Cutting through the bullshit.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Thanks for the MEMRI

By now, everybody knows that Ahmadinejad never said anything about ‘wiping Israel off the map’, yet it persists as a staple of the anti Iran propaganda. So it’s kind of scary that a similar thing has now cropped up again.

In the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ on Tuesday, Brian Whittaker revealed that the recent allegations about Hamas’s Mickey Mouse lookalike were also the result of mistranslation. In this case, apparently quite deliberate.

Though Memri claims to be "independent" and maintains that it does not "advocate causes or take sides", it is run by Yigal Carmon, a former colonel in Israeli military intelligence. Carmon's partner in setting up Memri was Meyrav Wurmser who in 1996 was one of the authors of the now-infamous "Clean Break" document which proposed reshaping Israel's "strategic environment" in the Middle East, starting with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

In the Hamas video clip issued by Memri, a Mickey Mouse lookalike asks a young girl what she will do "for the sake of al-Aqsa". Apparently trying to prompt an answer, the mouse makes a rifle-firing gesture and says "I'll shoot".

The child says: "I'm going to draw a picture."

Memri's translation ignores this remark and instead quotes the child (wrongly) as saying: "I'll shoot."

MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, claims to be ‘Bridging the language gap between the east and the west’.

According to Whittaker’s article, CNN’s Glenn Beck ‘invited Carmon on to the programme and gave him a platform to denounce CNN's Arabic department, and in particular to accuse one of its staff, Octavia Nasr, of being ignorant about the language.’

Carmon related a phone conversation he had had with Ms Nasr:

She said the sentence where it says [in Memri's translation] "We are going to ... we will annihilate the Jews", she said: "Well, our translators hear something else. They hear 'The Jews are shooting at us'."

I said to her: "You know, Octavia, the order of the words as you put it is upside down. You can't even get the order of the words right. 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."

Whittaker transcribes the sentence as, "Bitokhoona al-yahood", not strictly in accord with International Phonetic Association principles. Now anyone who knows anything whatsoever about language would know that not every language has the same basic word order. Indeed, they might even be aware that many languages are not as strict about word order as English, and that it is often possible to retrieve the grammatical relations (Subject, Object, etc.) from other mechanisms than word order, such as case marking and very agreement. As a matter of fact, Carmon must be singularly oblivious to linguistic niceties, because right there in his own utterance, sticking out like dogs’ balls is an example of how English itself can place the agent at the end of the sentence: ‘We are being shot at by the Jews’.

But Carmon isn’t just any buffoon ignorant of language. He directs an institute that specialises in translating Arabic media in particular. How does it come to pass that he is prepared to reveal in public that he is not even aware that Arabic has basic verb initial word order! Without knowing very much at all about Arabic myself, I’d be prepared to speculate that the verb, bitokhoona, incorporates something indicating that the object is first person plural, as well. Hebrew has stuff like that.

Way back in the Eighties, Reagan once alleged that the Sandinista government of Nicaragua was exporting arms to the FMLN guerrillas ‘across the border’ in El Salvador. When someone pointed out that Nicaragua doesn’t have a land border with El Salvador, he claimed that they were smuggling weapons across the Gulf of Fonseca. When observation of satellite photography over a long period failed to reveal evidence of this, he claimed that they were being transporeted by canoes too small for the primitive 1980s satellite photos to detect. Chomsky once said something like, ‘When the President of the United States lies, the lie is reported as fact on the front page of the New York Times and passes into the historical record. When the lie is refuted months or years later and reported, if at all, in an obscure academic journal, it makes no difference.’

So now we have Mickey Mouse directing Palestinian children to ‘annihilate the Jews’ and ‘commit martyrdom’ on the basis of a cynical, deliberate mistranslation, and even with Whittaker’s timely correction, I guess we’re stuck with it.

Thanks to Richard Silberstein’s Tikun Olam for drawing this to my attention.

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