Friday, February 29, 2008

Political Mistranslations

An opinion which does not change itself when new facts are introduced, is not an opinion but a prejudice" ... or idiocy. (Some great man said this. Can't remember who)

In politics, words are never well-defined units of meaning; they assume a particularly fluctuating essence when mouthed by politicians and journalists. In a 1950 essay by George Orwell he says “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. It is easy to understand how, within such a context, translation can serve as a definite manipulative device.

A case in point is this most recent kerfuffle.

Here is what happened:

Defense Minster Ehud Barak on Friday blamed Hamas for the escalating violence in the south, and said the Islamic movement would bear the consequences of it. "Hamas is directly responsible for the current situation and will be the one to bear the cost of our response", Barak said during a visit to Ashkelon, adding that "an Israeli response is necessary and will be carried out."

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Army Radio (Galey Tzahal) on Friday:

The more Qassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, [the Palestinians] will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves,"

The word "shoah", Haaretz journalist tells us, is the Hebrew word for holocaust or disaster. The word is generally used to refer to the Nazi Holocaust, but a spokesman for Vilnai said the deputy defense minister used the word in the sense of "disaster," saying "he did not mean to make any allusion to the genocide."

That Palestinians should pounce on the use of the word "shoah" to cry foul and make the best use of this in their usual resort to the appeal to misericordiam is hardly surprising:

Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's prime minister in the Gaza Strip, said: "This is a proof of Israel's pre-planned aggressive intentions against our people. They want the world to condemn what they call the Holocaust and now they are threatening our people with a holocaust."

What never ceases to amaze is the way some Leftist Jewish intellectuals purporting to fight antisemitism -- a racist crime grounded in defamation and malicious misrepresentation of Jews, motivated by deep contempt and loathing to Jews -- back the Hamas interpretation, even after being apprised of the meaning and usage of the term "shoah" in everyday Hebrew parlance.

Earlier today I left a few comments on Engage, some of which were garbaged, in the fine tradition of Engage's inconsistent and uneven editorial policies, but these four made it through:

1. Shoah in Hebrew parlance means disaster. "The Shoah" is the Holocaust, (Ha-Shoah). A lot of mischief can be whipped up out of lack of familiarity with a language.

Recently I ran in this article in which the writer makes a lot of fuss over the meaning of "Kadima", Olmert's party. It means, he says "Eastwards". Well, it's not. It means something else in Modern Hebrew. But how would he know that, if someone who wanted it to be “eastwards” told him differently?

Be careful before you demonize a person for articulating in colloquial Hebrew what should have been translated as: The Palestinians are in danger of bringing upon themselves even a greater disaster.. I find disturbing this gleeful pouncing and rush to condemn and express outrage before you make sure you fully understand what the WORDS mean...

2. "Every Israeli knows this."

Well, no. Not unless you are a Gilad Atzmon kind of Israeli...

Shoah means disaster. And it usually comes with its own special verb: "Le-hamit shoah", to bring upon someone or something a disaster. Hebrew speakers use it to describe a nuclear disaster (shoah garinit), among other usages. The Holocaust, when brought up to by Hebrew speakers is always, always, always referred to as "Ha-Shoah", THE Shoah, to differentiate from any other shoah.

Seems to me that some commenters are determined to give this phrasing at this time a particularly sinister meaning. Why? Is it because you believe that Vilnai blurted out some secret plan, or wish, when all he did was use perfectly idiomatic Hebrew to warn Gazans that they should expect more disasters to befall upon them if they continue with their qassam violence? If so, what could account for such readiness to attribute the worst possible meaning to an Israeli politician's use of such a phrase?

3. Saul, I tried to contribute to your understanding of the problem from my knowledge of Hebrew and as a professional translator, which makes me sensitive to meanings of words and the way they can be mishandled, due to political agendas. You seem perfectly comfortable going along with the defamatory interpretation which is based on ignorance.

I ask again: Seems to me that some commenters seem determined to give this phrasing at this time a particularly sinister meaning. Why? Is it because you believe that Vilnai blurted out some secret plan, or wish, when all he did was use perfectly idiomatic Hebrew to warn Gazans that they should expect more disasters to befall upon them if they continue with their qassam violence? If so, what could account for such readiness to attribute the worst possible meaning to an Israeli politician's use of such a phrase?

