāwim, "we will resist", is rendered as "we will fight";
* biṭuxxūnā l-yahūd "the Jews shoot us", is rendered as "we will kill the Jews" (!);
* 'astašhid "I will be a martyr" as "I will commit martyrdom" (I don't think that's even an English expression, but never mind);
* 'ustāđiyyat al-`ālam, literally "professorship of the world" (in context, they clearly mean being at the intellectual forefront of the world), is rendered as "masters of the world".

When challenged on the translation of "biṭuxxūna l-yahūd", the ex-colonel in Israeli military intelligence who runs MEMRI, Yigal Carmon, apparently resorted to insisting that because "yahūd" (Jews) comes at the end, it must somehow be the object! ("Even someone who doesn't know Arabic would listen to the tape and would hear the word 'Jews' is at the end, and also it means it is something to be done to the Jews, not by the Jews.") It is rather difficult to imagine someone running an organisation dedicated to translating Arabic being unaware that subjects in Arabic commonly follow the verb (especially when a pronominal object suffix (-nā "us") is present, as here).

The moral in all this for English-language media is clear: when some helpful organisation sends you a free translation of some foreign-language article or program, do look a gift horse in the mouth, and check the translation with an independent source first. As for readers/viewers of the media in any language - caveat lector! But you no doubt already knew that.


Anonymous said...

Quite the liberal "translation" they've taken there. I wonder how many more of these cartoons they've "translated"; I don't look at the site often enough to know, but I have noticed before that they tend to make the most inflammatory meaning of any word to theatrical effect among American viewers. One must wonder if it was on purpose, or by accident.

Paul D. said...

Wasn't there also a thing recently about CNN mistranslating (for the worse, of course) a speech made in Persian by the Iranian president?

bulbul said...

paul d.,

you must mean the famous "wipe off the map" incident.

I confess I got that one wrong, too.

"Commit martyrdom" actually often appears in (bad) translations from Arabic and even Farsi.
Oh and there's no point in drawing attention to the curious cutting technique used by the MEMRI editing department, is there?

Anonymous said...

Your analysis ignores contextual and cultural factors. For Palestinians, مقاومة "resistance" is simply short for "armed resistance," i.e. - fighting. Although sloppy, the translation is not entirely inaccurate. As far as being shot by Jews, the child's statement is answering a question to the effect of "What will you do for the Palestinian cause?" It is unlikely that “The Jews shoot us,” is a meaning that captures what the speaker intends to say. MEMRI’s interpretation is much more contextually consistent with what we see in the rest of the clip. Third, there is no noteworthy difference between "becoming" a martyr and "committing" martyrdom الاستشهاد In either case, it refers to dying in the course of [armed] resistance. Finally, while you correctly point out that ‘ustadiyyat (الاستاذية) refers to “professorship” [also “mastership”] in an intellectual sense, you neglect to mention that later in the cut, the adult male speaker uses the phrase قيادة اسلامية or qiada islamiya in reference to Islamic rulership of the world.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

You listen to it yourself - there's no way to interpret what the child says as "We will annihilate the Jews". You can very clearly hear both the 3pl subject marker -ū and, following it, the 1pl object marker -nā. You cannot hear any 1pl subject marker n- preceding the verb. It doesn't matter how contextually appropriate the translation supposedly is if it can't be reconciled with what the child is heard to say. Or do you claim to hear her saying something different?

Istišhād, as you no doubt know, is used indiscriminately to refer to dying in the cause, whether as an unarmed civilian, as a fighter, or as a suicide bomber. "Committing martyrdom" isn't idiomatic English to begin with, but its wording implies killing oneself or at least deliberately dying, which the Arabic certainly does not.

Qiyāda can be "leadership" as well as "rule"; I gave MEMRI the benefit of the doubt on that one because, without further context, there's no way to tell which meaning the speaker had in mind.

bulbul said...

It is unlikely that “The Jews shoot us,” is a meaning that captures what the speaker intends to say.
I'm sorry? How do you know what the speaker intends to say except from, you know, their actual words?
If you're saying that the answer does not fit the question, I agree with you. But that is far from rare, especially in conversations where one party is trying to steer it in a specific direction.

You cannot hear any 1pl subject marker n- preceding the verb.
Exactly. What you can clearly hear, however, is the present tense marker b-. So certainly no future "we will".

The Math Skeptic said...

What is the derivation of the طخخ (or is it تخخ?) verb meaning "to shoot?" I can't find it in any Arabic dictionary. I realize that Palestinian spoken Arabic is different from MSA, but usually words in the colloquial language have some connection with the formal language. Is it a loanword from another language?

bulbul said...


it's ṭaḫḫ / yṭuḫḫ (طخ), root ṬḪḪ.
As for its origin, I really don't know. But the connection between words in modern dialects and in CA/MSA is often far from clear. Think شاف.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I know this is the last resort of the incompetent etymologist, but ṭuxx sounds kind of onomatopoeic to me...

Anonymous said...


That was one of the weirder transliterations I've seen...

Since you're obviously all Arabic speakers, what transliteration system do you prefer? I'm a bit anal about these things, and I can't seem to find a good one that works on a normal keyboard. Help would be appreciated.

bulbul said...


what's so weird about it? It's the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft standard, nearly identical to ISO 233:1984. I get my Unicode characters either from Windows Character Map or this Unicode picker. You have to be careful, thouhg, because in most current implementations of Unicode, the characters do not display properly when in italics or bold.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's twice the number of characters, twice the work.

I'd go with T-x-x, perhaps, but I still haven't figured out what to do with, say a "dh" to squeeze it into one character.