A Tale of Two Translations

Does it matter? Yes.

UPDATE: Ethan Bronner went over the translations with me by phone just now, and agrees that the English version we published is closer to the Hebrew text that he received.  He says he did not do the translation into English, which was sent to him in the same mail as the Hebrew document… see below for more.

Last week, as we reported on our sister blog, Palestine-Mandate, here, some of Israel’s traditional and now-very-privileged elite held a demonstration in Tel Aviv, outside the hall where Israel’s independence was proclaimed on the night of 14-15 May 1948.

This demonstration, scheduled during the Jewish holiday of Passover — which celebrates freedom, while reminding Jews that they were once slaves — was timed to offer the support of this particular group of Israelis (called “eminent” and “distinguished”) for the anticipated Palestinian move to seek full UN membership and recognition of a Palestinian State, probably in September when the UN General Assembly holds its annual high-level debate in New York, opened by the U.S. President (leader of the UN’s host country).

At the demonstration in Tel Aviv, which was nearly drowned out by a noisy “right-wing” counter-demonstration, the Israeli group read out a document they had signed, which they called a “Declaration of Independence from the Occupation”.

After I posted the story on my blog, I received a comment from someone (the name is probably fictitious) saying that the version of the Declaration I had posted was different from the document posted on the website of the New York Times.

In the meantime, I was having an exchange on Twitter with Ali Abunimah, who disagreed with my view that the Declaration was something new. What’s new, in my view is above all the statement, according to the English-language version sent to me, that (1.) “The complete end of occupation is a fundamental condition for the freedom of both peoples”.

After that, in my view, this Declaration (2.) made a clear endorsement of a Palestinian State on the 1949/1967 borders — the very ones claimed by former PLO leader Yasser Arafat in his Declaration of Independence in 1988. The Declaration states, in the English-language version I posted on Palestine-Mandate: “Therefore we are here assembled, on April 21st, 2011, to welcome the coming Declaration of Independence of the Palestinian State, neighboring the state of Israel, according to our borders of independence, shaped at the end of the War of Independence in 1949. The borders known today as the ‘67 borders”.

This excludes equivocal arguments for any kind of partial or temporary “state” [or “bantustan”], or any entity with provisional borders. And it excludes any lingering presence of the Israeli military occupation.  It  seems to argue for full sovereignty for both states.

These things do matter, and taking this stand now is significant.

The Document — which is an Israeli paper, and not a joint initiative — argues for full rights within Israel. The signers of this text are not empowered to speak for the future Palestinian state, after all.

As the Twitter conversation continued, Ali was quoting things from the Declaration that were not in the version I had read (which I had posted on my other blog, Palestine-Mandate). He then kindly sent me the link to the document posted on the NYTimes site.

I was very surprised to discover that the two documents were different.

The one I had was sent from the group which had made the Declaration.

On Sunday morning, I started my investigation into the discrepancy between the two versions of the Declaration, and called them to ask about the difference in the two.

I was told by Roy Yellin of Ben-Or (a smooth and professional public relations firm in Tel Aviv which specializes in Israeli human rights organizations) that the Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem Bureau Chief, had written the story in the NYTimes, and had done his own translation of the Declaration from the Hebrew version — “he speaks Hebrew, you know”.

UPDATE: Yes, Bronner speaks Hebrew, but he says the rest of this is nonsense — “He’s wrong”, he said about Yellin’s assertion. Bronner told me he was sent the Declaration in Hebrew, and an English translation which he then passed on to the NYTimes web designers, without comparing it to the Hebrew version.

Yellin told me that he believes the translation they did (which is the one I published on Palestine-Mandate) is more accurate — but that there areas that are always “open to interpretation to a certain degree”.

He said indignantly that they did not try to soften the language of the Declaration for PR purposes — “Never!” If anything, he said, he would have wanted it to be harder…

“Our purpose is not to jostle over nuance”, he said, “we wanted to offer an alternative to the present Israeli policy, and to say that September is an opportunity, rather than a threat”.

And, he added, “I’m not getting into an argument with the New York Times”.

Well, this is probably one reason why Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are conducted in English — and it’s not only because the Americans have been involved as facilitator or mediator or whatever since the Oslo process went public in September 1993. [The year-long secret Israeli-Palestinian contacts before that were conducted, also in English, by the Norwegians.] English is simply, now, the world’s lingua franca. English is also the obligatory second language in both Israeli and Palestinian educational curricula. [And, though some will bristle at the memory, English was one of the three official languages in Palestine from the time of the British conquest by General Allenby in December 1917, during the First World War.]

