In recent days we have witnessed racial violence in Jerusalem as Israel attempts to expel families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. As a translator, I have been intently following the language used to describe these events in English. The language that my readers know determines how they will understand my translations.
Unfortunately, I have been disappointed yet again. Despite the greater understanding of state violence since the BLM uprising of summer 2020, Americans still seem intent on using the word "clashes" to describe the interactions between heavily militarized Israeli police and unarmed Palestinian protesters. Moreover, most articles use the passive voice when describing Israeli violence ("Palestinians were injured by rubber bullets" - "violence erupted") and active voice when describing Palestinian actions ("Palestinians threw water bottles").
Why does media coverage matter to translators?
As in many professions, translators are often urged to leave politics out of their work. We are here simply to convey meaning; we have no stake in the content itself.
I agree in principle. Translators should never alter the meaning of a text because of their personal political or other convictions. That would be completely unprofessional and wrong.
The issue here is how translators can best convey meaning to an audience that has little deeper understanding of the larger context. To truly give our readers the meaning of the text, they must know more about the reality of the situation than they are likely to know already.
Our readers' knowledge is mainly based on their media consumption.
We have obvious limitations on the extent we can explain meaning. Translators may not write long footnotes explaining the history of Palestine and ethnic cleansing every time they are translating something written by a Palestinian. Not only would this be cumbersome to the reader, but it could easily slip into editorializing. Many would argue this is simply not our responsibility.
Nevertheless, translation is basically an endless array of choices. Which English word would best represent the meaning of the Arabic word? What did the Arabic speaker mean when they said or wrote this? What exactly were they trying to communicate? And here we run up against the question of how much our English reader knows. It is unavoidable.
American coverage of Israeli violence
In the current situation in Jerusalem, most Americans have seen headlines like:
Hamas fires rockets into Israel after Jerusalem clashes leave at least 300 Palestinians injured (Washington Post)
Violence in Jerusalem Wounds More than 300 Palestinians (NPR)
Rockets fired into Israel as tensions in Jerusalem boil over (NBC News)
Beefed-up Israel police clash with Palestinians in Jerusalem (AP)
The content of these articles is not very different; I won't spend space here discussing it. It is sufficient to note that the words "clashes" and "violence" are often used to efface Israeli agency. Very few articles say directly "Israelis attack Palestinians" or something similar.
There is very little context included in these news articles. Most Americans will read them and remain unaware that only Israel has police in Jerusalem, only Israeli forces are armed, only Palestinians are expelled from their homes, and only Palestinians have the right to live in these homes under international law.
Nor will Americans learn from these articles how Palestinians have been expelled from their homes for generations, and that most Israeli cities were once Palestinian villages in the same precarious situation as Sheikh Jarrah is now. They will not know that East Jerusalem was illegally occupied in 1967 and Palestinians there are essentially stateless.
They will not know that the reason for the protests is that an Israeli court awarded ownership of Palestinian homes to essentially random people based solely on the fact that these new occupants are Jewish. At least one of these people is actually American.
How media coverage affects translation choices
Given this coverage, we cannot expect our readers to know the full context of the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. Let's look at some examples of how this complicates our work.
We will not leave
This is a common slogan of Palestinian resistance these days. But what does it really mean? An uneducated reader may think that it is simply one side's persistent demand to the land. Both sides probably say something like this, so what's the difference?
In fact, this is a reference to the history of dispossession that Palestinians have experienced for more than 100 years in their native land. The related word ترحيل means expulsion or forced migration. Both sides may claim the land for themselves, but the contexts are completely different. How can we convey this essential history to our reader?
We will not be expelled
We will not leave our homes
Our dispossession will not continue
Do these indirect, explicative translations actually convey the meaning of the phrase better to an uneducated audience, or are they so far from the literal meaning that they are unjustified?
A Palestinian poet was arrested several years ago for using this word in a poem because Israeli authorities claimed it was inciting violence. Among Palestinians and other Arabs, it is a normal way to encourage any form of resistance to oppression.
However, our English readers will not be aware of what, if anything, Palestinians may be resisting. Remember that news articles often say that "Palestinians were injured" without mentioning who injured them. They will describe violence "erupting" without explaining who has the power to commit serious violence - who has weapons, for instance.
There are some alternatives that may give more context, such as:
Don't give in!
As always, the question remains whether these translations are justified because they convey the overall meaning and context better, or whether they stray too far from the source text.
This is perhaps the most difficult and contentious word to translate when it comes to Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.
In the US, bringing up someone's religion or ethnic background when you are criticizing them is rightfully seen as bigoted. What does their identity have to do with it, anyway? Why fall into stereotyping? Surely they aren't doing anything wrong as Jews, so the inclusion of this detail is irrelevant at best and anti-Semitic at worst.
However, the situation in Palestine is different, historically and legally. For example, in Sheikh Jarrah, the Israeli court has awarded ownership of homes that have been owned and inhabited by Palestinians for generations to Jews. Not because they own them. Because they are Jewish. Their religion and ethnicity is actually the crux of the issue.
This is not an isolated incident; it is at the core of Israeli policy and the ideology that drives it, Zionism. Throughout its history, Israel has defined itself as the "Jewish state" and acted accordingly, discriminating against non-Jews.
Therefore, when a Palestinian says her home has been stolen "by Jews" or that "the Jews are committing crimes", she is not bringing up their identity to criticize their religion or endorse harmful stereotypes. She is stating the reality of what is occurring with relevant terminology.
English readers will likely not know how much of Israeli policy is based around discrimination in favor of Jews, nor will they be familiar with the ideology of Zionism that is based on supremacy of one ethnoreligious group. Media coverage refers to them as Israelis, not Jews. So, how should we translate Palestinian discussions of Jews?
Some translators resort to using Israelis or Zionists whenever اليهود is used in Arabic, in order to dispel any notion of bigotry among Palestinians. The problem is that these are inaccurate; those terms exist separately in Arabic and describe different concepts. There are Palestinian Israelis that would not be allowed to occupy the homes in Jerusalem, because they are not Jewish. Likewise, the court has awarded the occupiers the right to live there because they are Jewish, not because they subscribe to a specific ideology, like Zionism.
Other solutions include:
Yet again we are caught between explaining what the Arabic speaker or writer meant and translating what they literally said. There is no easy answer here.
Translation is more of an art than a science. We have some hard and fast rules: no personal opinions, no long explanations, no unnecessary additions or omissions. Yet we are left with many subjective choices.
All of us have decisions to make in what we want the goal of our work to be. Do we want to educate our audience, or simply give them the tools to educate themselves? Are we responsible for how our audience perceives the author of the source text? How much is too much to expect of our readers?
Personally, I've learned more from educating myself about unfamiliar political situations than from seeing explicative translations. However, not everyone will take the time to learn more about the context. This is part of why I write this blog, and why I think more analysis is needed in translation work. Let's at least show people how complex and demanding our task is.