The Geopolitics of Translation
September 1, 2003 8:14 AM   Subscribe

"This is not what Saddam attributes to himself." This? What is This? According to the BBC and Al Jazeera, This is the assassination of Iraqi Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, the source of far more mourning amongst the Shiite community than, say, the death of Uday and Qusay Hussein. Apparently, Saddam pointed out how quickly the West rushed to judgment against him, then denied he had anything to do with the bombing. CNN and the Associated Press concur with that assessment, though they do not use the above (translated) passage in their report. And that would be it, save for the BBC providing a full text translation of the primary source for the story. A slightly larger excerpt:
[The invaders say without evidence that some of my supporters were responsible.] Saddam Hussein is not the leader of the minority or a group, with whom he is affiliated or who are affiliated. He is the leader of all the great Iraqi people - Arabs and Kurds; Shias and Sunnis, Muslims and non-Muslims. Saddam Hussein does not attribute this saying to himself. This[emphasis added] is what was decided by the great Iraqi people themselves in free, public elections.
Contextual shift between translations has always been a contentious issue, but precisely how does the message "I am not just the ruler of a few shattered remnants of Iraqi society" get warped into "I did not order the death of this man"? The two messages are, after all, mutually exclusive. The only thing that's clear is that it's unlikely this was a militarily-sourced obfuscation; Heatley's comments on CNN clearly address the obvious interpretation. Thoughts?
posted by effugas (16 comments total)
Please forgive the size of this FPP. This is presently front page news across the globe; it called for a little more detail.

The only newspaper I've found that noticed a problem was the Jerusalem Post, which ignomiously pulled the article from its servers without even removing the link from the front page!

posted by effugas at 8:18 AM on September 1, 2003

This is not my beautiful house.
posted by trondant at 8:42 AM on September 1, 2003

This is not my beautiful wife strife!
posted by poopy at 9:00 AM on September 1, 2003

Um, this story is changing as the day progresses.

He is the leader of all the great Iraqi people - Arabs and Kurds; Shias and Sunnis; Muslims and non-Muslims. Saddam Hussein does not attribute this saying to himself...

The aggression and the occupation of Iraqi cities might not have happened had Saddam Hussein represented a trend or a group of supporters only.

Uh, what happened to the line about the free and public elections (amusing, but noticably gone)? There was another line, that basically said the people had already pledged his fealty to him...a pretty obvious swipe at the degree of religious factionalization that's forming.

posted by effugas at 9:02 AM on September 1, 2003

"This is presently front page news across the globe"

I guess that's about the best reason I can think of not to post it at all.
posted by Outlawyr at 9:20 AM on September 1, 2003

I was wondering the same myself, after following trails of articles, all with a slightly different translation of the speech. What did he really say, and is it really Saddams voice?
posted by dabitch at 9:56 AM on September 1, 2003

[more outside]
posted by dash_slot- at 10:35 AM on September 1, 2003


Normally, I'd agree completely. Metafilter isn't CNN.

But when CNN, Al Jazeera, Yahoo, BBC, and everyone else was advancing a report that bore little resemblance to the primary source at hand...that's interesting. That's obscure. That's significant.

That's certainly more interesting than "Heh look who gave who money."

Meanwhile, a slight hint of denial does show up in the new translation on BBC News; there's a claim that those who are accused are done so quickly to deflect blame from those who actually did it. This wasn't there when I made the FPP. Of course, the antecedent was still reinterpreted post hoc by BBC and AJ.

posted by effugas at 11:11 AM on September 1, 2003

Dan, this is an interesting story, but the accepted thing to do is put one paragraph on the front page and the rest in the first comment. You'd doubtless get a better reaction that way. (And saying "Please forgive the size of this FPP" doesn't really help; it just shows you knew you were doing something wrong and went ahead with it anyway.)
posted by languagehat at 11:25 AM on September 1, 2003

MeTa, please.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:45 AM on September 1, 2003

effugas, the BBC link you describe as "the full text" describes itself as "excerpts". I don't believe you can make the assertions you've made. Nor do I believe that your opening assertion, that CNN et al. parsed "this" as a reference to the killing of Hakim, is correct: the articles I see linked show that it refers to the question of Saddam's legitimacy. In other words, I don't see the misinterpretation that you do, and it's probably unfair to pick through brief wire bulletins this precisely. I think this FPP was built on a foundation of sand, sorry.

Also, please quit using the signature line. Your posts all are signed with effugas, and it's a distracting flourish.
posted by dhartung at 11:59 AM on September 1, 2003

About what you describe -- OK, when I made the post, the "excerpt" was much smaller, and it appeared obvious they were using "This is not what Saddam attributes to himself" as a sign of denial. That changed.

Still, where in the expanded excerpt is there a real denial that he had anything to do with it? There's a world of difference at being annoyed that you were presumed guilty, and actually claiming innocence. I see the former, and not the latter.

I said the Beeb and AJ used the line as described, and at the time it's all there was. I specifically said the other two just came to the conclusion, apparently magically. I stand by that statement -- I just don't see a denial in that text.

As penance for the three line FPP, Dan==0.
posted by effugas at 12:16 PM on September 1, 2003

Ugh, I'm posting again. Talk about a moving target. Al Jazeera has updated their page, and I think the Beeb did as well. The text I saw was prefaced essentially as follows:

"The denial was issues amidst a larger speech on the topic of Iraq; the following excerpt refers to the bombing:"

So it seemed, at the time, that all they had relating to the bombing was what was basically a cry that power had not actually been lost. What's now a larger story is the removal of the claim that Hussein was elected democratically...why were these lines excised?

But then, this is becoming a difficult discussion to have -- the source material keeps changing! This is a real problem for "breaking news" discussions; as the context changes, older discussions become unintelligible.

But then, the material becomes more correct. How do we deal with this?
posted by effugas at 12:27 PM on September 1, 2003

"This is a real problem for "breaking news" discussions"

Not a problem at all. Don't start them.
posted by Outlawyr at 12:40 PM on September 1, 2003

What might be a subject for a post would be the fact that 99.99% of those following this story rely upon people to translate Arabic for them. Not to mention that the florid, allusion-ridden Arabic of America's Most Wanted Arabic-Speakers is usually a little harder to translate than 'Ladies' and 'Gentlemen'. So, anyone want to discuss that?
posted by riviera at 12:44 PM on September 1, 2003

Well, what would be nice is if anyone who can understand spoken Arabic would give us their take as to what exactly is being said on the alleged Saddam tape excerpt [realaudio link] on the BBC website. Another idea would be if someone posted a link to an Arabic-language transcript of the conversation, for those of us who can't understand spoken Arabic but can translate a written text. Then we could start to get a handle on what we're really talking about here.
posted by skoosh at 7:29 PM on September 1, 2003

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