For some time now, I have been receiving small gifts from a generous institute in the United States. The gifts are high-quality translations of articles from Arabic newspapers which the institute sends to me by email every few days, entirely free-of-charge. ... The emails also go to politicians and academics, as well as to lots of other journalists. The stories they contain are usually interesting. ... Whenever I get an email from the institute, several of my Guardian colleagues receive one too and regularly forward their copies to me - sometimes with a note suggesting that I might like to check out the story and write about it.The organisation that Whitaker alerted us to was set up by a former member of the Israeli intelligence service. And as Whitaker points out, “the stories selected by Memri for translation follow a familiar pattern: either they reflect badly on the character of Arabs or they in some way further the political agenda of Israel”. MEMRI’s own site (http://memri.org/aboutus.html) describes the organisation as follows – interestingly making explicit use of the bridge metaphor:
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) explores the Middle East through the region’s media. MEMRI bridges the language gap which exists between the West and the Middle East, providing timely translations of Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East.
Founded in February 1998 to inform the debate over U.S. policy in the Middle East, MEMRI is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501 (c)3 organization. MEMRI’s headquarters is located in Washington, DC with branch offices in Berlin, London, and Jerusalem, where MEMRI also maintains its Media Center. MEMRI research is translated to English, German, Hebrew, Italian, French, Spanish, Turkish, and Russian.15The press reports on the organisations’s work, proudly quoted by MEMRI on its site, confirm Whitaker’s analysis of the type of narrative that MEMRI’s translations seek to promote. Here are a couple of examples:
“MEMRI, the indispensable group that translates the ravings of the Saudi and Egyptian press...” Weekly Standard, April 28, 2003
“www.memri.org - What they do is very simple, no commentary nothing else. What they do is they just translate what the Saudis say in the mosques, say in their newspapers, say in government pronouncements, say in their press.” October 1, 2002, BBCHere then is a full-blown programme of demonisation of a particular group which relies almost totally on translation. Indeed, in rebutting Whitaker’s attack the following day, the founder of MEMRI says: “Monitoring the Arab media is far too much for one person to handle. We have a team of 20 translators doing it”. These translators are enabling communication and building bridges, perhaps, but the narratives they help weave together, relying on narrative features like selective appropriation and causal emplotment, are far from innocent and, to my mind, certainly do not promote the cause of peace and justice.16
Rather than promoting a view of a translator as embedded in and committed to a specified cultural and social framework and agenda, however broad, the discourse of translation as a space between embodies a rather romantic and even elitist notion of the translator as poet. If the place of enunciation of the translator is a space outside both the source and the receptor culture, the translator becomes a figure like romantic poets, alienated from allegiances to any culture, isolated by genius.Finally, I would argue that by over-romanticising the role of translation and translators as peace-giving enablers of communication, we abstract them out of history, out of the narratives that necessarily shape their outlook on life, and in the course of doing so we risk intensifying their blindspots and encouraging them to become complacent about the nature of their interventions, and less conscious of the potential damage they can do. A narrative view helps us understand that people’s behaviour is ultimately guided by the stories they believe about the events in which they are embedded, rather than by their religious or national affiliation. Moreover, narrative theory does not allow for ‘spaces in between’: no one, translators included, can stand outside or between narratives. Hence, a politically attuned account of the role of translation and translators would not place either outside nor in between cultures. It would locate them at the heart of interaction, in the narratives that shape their own lives as well as the lives of those for whom and between whom they translate and interpret.
As far as relations between the west and the Arab world are concerned, language is a barrier that perpetuates ignorance and can easily foster misunderstanding. ... All it takes is a small but active group of Israelis to exploit that barrier for their own ends and start changing western perceptions of Arabs for the worse. ... It is not difficult to see what Arabs might do to counter that. A group of Arab media companies could get together and publish translations of articles that more accurately reflect the content of their newspapers.About a year or so later, an organisation called Arabs Against Discrimination was indeed set up, almost as a direct response to Whitaker’s suggestion. This organisation too relies very heavily on translation to promote a counter-narrative of what Arabs stand for as well as expose the racism and discrimination practised in Israeli society (see http://www.aad-online.org/). 17 See, in particular, the work of Anthony Pym (1998, 2000). For a good overview and critique, see Tymoczko 2003.