Lost in Arabic translation
SAN JOSE, CALIF.
"I feel like eating laban," I told my Egyptian friend recently in my Syrian-Arabic dialect.Skip to next paragraph
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"Don't you mean you feel like drinking laban?" she replied in her Egyptian-Arabic.
After a series of exchanges, we quickly realized that in Egypt, laban means milk, and in Syria the same word means yogurt.
Although this was a simple misunderstanding between two native Arabic speakers, it represents an increasing problem among Arabic translators in the US war on terror.
The federal government's lack of Arabic translators and the insufficient understanding - and consequent poor translation - of the language by the translators it does have may mean more Arab-Americans, immigrants, and foreigners could find themselves caught up in the government's dragnet.
Arabic is a difficult language, even for native speakers like me who have studied it for years.
There are many Arabics.
Classical Arabic is derived from Islam's holy book, the Koran, and Islamic studies. It is written but rarely spoken. Modern Standard Arabic, although not spoken by the masses, is the language of modern journalism, used in newspapers and news reports. Then there is colloquial Arabic, spoken differently in each of the 22 Middle Eastern countries. Meanwhile, within these nations there are dozens of regional dialects that add or subtract letters, words, and accents, with a sprinkling of other languages mixed in as well.
In light of all this, it is easy to understand the difficulties Arabic translators face as they try to accurately interpret the spoken and written language.
In Albany, N.Y., federal prosecutors have admitted mistranslating a crucial piece of evidence in a terror-related case against two Muslim men. At first, it was thought that an address book found at an alleged Iraqi terrorist training camp referred to one of the men, Yassin Aref, as "commander." The government later said the book's reference to Mr. Aref actually meant "brother" in Kurdish, which borrows many words from Arabic. The two men have since been released on bail.
It doesn't take much to mistranslate words, because many Arabic words use the exact same letters. Arabic does not have vowel letters. Vowels appear as short lines or symbols above or below each letter, indicating pronunciation. These markings can change the meaning of the words. Often in official or handwritten documents, these vowel marks are not shown. Thus, the reader must derive the word's meaning.
Meanwhile, when spoken, many words sound alike, but have various definitions.
For example, the word meaning "appear" sounds like bada. The word meaning "start" sounds like badaa, with a slight guttural inflection. When pronounced quickly in news reports or in conversations, these two words sound almost identical.
But there is a big difference in saying, "He appeared to shoot," and "He started to shoot." It could mean the difference between an acquittal and a conviction.