Fun with languages

Language, as in the study of a foreign language, is one of those things that fascinates me while also driving me absolutely bananas. I’ve studied several and struggle at pretty much all of them, but I enjoy learning about them and that’s why I sometimes note interesting stories about language here at this very English-language internet place. A couple of stories caught my attention this week that I thought might interest at least some of you.

From Al-Monitor, there’s the story of Oded Amit, a 70 year old Iraqi Jew fighting probably in vain to preserve Judeo-Iraqi Arabic. Historically, of course, there was a substantial Jewish population in modern-day Iraq, going all the way back to the Babylonian captivity (read the Bible), and Iraq was for centuries really, after the Romans destroyed the Temple, the center of the worldwide Jewish community. Iraq continued to be home to a large Jewish community all the way up to the 20th century, when the rise of antisemitism and hostilities over the situation in Mandatory Palestine began to kick in. The formation of Israel and the subsequent Arab-Israeli War made the situation for Jews throughout the Middle East untenable, and in the early 1950s tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews were airlifted to Israel. Another large group of Iraqi Jews left for Israel in the early 1970s (that’s when Amit’s family left), owing to harsh persecution after the Six Day War in 1967, and there’s been a steady trickle of Jews out of Iraq ever since. Some estimates in recent years put the number of Jews in Baghdad, which once had a relatively large Jewish population, in the single digits.

During the centuries in which there was a large Jewish community living in predominantly Arab Iraq, that community, as isolated communities do, developed its own language. Mostly Arabic but incorporating elements from Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish, etc., it’s a unique tongue that’s probably going to disappear not long after the last of the Jews who fled Iraq in the 20th century passes on. Amit has been trying to preserve it by teaching it to young people in Israel, with emphasis on one of its more unique characteristics:

One of the well-known aspects of the dialect of Babylonian Jewry is its juicy curses. Yona and Rajouan included an appendix dedicated to curses in their dictionary. Especially entertaining are those that wish death by certain means on others. Someone you wish to see hanged is called “maqtua al-raqba,” that is, “decapitated neck.” For someone you wish would die in agony, you say, “Nfaqsit eino,” that is, “May his eye burst.” For wishing a simple death, there’s the moniker “zawaj a-Almana,” meaning “the widow’s husband.” If the death wish applies to several people, you say “wahad thakal lakh,” meaning “that each would mourn the other.” Many curses are surprisingly also forms of praise. For instance, the word “naghl,” meaning “bastard,” is a curse that suggests spitting at a father’s crotch, since thanks to it, the child came into the world. It is usually meant as an expression of admiration.

Amit has an interesting explanation for the reason for the insults. He said, “If you compliment someone, it’s like you attracted the evil eye to him. When you curse him, you drive away the evil eye. Many curses are directed at parents, since they are responsible for the child’s education.”

The second story comes from Julian Ku at Lawfare, and I noticed it because it related to something I’d read yesterday. Reuters ran a story on Thursday quoting a spokesperson for the Chinese defense ministry saying that there’s “no such thing” as man-made islands in the South China Sea. This is obviously not true–Chinese efforts to create new bits of land in the SCS have been pretty well-documented (it’s kind of hard to hide the creation of brand new dry land, especially when you’re creating it in a part of the world that has been getting a fair amount of attention lately). So the takeaway from this Reuters piece is, “there goes the Chinese government again, blatantly lying about something.” That was certainly Trump aide and cartoon supervillain Sebastian Gorka’s takeaway, as he ran home to Breitbart and had a hefty chortle or whatever about how those damned Chinamen are trying to pull a fast one on us.

I almost mentioned the Reuters story in yesterday’s conflict roundup, but it seemed too stupid to even bother with and, to be honest, I was really sick of writing at that point and just wanted to go to bed.

I’m glad I didn’t mention it, because Ku says the whole story was based on a mistranslation:

But in reviewing the original Chinese transcript, I noticed that Wu actually said:

第一,不存在什么“人工岛礁”的问题. 第二,南沙群岛是中国固有领土,中国在自己的国土上是否搞建设,搞何种建设,怎样搞建设,完全是中国主权范围内的事情。

To me (and several of my fellow Chinese-reading Twitter friends), the first sentence in Wu’s statement should really be translated as something closer to “First, no issue with the ‘man-made islands’ exists” (emphasis added).  When the word “issue” (roughly a translation of wenti问题) is added back into the translation, the meaning of Wu’s statement is less startling. It would certainly never merit a headline in a Reuters story about the press conference.  NSC staffer Gorka would never have been misled into sneering at the Chinese statement by citing Google Earth.  And the Chinese would not come off quite as arrogant and blind to international criticism of its actions as the Reuters headline made them out to be.  To be sure, the full statement is still troubling for reasons I won’t go into here, but not quite as troubling as it first appeared.

To be clear, I think Gorka would’ve just found something else to sneer at, since that’s kind of what he does. But yeah, it seems pretty likely that, had Reuters gotten the translation right in the first place, they would have written a much different story about the press conference.

China does not actually deny that it’s building Subi Reef into an artificial island (Wikimedia)

And then the question for somebody who doesn’t write much about China, like yours truly, is, if Reuters isn’t getting its Chinese translation right, then how can you be sure they’re getting their, say, Arabic translation right? You can’t, I guess, which kind of sucks. As I’ve joked before, I could probably dig into Arabic-language sources and get you my own translations of news stories, as long as you all were OK getting your March 31, 2017 news sometime around Christmas. So I’m kind of relying on people who do translation for a living to get their translations at least in the ballpark. This problem is compounded when English-language news agencies translate/paraphrase/mention reports or statements in other languages but don’t actually link to the originals, presumably thinking that their readers aren’t going to be able to understand them so there’s no reason to bother. This makes tracking down the original source almost as difficult a task as translating it for yourself.

If you ask me, major news organizations (especially older ones like Reuters, the NYT, etc.) have a lot of room to improve in terms of linking back to original sources in general, not just in cases where the original may not be in English. But it’s particularly irritating in the case of non-English sources. Yeah, most of your readers probably won’t be able to read it, but some will and not only does it cost you nothing to add the extra link, it’s actually more ethical. Print is a different case, obviously, but for online pieces there’s really no excuse not to add the link.

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2 thoughts on “Fun with languages

  1. Not sure if it was mistranslation or malicious sensationalism, but in regards to news linking back to non-english original sources, The Washington Post put up a pretty incendiary headline for the last North Korean missile launch.. “North Korea says it was trying to hit U.S. military bases in Japan with missiles”

    It was later downgraded from “trying to” to “practicing”, but the URL still shows the original headline. Its fortunate that right when institutions like the news media fails, things like Twitter make direct communication (one-way communication, at least) available so we can skip any middlemen who try to inject their own narrative or spin. As one tweeter pointed out, we’re now in a timeline where WaPo is less reliable than North Korean state media..

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