Blog - Lost In Translation

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Alameda :: CA :: USA | Feb 29, 2008 by plitnickm send a private message
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<p><!--[if gte mso 9]><xml> Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 </xml><![endif]--><!--[if gte mso 9]><xml> </xml><![endif]--> <!--[if gte mso 10]> <style> /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-qformat:yes; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin-top:0in; mso-para-margin-right:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:10.0pt; mso-para-margin-left:0in; line-height:115%; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif"; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;} </style> <![endif]--> Translation is not the simple act of looking a word up in a dictionary. Cultural connotation and context are often crucial to understanding a translation which might have a very different meaning from the one that was intended.<br /><br /> Such is the case now with the furor that has erupted over the words of Israeli Deputy Minister of Defense, Matan Vilnai. <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/feb/29/israelandthepalestinians1" target="_blank">Here is the accurate translation</a> of what Vilnai said that has caused all the furor: ""The more Qassam [rocket] fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger <em>shoah </em>because we will use all our might to defend ourselves."<br /><br /> The key, of course, is the one untranslated word in the sentence: <em>shoah</em>. Many non-Hebrew speakers have heard this word. It is the Hebrew word that refers to the Nazi genocide of Jews in World War II, the Holocaust.<br /><br /> Yet "holocaust" itself must be understood in context. After all, the word existed long before Hitler, and meant a sacrifice consumed by fire, or a massive conflagration that causes great loss of life and property. The word still finds use in that context.<br /><br /> Similarly, "<em>shoah</em>" means "catastrophe, devastation, disaster, or cataclysm," and is also still used in such contexts in Hebrew (it is my guess, though I do not know Arabic and thus cannot be certain, that <em>shoah </em>would be translated in that language, ironically, as <em>naqba</em>, the term which means catastrophe and which Palestinians use for the disaster that befell them in 1947-49). Like "holocaust," other words are often substituted ("<em>ason</em>" has a similar meaning) because of the strong connotation the word carries. But it is still used.<br /><br /> <em>Shoah </em>is also a word that carries a definite connotation of a large, public disaster or tragedy, whereas ason can be used in that context, but also can be much smaller, of an individual or personal nature. It is also not common in Hebrew for any other genocide to be called a "holocaust" as it is in English. <br /><br /> Indeed, that very point is why Vilnai's usage caused such a stir. But it is also why the tumult is misplaced. Vilnai was merely using a word that was meant, not to invoke Hitler and the Nazis, but to threaten the Palestinians with an enormous national cataclysm. <br /><br /> And that is the point that is really being missed in all of this. The issue is not that Vilnai was invoking the greatest of a long line of historical tragedies to befall the Jewish people. Rather, the issue is that Vilnai was mimicking the very same behavior that had recently brought much condemnation on the heads of the leadership of Iran.<br /><br /> <a href="../user/blog/541" target="_blank">I wrote last week</a> about both the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and the president of Iran having made contemptible statements about Israel that were roundly and rightly condemned by the international community. Yet neither Iranian statement carried the weight of threat that Vilnai's does. In part, this is due to the fact that, although Vilnai is only the Deputy Defense Minister, he actually plays a much more prominent role in deciding whether or not to bring down death and destruction on another people than either the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or even the Iranian president.<br /><br /> (I will pause here to note that the role that Mahmoud Ahmedinejad plays in foreign affairs is <a href="http://mitchellplitnick.com/2007/09/28/a-dose-of-reason-on-iran/" target="_blank">considerably exaggerated in the Western and Israeli media</a> and politicians. It is remarkable to recall that when Mohammed Khatami, a moderate, was Iran's president, we heard much about the limited role the Iranian president had. He is a functionary and a spokesperson, but the real power lies in the hands of Iran's theocratic Supreme Ruler, currently Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Yet somehow, Ahmedinejad gets portrayed as the man with his finger on the proverbial button, which is far from the case.)<br /><br /> Vilnai's threat is much more explicit than anything Ahmedinejad has ever said, and is also a more direct threat than Revolutionary Guard head Jafari's, a bombastic prediction of the triumph of Hezbollah. Moreover, the Palestinians obviously do not have the capacity to defend themselves against Israel at all, let alone sufficient might to defend, as Israel can, against the likes of Hezbollah and Iran.<br /><br /> Vilnai's statement is a clear threat to cause massive loss of life to the Palestinian people. The statement is unlikely to be backed up by reality, which, it is important to note is also, and equally, true of the Iranian statements. Even if Israel does invade Gaza with overwhelming force, as it appears more and more likely they will do, it is unlikely to produce anything that would seem like a Palestinian "<em>shoah</em>" or second <em>naqba </em>(though I have no doubt some will say it is, never missing an opportunity to scream "genocide," reality be damned). <br /><br /> But that doesn't change the fact that what he said deserves the very same international condemnation that Iran got. Maybe that will happen eventually, but right now, the entire controversy is swirling around the mistaken conclusion that Vilnai was invoking the Holocaust. It's a distraction from the real issue, a distraction that is surely welcome in Jerusalem.<br /><br /> Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was quick to offer the sincere clarification that Vilnai meant "catastrophe" when he said shoah. It wouldn't do to invoke the shoah if Israel is casting itself in the role of the Nazis. Indeed, that is precisely why so many jumped on this; Hamas immediately compared Israel to the Nazi regime, seizing an opportunity to do that when they could not be accused of Jew-baiting since, after all, an Israeli official had apparently just said the same. <br /><br /> The truth is it's time for all of those analogies to go by the boards. There are, and have always been, despotic and tyrannical regimes which have done unspeakable things to their people and to others. In fact, however, the Nazis were unique. And a tyrant does not have to be Hitler to be a genocidal criminal who needs to be opposed and deposed. If something good is to come out of this, perhaps it will be a future reluctance to compare a Saddam Hussein, a Slobodan Milosivec, a George W. Bush, a Fidel Castro, all of whom have been compared to Hitler by their opponents and victims, to Hitler and his regime. Any war criminal, or accused war criminal, is his own entity and needs to be viewed that way. Invoking the Nazis is demagoguery at its worst, and it blinds both leaders and populations to options that usually exist, even with tyrants, but which did not apply to Hitler. <br /><br /> Of more immediate concern is the need to apply standards in a fair and universal manner. If the Iranian bombast draws sharp reaction and condemnation, so must the Israeli. Israel does face double standards; <a href="http://mitchellplitnick.com/2007/06/26/un-sec-general-makes-a-statement-for-fairness/" target="_blank">I have written in the past</a> of some of these, such as with the UN Human Rights Council. But the response to this cannot be another double standard. Vilnai's threat was as vile as the Iranians'. If anything, his greater ability to follow through makes it worse. But it should be treated equally if we are to have any standards at all.</p>

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