The battle over the subtle linguistic difference between the English-language version of UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted after many months of diplomatic wrangling following the June 1967 Middle East war, and the French-language version [withdrawing from territory occupied, or from the territory occupied, involving an intense and bitter dispute over whether this means all or only some territory] , is enough of a lesson learned to recommend designating one language, and only one language, for purposes of negotiating and concluding an agreement — certainly here.

Yellin did tell me that in any case, the NYTimes, or Ethan Bronner, didn’t translate the whole thing, but only a few sentences.

In fact, looking at the whole translation published by the NYTimes — which Yellin said was done by Ethan Bronner, but which Bronner has now confirmed was in fact NOT translated by him — some sentences were not translated at all, some were moved, and some stuff that wasn’t in the original Declaration was added.

The article Ethan Bronner wrote was published here, and the translation Ethan Bronner did from the Hebrew is posted on the New York Times website here, http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/world/PalestinianState.pdf, where it is entitled: “ISRAELI INTELLECTUALS WELCOME AND ENDORSE AN INDEPENDENT PALESTINIAN STATE NEXT TO ISRAEL”.

Following is a comparison of the two English-language texts.

[A]
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE FROM THE OCCUPATION: The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish People, where Jewish identity was shaped. Palestine was the birthplace of the Palestinian People where it formed its identity.
vs
THE NEW YORK TIMES TRANSLATION:
The land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people where its identity was shaped. The land of Palestine is the birthplace of the Palestinian people where its identity was formed.

[B]
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE FROM THE OCCUPATION: On a Friday 63 years ago, Israel’s Declaration of Independence was read. The declaration promised “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”. The declaration reached out for peace with all our neighbors. The declaration was based on the UN’s partition plan, calling for the foundation of two states in Israel – a Jewish democratic nation state and an Arab democratic nation state. It is the natural right of the peoples, the Israeli and the Palestinian: “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State”.
vs
THE NEW YORK TIMES TRANSLATION: 63 years ago Israel’s Declaration of Independence was announced in this place. The declaration expressed the commitment of the new state “to ensure the complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”. The founding fathers of Israel stated further “we extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness…” Now is the moment to live up to this promise!

[C]
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE FROM THE OCCUPATION: Therefore we are here assembled, on April 21st, 2011, to welcome the coming Declaration of Independence of the Palestinian State, neighboring the state of Israel, according to our borders of independence, shaped at the end of the War of Independence in 1949. The borders known today as the ‘67 borders.
vs.
THE NEW YORK TIMES TRANSLATION: (there is no translation of this phrase) ??????????????????????????

[D]
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE FROM THE OCCUPATION: The independence of both peoples mutually strengthens them. It is both a moral and an existential necessity, and it is the basis for the possibility of good neighborhood. We call all the citizens of Israel, the Knesset, the Government, all the citizens of the world and their governments, to recognize the two states, in which the right of the two peoples to self determination is expressed, as well as the general principles of democracy and equality.
vs
THE NEW YORK TIMES TRANSLATION:
Israel’s Declaration of Independence was made in accordance with the United Nations’ decision to divide the land between two states: a democratic Jewish and a democratic Arab state. Each people were expected to fulfill its natural right of self determination in a sovereign state. We consider the independence of the two states and the unqualified end of the occupation a moral and an existential imperative as well as a necessary condition for a good neighborhood.

[E]
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE FROM THE OCCUPATION: We, the undersigned, call every peace and freedom seeker and all nations – to welcome the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, to extend a helping hand and encourage the citizens of the two states to maintain peace based on the ’67 borders and other agreed settlements.
vs
THE NEW YORK TIMES TRANSLATION: We the undersigned citizens of Israel call upon all our compatriots, all the members of the Knesset, the Government of Israel and the governments and citizens of the world to join us in welcoming and endorsing a newly born Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders which were formed at the end of the 1949 war and on the basis of further agreed arrangements between the two sides.

[F]
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE FROM THE OCCUPATION: The complete end of occupation is a fundamental condition for the freedom of both peoples, for the fulfillment of the Israeli Declaration of Independence – and for the independence of the State of Israel.
vs
THE NEW YORK TIMES TRANSLATION: The end of the occupation and the endorsement of the creation of a free Palestinian state Along independent Israel in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence will liberate the two peoples and open the way to a lasting peace.

************************

These are not two equivalent texts. One is different from the other in significant ways. One has additions and ommission from the other. If the Israelis who made this Declaration care about their words, and want to make a difference with what they did, they should take another stand, and make clear what they mean…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *