Translations Can Lose Meaning

Published (in abbreviated form) Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ – Words and concepts sometimes defy direct translation. “Hot,” for example, means something very different here. Anything under 40 degrees Celsius (104°F) is purposely called “warm.” August temps average 120°F and above here, so the meaning of “hot” would evaporate if it also meant “below average.”

Adjusting the scale upwards for “warm” to “hot” to “scorching” to “walking-barefoot-on-the-sun” is simple enough. Other words don’t translate for cultural reasons. Kurds are mystified by our term “selfish.” It’s a novel concept to them. It might mean noble defense of family, or some sort of sociopathic delusion. Usually all I get is a blank stare. “Self” describes a physical being, but “selfish” as a metaphor for overvaluing that physical being doesn’t match up. Was I talking about “oysters”? Even in a landlocked country, “shellfish” was an easier connection.

Kurds think of themselves as part of a family unit first and foremost, so the idea of focusing on an individual isn’t easy to grasp. I didn’t ask about “self-esteem,” but I expect I would have heard about poaching oysters. “Shell in steam” — mmm, tasty!

I didn’t expect “journalist” to be a term that doesn’t translate easily, but it was. The role of the journalist for a society in transition is a hot topic right now. We talk easily about how journalists aim to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” but young Iraqi journalists are doing it, at great personal peril.

On July 22, Soran Hama was murdered in front of his house in Kirkuk. The 23-year-old journalist had written a story about prostitution in Kirkuk. In the article, Hama claimed that he had collected the names of “police brigadiers, lieutenants, colonels, and many police and security officers” who were clients. Death threats followed.

Witnesses saw him shot at 9 PM from a black BMW trolling his neighborhood. Latif Fatih Faraj, the local head of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, called Hama “a courageous and adventurous journalist.” The Committee to Protect Journalists (www.cpj.org) counts at least 129 other journalists who have been killed since the U.S. invasion. Other estimates approach 300.

Three young journalist have agreed to meet us inside the Christian Peacemaker Teams office. There’s no electricity right now, but it’s our best option. They assume their own offices are being watched, and meeting in a public place could put everyone at risk. The windows can’t be left open, in spite of the heat. The fans are readied, in case power returns.

Amanj Khalil speaks first, with the urgency that comes naturally when you’ve been shot at twice in the past week. “Today is my first day out,” he says as he spins his cell phone on the table. Threats come often from both political parties. This was his fifth.

Ako Khalil is Amani’s little brother. He considers himself an activist, but wrote about a recent protest after Hama’s assassination. They see no distinction between an activist and a journalist. Both are committed to learning things and changing them.

Amanj continues, “Our mother worries. After I was shot at, she went into shock. She had to go to the hospital. But our father defends us. He says it’s honorable work. He tells her, ‘at least they’re not stealing.’ He drives a taxi, so he knows what’s going on.”

Abdullah Goran was in Kirkuk when Hama was murdered. He worked for an independent newspaper, but he wanted even more independence, so now he free-lances. “The government authorities are threatening the free pen,” he says. I don’t know whether he means “press” and I don’t care — “pen” is so much more immediate and individual. I’m convinced “free pen” conveys exactly what he means.

The free pen. Maybe the machinery behind the press has made fewer of us “courageous and adventurous.” Maybe the freedom of the press and the protections we enjoy in the west have softened us. Have we become more willing to repeat conventional wisdom than take the risks that come with telling readers what we learn?

I know I feel soft, listening to these young men. I’m taking notes, but mostly I’m hoping the electricity will come back on, allowing the fans to circulate the stifling air. I’m roasting in the heat, wondering if I’ve become a little shellfish.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) has returned to Eugene from Iraqi Kurdistan this week. All his postings are archived, and readers can leave comments, right here. Kahle will recap his experience at the City Club of Eugene’s Friday Forum on Sept. 19.