All the News That’s Fit to Cherry-Pick

The other day I updated my blogroll and added a link to an article written by Brian Whitaker in The Guardian in 2002, Selective MEMRI. It’s in my blogroll under ‘About MEMRI.’ I thought the article was very informative and would answer the typical questions about MEMRI’s accuracy and agenda.

Yesterday I found another old article, also in The Guardian, that consists of an email debate between the same Brian Whitaker and Yigal Carmon, MEMRI’s president in 2003. It’s pretty interesting.

These are just excerpts.

Yigal:

How does Memri select items for translation? We aim to reflect main trends of thought and when possible general public opinion. We feature the most topical issues on the Middle Eastern or international agenda.

When controversial matters are aired before such a large audience, Memri does not need to fight shy of translating their contents.

Are the examples chosen extreme? While some of the topics covered do seem extreme to the western reader, they are an accurate representation of what appears in the Arab and Farsi media.

Does Memri ignore the Israeli media? Memri was founded in l998 and for the first three years we translated items from the Israel media. However, almost half of Israel’s media is now available in English (the main daily Ha’aretz; Jerusalem Post; Globes; Jerusalem Report; as well as many broadcast and private media outlets), so we have cut down our output.

Brian:

Taking up your point about the Hebrew media, there’s an excellent service in Jerusalem called Israel News Today. It provides summaries of the Hebrew-language newspapers and radio bulletins, and translates articles, too.

If Memri did the same sort of thing in relation to the Arab media, I would have no quarrel. The Guardian and other papers might even pay for the service so that you wouldn’t have to rely on your anonymous benefactors for funding.

My problem with Memri is that it poses as a research institute when it’s basically a propaganda operation. As with all propaganda, that involves a certain amount of dishonesty and deception. The items you translate are chosen largely to suit your political agenda. They are unrepresentative and give an unfair picture of the Arab media as a whole.

This might not be so bad if you told us what your agenda is. But Memri’s website does not mention you or your work for Israeli intelligence. Nor does it mention Memri’s co-founder, Meyrav Wurmser, and her extreme brand of Zionism which maintains that Israeli leftists are a “threat” to their own country. Also, you’re not averse to a bit of cheating to make Arabs look more anti-semitic than they are.

In your Special Dispatch 151, for instance, you translated an interview given by the mufti of Jerusalem to al-Ahram al-Arabi, shortly after the start of the Palestinian uprising.

One question the interviewer asked was: “How do you deal with the Jews who are besieging al-Aqsa and are scattered around it?” Memri translated this as: “How do you feel about the Jews?” – which is a different question. That left you with a reply in Arabic which didn’t fit your newly-concocted question. So you cut out the first part of the mufti’s reply and combined what was left with part of his answer to another question.

Yigal:

I am disappointed to see that your reply continues to question points I have already addressed and that you descend into insulting accusations such as “cheating, deception, dishonest, unfair, concocted”. You offer no justifications for your quite serious attacks.

2) You are right: we do have an agenda. As an institute of research, we want Memri to present translations to people who wish to be informed on the ideas circulating in the Middle East. We aim to reflect reality. If knowledge of this reality should benefit one side or another, then so be it.

3) On checking Special Dispatch 151 (November 2000) we have to admit an error in translation. The question should indeed have read “How do you deal with the Jews?” rather than “How do you feel about the Jews?” As for the claim that we have “cobbled together” one answer from two questions to make “Arabs look more anti-semitic than they are”, the fact is that the following question referred to the same subject. As we have translated several hundred items since then, it is perhaps reassuring that you had to go back so far to find a mistake. I understand that the Guardian is occasionally subject to errors, so perhaps you will be understanding of this one.

Brian:

I have no wish to sound uncivil, but Memri has placed itself in a glasshouse by claiming to represent the views of the Arabic media to the English-speaking world. Given your political background, it’s legitimate to ask whether Memri is a trustworthy vehicle for such an undertaking. The evidence suggests it is not. You now concede an error of translation in the interview with the mufti, but ignore the more serious charge of dishonest editing. Indeed, you persist in misrepresenting the original Arabic question, in which the mufti was asked how he dealt with the Jews besieging the mosque.

Your translator turned this into a question asking how he felt about the Jews (ie in general). Your “corrected” version, once again, fails to recognise that in the Arabic text it was not a general question. It was about a specific group of Jews who were behaving in a hostile manner.

Having misrepresented the original question, you then had to misrepresent the mufti’s answer. There is no excuse for this sort of textual manipulation, and I can only surmise it was done for political reasons – to make his remarks look more anti-semitic than they actually were.

And so on. I recommend it.

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2 Comments

Filed under arab, arabic, arabist, language

2 responses to “All the News That’s Fit to Cherry-Pick

  1. Pingback: Agents of a Foreign Government and a Stupid Cat « Mantiq al-Tayr

  2. I’ve heard some pretty outrageous stuff on the PBS evening News Hour and I contacted them at least five different times–thru emails–to find out who does their Arabic to English translations but they never answered.

    My money is on MEMRI.

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