4. "Your comment about Eric Lee : "This poster doesn't seem to know Hebrew". Apart from the fact that Eric used to be a kibbutznik.........."

So the fact that he was a kibbutznik is the final, unbeatable proof that he knows well enough Hebrew to make that quite unbelievable claim that "The term "shoah" as used in modern Hebrew has one meaning and one meaning only: the German Nazi genocide against the Jewish people. Every Israeli knows this."?

Whether he grew up in a kibbutz or a moshav or in Petach-Tiqva, he clearly does not know Hebrew well enough to differentiate between "shoah" as a common enough term for disaster or catastrophe (as in: shoah garinit, shoah kalkalit), and "Ha-shoah" which means only the Holocaust.

Whether Vilnai is a fool or an incompetent politician, is quite a separate issue.


A very good point is relayed via the commenter Alain on the same Engage post:

"The enthusiasm for repeating this story is quite disturbing. In contrast to Iranian President Ahmadinijad's comments where the media argued endlessly about whether it meant "wiped from the map" or "wiped from the page of history", this mild ambiguity did not change the essence of what he meant to convey - especially in the context in which he was speaking: nuclear weapons. Still, commentators fought to give him the benefit of the doubt. This courtesy has not been extended to the Israeli minister, even after the confusion was urgently clarified. Again in contrast, Ahmadinijad was never asked to clarify his words. His apologists did all the talking... and this despite the "wiped off the map" being the official translation presented by IRNA, the Iranian State news agency."


If you are interested and have the patience to follow the somewhat uncivilized discussion (Moonstruck leftists have a very short fuse and always lapse into ad-homs, which can be quite tiresome to read...) you can find it here.

Having re-read the post by David Hirsh, I wonder if I did not quite misunderstand him. He is peeved by Vilnai using the word "shoah" at all, and asks:

"How could anybody object to Hamas comparing the Israeli government to Nazis when the Israeli government itself threatens, prophecies or predicts a Palestinian Shoah?

"How could anybody object to the Guardian making a big story out of the fact that the Israeli government has threatened or predicted or prophecized a Palestinian Shoah?

How about the simple answer: because what they are saying is a lie, distortion and defamation, grounded in willful ignorance? Because when the meaning and usage of the word "shoah" was explained to them, and could be easily verifiable by resorting to the onerous task of checking out a dictionary, they should have realized their interpretation was wrong, erroneous, mistaken, misinformed, off-base, incorrect?

Why does he feel he is put on the defensive by someone else's deliberate dis-translation and abuse of a loaded Hebrew term?

Solomonia has a post, too.

Simply Jews has another

And here is an example how a mistranslation gets to work its malign mischief: "Don't panic, Israel to use nukes not gas chambers!" (something about the lack of intelligence and intelligibility in that blog that should put the kibosh once and for all on the myth of the Jewish genius...)


And here is a little word of advice from a sage person, about the only decent way to engage in a debate, dedicated to the commenters on Engage:

Cass Sunstein:

The antonym of respect is disdain or (better) contempt; the antonym of charity is selfishness or (better) stinginess. It is much worse to be disrespectful than to be uncharitable. [To] show respect is... not to attack the competence, the motivations, or the defining commitments of those who disagree with [you]. Those who show charity as well as respect tend to put opposing arguments in the best possible form, to praise the motivations of those who offer such arguments, and to seek proposals that specifically accept the defining commitments of all sides.


At 1:39 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's nothing centrist about you.

At 8:34 AM EST, Blogger The Contentious Centrist said...

Still anonymous, eh?

Isn't that a rather essentialist, approach to a classification of people?

At 4:21 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fail to see the difference between the Hebrew and English languages here. In English we always use the term "THE" Holocaust to mean "Ha-shoah", whereas "holocaust" just means shoah e.g. "nuclear holocaust". So all Vilnai is saying is that he's going to bring a holocaust upon the Palestinians, not The Holocaust. Oh, well that's ok then...

At 6:43 AM EST, Blogger The Contentious Centrist said...

I can give you the facts and try to explain them to you. I can't understand them for you.


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