Monday, February 26, 2007

Lost in Translation

As you may be aware, Professor Juan Cole disputes that President Ahmadinejad ever said that Israel should be wiped from the map. He argues that Ahmadinejad actually said that "the occupation regime over Jerusalem must be erased from the page of time".

In a private email which was hijacked by Christopher Hitchens without permission and subsequently published on Prof. Cole's blog, he wrote:
Ahmadinejad was not making a threat, he was quoting a saying of Khomeini and urging that pro-Palestinian activists in Iran not give up hope-- that the occupation of Jerusalem was no more a continued inevitability than had been the hegemony of the Shah's government.

Whatever this quotation from a decades-old speech of Khomeini may have meant, Ahmadinejad did not say that "Israel must be wiped off the map" with the implication that phrase has of Nazi-style extermination of a people. He said that the occupation regime over Jerusalem must be erased from the page of time.
There are those who argue that this is a triviality, that the two translations have essentially the same meaning but there are important differences. Prof. Cole has alluded to one of them in the above.

Firstly, the notion that Ahmadinejad wants to wipe Israel from the map can be used to evoke Hitler and the Holocaust. Yesterday, everyone's favourite propagandist, Con Coughlin, provided a perfect example of how this is done:
Most Israelis believe their country will do the same again if the outside world fails to call a halt to Iran's controversial uranium enrichment programme, which few in Israel doubt is ultimately aimed at giving the ayatollahs a nuclear weapons arsenal to fulfil Ahmadinejad's pledge to erase the Jewish state from the map.

Having already suffered a near-apocalypse in the form of the Holocaust, the Jewish people have no intention of being the hapless victims of Ahmadinejad's genocidal designs.

Secondly, the phrase "wipe Israel from the map" evokes a literal meaning which conjures up images of mushroom clouds over Tel Aviv.

For those attempting to portray the Iranians as desperate to acquire nuclear weapons so that they can physically destroy Israel, the initial translation of Ahmadinejad's phrase was a gift. With bows on. No wonder they've been so reluctant to give it back.

But there are a number of problems with this whole line of reasoning. The most glaring is the fact that Israel is home to some of Islam's most holy sites. The idea that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran would turn the Dome of the Rock into radioactive slag seems rather far-fetched. Also, the right of return of Palestinian refuges, one of the keys to the continuing antagonism towards Israel in the Middle East, isn't going to be greatly aided by destroying the country. And, like pretty much any other government, the Iranians are strongly motivated by a desire to hold on to power. They know that an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel would mean the end of the Islamic Republic.

And what does Ahmadinejad himself say about the infamous quotation? TIME magazine asked him:
TIME: You have been quoted as saying Israel should be wiped off the map. Was that merely rhetoric, or do you mean it?

Ahmadinejad: People in the world are free to think the way they wish. We do not insist they should change their views. Our position toward the Palestinian question is clear: we say that a nation has been displaced from its own land. Palestinian people are killed in their own lands, by those who are not original inhabitants, and they have come from far areas of the world and have occupied those homes. Our suggestion is that the 5 million Palestinian refugees come back to their homes, and then the entire people on those lands hold a referendum and choose their own system of government. This is a democratic and popular way. Do you have any other suggestions?
There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad wants to see the end of the "occupying regime over Jerusalem"; he has said so repeatedly. There is, however, an enormous difference between that and the suggestion that he has said he wants to physically destroy the country of Israel along with all of the people living in it.

Iraqis are already suffering the disastrous consequences of one war justified by spin and misrepresentation. It would be the direst of follies to allow that to happen again with Iran.

Strawman Disclaimers in Full
  • None of the above is meant to suggest an opinion as to whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Evidence is thin on the ground but there is a possibility that they are.
  • None of the above is meant to suggest that it would be no bad thing if Iran developed nuclear weapons. It would be a bad thing.
  • None of the above is meant to suggest that Ahmadinejad is a good President of Iran He's not.
  • None of the previous disclaimers are a sop to those on hawks on "the right". They are my actual views


septicisle. said...

Good post. Everyone seems to ignore the fact that an attack on Israel, especially a nuclear one, would end up killing almost as many Palestinians as it would Israelis. I somehow doubt Iran wants to go down in history as destroying/making historic Palestine uninhabitable.

OllyOnions said...

surely Christopher Hitchens?

CuriousHamster said...

Oops, thanks olly. I've corrected it.

Getting the Hitchens' brothers confused, particularly on foreign policy, is not good.

Grant Thoms said...

Any nuclear attack on Israel is likely to have fallout for most of the Middle East making it inhabitable for decades if not centuries... however, it's more like that an American accidental bombing in Iran could do just that which is why Bliar is pulling the troops out now!

Sunny said...

I love the strawman disclaimers. So damn necessary these days. Good post!

Neil Craig said...

One of the convenient thaings about foreigners is that the speak in other languages which can usually be translated, even ligitiamtely, with many nuances. This make it easier for the media to wind us up. I understand that Kruschev's "we will bury you" could equally be translated as we will mourn the inevitable end of capitalism" & that "iron lady" also translares in a less ladylike way.

Katherine said...

Unfortunately, translation "gliches" are sometimes used to excuse appalling behaviour - a la the Putin comment about being envious of a certain politician and his dubious relations with certain women. I believe the word "rape" was, erm, "mistranslated"...

Is it not possible that he really did mean what the translation said? Just a thought.

Osama Saeed said...

MEMRI are an organisation that were created to give the most pro-Israeli tranlations possible from the Muslim world. They've produced some outragoeusly twisted quotes in the past, but even they came nowhere near the "wiped off the map" rubbish - here's their take.

Larry Teabag said...

I guess it's an argument about just how insane Ahmedinejad really is. He's obviously pretty barking, but is he - as the hawks claim - really so mad as to want to turn the entire region into a radioactive desert?

Are his ambitions simply to be the world's most well-equipped suicide bomber?

I don't think the evidence supports that view, but if it is true then every Muslim country in the region has just as great a vested interest in stopping him as Israel does.

sam_m said...

larry teabag:
"I guess it's an argument about just how insane Ahmedinejad really is."
I'd caution against using a translation / cross cultural analysis to question the sanity of a country's leader. But then, I think of how Blair sounds in English, leave alone in Farsi...