Friday, June 06, 2008

Lost in Translation

Iran desperately needs to train a corps of capable Persian-English translators. Otherwise, the heartbreakingly beautiful country can get wiped off the map:
The inflammatory "wiped off the map" quote was first disseminated not by Iran's enemies, but by Iran itself. The Islamic Republic News Agency, Iran's official propaganda arm, used this phrasing in the English version of some of their news releases covering the World Without Zionism conference. (Arash Norouzi, "'Wiped off the Map' -- The Rumor of the Century," The Mossadegh Project)
Sometimes, however, errors in translation are more than entertaining. Take the headline of this dispatch from the Islamic Republic News Agency: "Ayat. Jannati: Enemies Disparate over Iran's N-program" (6 June 2008). The ayatollah, of course, said the enemies are "desperate" (ناامیدیی) (as is correctly rendered in the text of the dispatch itself) -- not "disparate" (which means "markedly distinct") -- in a propaganda attempt to raise the morale of Iranians. But, in this case, the error in the headline comes closer to reality than the most faithful translation of Ayatollah Jannati's own words: though enemies of Iran are far from desperate, they do have disparate interests and different positions, so the Iranians need to drive a wedge among them and divide and conquer them.


The Americans who laugh at Iran and other foreign nations for their occasional production of sometimes hilarious, sometimes dangerous errors in English ought to pause and reflect: but for a great quantity of spelling-bee prodigies that India exports to the United States, you, too, may find yourself in the same predicament. Confusing "desperate" and "disparate" is a common error among native speakers of English in the USA, perhaps especially under this education president who once asked: "Is our children learning?"


Jeff Rubard said...

Confusing "desperate" and "disparate" is a common error among native speakers of English in the USA, perhaps especially under this education president who once asked: "Is our children learning?"

Certainly: all those Craigslist posters looking for people who are discrete, and even prominent intellectuals who haven't taken "the principal is your pal" to heart. But apart from the issue of communicating clearly to the Western world (unfortunately a matter of life and death) English is by nature a Protean thing, a language with French and Danish words and quasi-Sinitic grammar.

Good English is of course going to reflect the experiences and backgrounds of the people who have come to speak it, and so the prescriptivism which is a tempting option when confronted with W.'s parapraxes may backfire on the left and fans of English as a literary language.

Yoshie said...

True. (Besides, this blog itself is full of errors!)

As for the unfortunate translation of Iran's President's remark, Persian speakers had already made corrections, time and again, and yet, not only John McCain but also Barack Obama repeated the canard that Iran threatens to "wipe Israel off the map" in their AIPAC speeches, though I'm sure both camps had already heard about the repeated attempts at correction and clarification.

Mitchell said...

It's funny, I read that headline and it didn't even occur to me that it was a mistake - I just thought it was a non-idiomatic way of saying that Iran's enemies are at odds with each other.

But this stuff about "wiped off the map" is just spin. Can we agree that everyone in Iranian politics believes that the state of Israel is illegitimate and should cease to exist?

Yoshie said...

Not everyone in Iranian politics. I bet reformists, Rafsanjanists, and (probably also) neo-conservatives are very much eager to change Iran's official policy to advocacy of a two-state solution.

Hard-liners are not happy about a two-state solution, so their official policy is that everyone in historic Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora be allowed to hold a referendum on their political future: "We must allow Jewish Palestinians, Muslim Palestinians and Christian Palestinians to determine their own fate themselves through a free referendum" (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, answering a question at Columbia University, 24 September 2007). If such a referendum were to be held, Palestinians would outnumber Israeli Jews and Israel would lose its character as the "Jewish state." But even Iran's hard-liners, like Hezbollah of Lebanon, in the end will accept what the Palestinians themselves will accept, and if that's a two-state solution, so be it. They have said so as much, though sotto voce.