Arabeyes: Memorial Translations

It may be a genuine mistake or a calculated propaganda strategy, but the Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI) sure has a lot of explanation to do as bloggers across the region started questioning their motives this week.

It all started with the translation of a children's television programme, which appeared on Hamas TV, in which a Palestinian girl allegedly threatens to ‘annihilate’ all Jews and become a suicide bomber.

CNN Arabic Department member and blogger Ali Al Arabi briefs us about the situation:

How easy was it for MEMRI to fool so many of the US media outlets with its translation of a children program on Hamas TV, where a child was supposedly have said the words “ we will annihilate the Jews”
It was very easy!
The controversy was fuelled further when CNN decided to yank the video off the air because of major translation errors on part of MEMRI.

First let me just say that I reviewed the Arabic version of the MEMRI clip which looked discontinuous and disjointed because the context of the conversation in the show did not seem to be coherent. However, at the bottom of this page you will find my corrections of MEMRI translation errors.

The inflammatory words MEMRI blasted the US media with were when the young caller “Sanable” was supposed to have said “we will annihilate the Jews” were not even mentioned by the caller or by anyone else in that clip.

“Sanable actually said “The Jews are shooting us” which is entirely different word and different meaning and which makes me wonder as to where in the world the words “we will annihilate the Jews come from.”

Was MEMRI actually playing verbal gymnastics? Yes indeed.
The issue here is not simply some error in the translation of this word or that, but actually making new words up and putting them in the mouth of that child to show defamatory evidence against the Palestinians.

MEMRI which stands for Middle East Media Research Institute was established by former Israeli intelligence agents, the Mossad, to police Arabic media for any evidence of anti-Israeli rhetoric.

The Angry Arab News Service, run by As'ad Abu Khalil, weighs in:

“The Lies of MEMRI, yet again. I normally would not link to MEMRI, but this time I will,” he states.

Abu Khalil goes further and actually translates the entire text, highlighting the phrases MEMRI got wrong. Click on the link above to read the entire text.

Meanwhile, Brian Whitaker, of the Guardian Online, gives us his take, describing the situation as follows:

In the Hamas video clip issued by Memri, a Mickey Mouse lookalike asks a young girl what she will do “for the sake of al-Aqsa”. Apparently trying to prompt an answer, the mouse makes a rifle-firing gesture and says “I'll shoot”.

The child says: “I'm going to draw a picture.”

Memri's translation ignores this remark and instead quotes the child (wrongly) as saying: “I'll shoot.”

Pressed further by the mouse – “What are we going to do?” – the girl replies in Arabic: “Bidna nqawim.” The normal translation of this would be “We're going to [or want to] resist” but Memri's translation puts a more aggressive spin on it: “We want to fight.”

The mouse continues: “What then?”

According to Memri, the child replies: “We will annihilate the Jews.”

The sound quality on the clip is not very good, but I have listened to it several times (as have a number of native Arabic speakers) and we can hear no word that might correspond to “annihilate”.

What the girl seems to say is: “Bitokhoona al-yahood” – “The Jews will shoot us” or “The Jews are shooting us.”

This is followed by further prompting – “We are going to defend al-Aqsa with our souls and blood, or are we not?”

Again, the girl's reply is not very clear, but it's either: “I'll become a martyr” or “We'll become martyrs.”

Whitaker further adds:

The curious thing about all this is that Memri's translations are usually accurate (though it is highly selective in what it chooses to translate and often removes things from their original context). When errors do occur, it's difficult to attribute them to incompetence or accidental lapses. As in the case of the children's TV programme, there appears to be a political motive.

The effect of this is to devalue everything Memri translates – good and bad alike. Responsible news organisations can't rely on anything it says without going back and checking its translations against the original Arabic.

For Algerian linguist Lameen Souag, there simply is no excuse for bad translations.

“The moral in all this for English-language media is clear: when some helpful organisation sends you a free translation of some foreign-language article or program, do look a gift horse in the mouth, and check the translation with an independent source first. As for readers/viewers of the media in any language – caveat lector! But you no doubt already knew that,” he notes.


  • […] Behalve de vraagtekens die dus gezet kunnen worden bij de vertalingen van MEMRI in dit geval, is ook de wijze waarop de pers alhier opereert discutabel. Zowel Facts on the Ground als Ali Alarabi wijzen hier ook op. Bloggers zijn geen journalisten en misschien kun je dus van die kant wat minder verwachten en blogs als Geenstijl staan nu eenmaal niet bekend om hun waarheidsgetrouwe berichten. Niettemin zijn er toch genoeg blogs die het wel oppikken. Van zogenaamde serieuze kranten zou je wat meer mogen verwachten lijkt me toch. In dit geval duidelijk niet. Men neemt berichtgeving klakkeloos over en besteed nergens aandacht aan mogelijke twijfels. Correcties op deze berichtgeving zijn er ook niet. Wat is dit voor journalistiek? Laksheid? Op zoek naar bevestiging van stereotype beelden? Geen eigen afdeling Arabisch die de teksten kan controleren? Behoefte aan snel, sensationeel nieuws? Op z’n minst had de Nederlandse media toch de twijfels bij de vertalingen en de al eerder genoemde kritiek (ook het punt over discussies over vertalingen) kunnen noemen en deze in een bredere discussie kunnen plaatsen bijvoorbeeld over propaganda en tegenpropaganda. […]

  • Marc

    I see the point about mistranslation and it is valid. I want to recognize how sick even the correct translation is… OK, so someone said shoot instead of annihilate. Let’s discuss instead how warped it is to engage children from their earliest stages of development in an indoctrination of racism, hatred and violence. These poor young souls don’t have a chance to ever appreciate even the possibility that humans are far more alike than they are different and that stereotyping individual members of a group other than your own is unfair in both directions. The adults have become insane by some definitions, to poison the minds of the young with such blind, venomous hatred. Clearly, they do not want peace. Rather, the ultimate goal seems to be to raise children to be enthusiastic, ignorant martyrs. What is truly the goal?

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