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.

Continue reading A Tale of Two Translations

On blogging at the New York Times

“Blogs are treated somewhat differently from news stories because they are somewhat different. They must adhere to the same standards, in that a blogger can’t make unsupported allegations and needs to have done some reporting, but they have a different tone and purpose from news articles. And because blogs are by nature reactive, blog postings should be made as quickly as possible. Nearly all of our blog postings go through at least one editor, whether a backfield editor or a copy editor, immediately before or after posting. (We are working to be sure all the blogs are covered, but we have more than 50 already, and they multiply, so it’s sometimes hard to keep on top of them all.) Even the best reporter makes mistakes, and if those mistakes distract the reader, the reporter’s information can get lost. The magic of the Internet is that someone can swoop in and fix any mistake as soon as it’s discovered. And our readers discover as many as we discover on our own”… The full text can be read on the NYTimes website
here .