Brian Whittaker has done a terrific piece of research journalism to explain how MEMRI pulled the wool over the eyes of the international media in its reporting about a Hamas TV show, in which Mickey Mouse allegedly encourages a young Palestinian girl to profess her readiness to become a suicide bomber. Even the AP, CNN, and progressive bloggers like Matt Yglesias (Jihad TV? C’mon Matt, you can do better than that) were suckered into reporting the story pretty much as MEMRI (or in Matt’s case, Palestinian Media Watch) gave it to them. The trouble is–the program transcript as reported by MEMRI was wrongly translated:
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.”
In the context of the conversation, and in line with normal Arab-Islamic usage, martyrdom could simply mean being killed by the Israelis’ shooting. However, Memri’s translation of the sentence – “I will commit martyrdom” turns it into a deliberate act on the girl’s part, and Colonel Carmon has since claimed that it refers to suicide bombers.
When I read about this story first at Matt Yglesias’ blog I wrote a doubting comment at his blog as soon as I noticed his source was Palestinian Media Watch. If you write about the Mideast conflict as long as I have you tend to know which sources are immediately credible and which are only credible if independently verified. And MEMRI is one that I never credit unless verified by a more reliable, and less tendentious source.
If I knew to keep my distance why could not AP, CNN and other publications have invested in the time it would take to ask Arabic speakers to vet MEMRI’s translation? Now, they wouldn’t have egg on their face. Of course, the problem is the damage is now done. MEMRI’s story, though false, has circulated deeply and widely. No amount of clarification from the Brian Whittakers of the world can correct the false impression planted by the anti-Arab propagandists.
On a final note, I completely agree with Brian that it is unpardonable for Hamas to place children in the position they did in questioning the girl on this show. Using children for political purposes is despicable and worthy of condemnation. But if we’re going to condemn this program, let’s do so based on accurate, credible information and not based on someone’s fever dream of Arab anti-Semitism and annihilationsim.
I also note that the AP provided a translation of a speech by the Mickey Mouse character which should also be questioned:
“You and I are laying the foundation for a world led by Islamists,” the character squeaked on a recent episode. “We will return the Islamic community to its former greatness and liberate Jerusalem, God willing, liberate Iraq, God willing, and liberate all the countries of the Muslims invaded by the murderers.”
Which is summarized thusly:
Hamas militants have suspended a television program that featured a Mickey Mouse look-alike urging Palestinian children to fight Israel and work for global Islamic domination
AP doesn’t say where this translation comes from? MEMRI? Their own independent sources? Remember what The Who used to warn us? “We won’t be fooled again.” Let the media beware and verify MEMRI stories and translations before running with them.
A big hat tip to Sol Salbe.
W Dean says
I’ve been blogging about this too and posted a full transcript of the show here: http://www.factsontheground.co.uk/?p=120
What really annoyed me about it is that guy from MEMRI going on the Glen Beck show, saying he stood by his translation and then claiming that there were no arabic speakers willing to debate him about the translation. That’s complete BS!
First of all I agree with you that MEMRI is agenda driven and their translations should be checked. They provide avery valuable service and even your source for this post Brian Whittaker said “The curious thing about all this is that Memri’s translations are usually accurate “. According to Glen Beck the clip went to CNNs Arab desk, their Israel desk it was aproved in Atlanta, New York and Washington and back to Los Angeles before it was approved. So basically they did exactly what you said they should do. Yigal Carmon stands by the translation and challenged anyone to debate him. Why W Dean thinks that’s BS I have no idea.
Richard Silverstein says
CNN’s Arab desk rejected the story and CNN allowed that disgusting anti-Arab propagandist, Glenn Beck, to run the story anyway. Yigal Carmon is not a native Arab speaker nor I’m certain does he have any among his staff or volunteers. Whittaker featured CNN’s Arab desk editor debunking his translation. Whittaker confirmed MEMRI’s mistranslation using native Arabic speakers. What more debate does anyone need?
You left out something important that Whittaker added. MEMRI never translates material that would tend to cast Arabs in a positive light or Israelis in a negative light. So the problem isn’t only in the translations which vary widely in quality. It is in the choice of material and the deliberate lack of context provided in many stories it does cover, such as this one.
W Dean says
From watching, Glenn Back, I got the impression that what he was actually saying was that it was passed around between various departments of MEMRI [ed. I think you mean ‘CNN’]. And they’re obviously not going to mention it’s a faulty translation. However, at least three independent reliable sources have now confirmed that MEMRI’s translation is wrong. And that’s why it’s BS!
Also, as Richard has already mentioned MEMRI ‘cherry pick’ their translations and use only extremists and never provided any kind of context for it.
So If you imagine someone picking up the worst bilge you could hear from Kahanist wingnuts translating it to Arabic and then claiming that it represents Judaism in total then you got what MEMRI are doing to Arab culture.
I don’t think that the argument of MEMRI’s “cherry picking” is anywhere relevant.
They provide material that was actually broadcasted on national TV (or major TV channels) of the Arabic countries.
Incitement to violence and hatred in such a high profile media is unacceptable, plain and simple.
Trying to downplay the severity of it is nothing better than the alleged “cherry picking”.