Thursday, July 24, 2008

Translation Studies: Impact of Word Choice on Content

"Translation Studies" is a discipline that can be applied to the Study of Media and Media Presentations. Translation Studies is not to be confused with foreign language instruction (e.g., learning Italian) but, rather, focuses on how the choices made in translation from one language to another affect meaning. As international communications becomes more pervasive, this Media Literacy Approach can provide insight into

To illustrate, neo-cons within the Bush Administration, led by Vice President Dick Chaney, are pushing for an invasion of Iran before the end of their reign. According to respected journalists Seymour Hersh and Thomas Powers, the Bush administration is basing much of their pre-invasion rationale on a quote attributed to President
Ahmadinejad, that Iran must “wipe Israel off of the map.” However, reporter Arash Norouzi points out that the Bush Administration’s bellicose policy toward Iraq is actually based be on a miss-translation of Ahmadinejad’s statement.

In an article published on, On January 20, 2007, Norouzi examined Ahmadinejad’s exact quote in Farsi:

"Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad."

Norouzi explains,

That passage will mean nothing to most people, but one word might ring a bell: rezhim-e. It is the word "Regime", pronounced just like the English word with an extra "eh" sound at the end. Ahmadinejad did not refer to Israel the country or Israel the land mass, but the Israeli regime. This is a vastly significant distinction, as one cannot wipe a regime off the map. Ahmadinejad does not even refer to Israel by name, he instead uses the specific phrase "rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods" (regime occupying Jerusalem).

So this raises the question.. what exactly did he want "wiped from the map"? The answer is: nothing. That's because the word "map" was never used. The Persian word for map, "nagsheh", is not contained anywhere in his original farsi quote, or, for that matter, anywhere in his entire speech. Nor was the western phrase "wipe out" ever said. Yet we are led to believe that Iran's President threatened to "wipe Israel off the map", despite never having uttered the words "map", "wipe out" or even "Israel".[1]

Thus, if we are to believe Norouzi’s analysis (and please, never simply accept anyone’s assertions), it is possible that the U.S. may embark on yet another war on the basis of a mistake. Or, worse, it is possible that Bush and Company have intentionally adopted their “official” translation to support their ideological mission.

Another side to this story involves its source. Every year, Sonora State University publishes its Ten Most Underreported Stories of the Year. This story was included in the 2007 list—but was buried at number twenty four. A very important consideration in media literacy analysis is relative placement—where items appear in the media. The message conveyed by this numerical designation is that this is, in relation to other underreported stories, relatively unimportant.

Given the possible implications of a war with Iran (more people killed, the Strait of Hormuz closed, bringing oil prices up astronomically, the Middle East joining in opposition to the U.S.), I would surely have placed this story in the top ten. However, in considering this issue, it becomes clear that the placement of stories is a subjective issue, reflecting the values and orientation of the editors. The lesson here is not to take the word of the editor. An item that appears on page nine of your newspaper may belong on “your” front page. So, peruse the entire newspaper or the complete list of “Underreported Stories” and make up your own mind about what media programming to consume.

[1] Arash Norouzi “Wiped off the Map—The Rumor of the Century., Mossadegh Project. January 20, 2008


Over the past few months, a couple of people have suggested that I write a Blog. Initially, I was a little dubious. I imagine that this limitless digital universe is starting to look like a virtual landfill, stuffed with personal trash: my adventures grouting the bathtub, my favorite flavor of pudding (lemon), and my solution to the war in Iraq (leave). However, these former students said that they would be interested in what I’ve got to say, which is enough of a compliment that I thought I’d give Blogging a try.

A little background would be appropriate, I guess. I am a Professor in the Department of Communications and Journalism at Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri. My field of interest is called media literacy, which is defined as a critical thinking skill that is applied to the source of most of our information—the channels of mass communication. Media literacy is to provide individuals with strategies to decipher media messages. Media literacy, then, focuses on process rather than any pre-designed outcome, empowering individuals to reach their own conclusions.

As I tell my students, there is nothing wrong with watching Fox news, so long as you know what it is and you know what it isn’t. (I should mention that my own ideology is to the left of center). I’m going to approach this Blog as a running commentary on events from a media literacy point of view. The views I present will be my own, as opposed to representing Webster University.