"Wipe Israel off the map" translation controversy

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Report about Israel and Iran, and the “wipe Israel off the map” translation controversy

You wrote initially last year to complain about a story that was carried on The National on August 27, 2008. The item was reported by Terry Milewski and concerned the views of some Israelis about Iran and the views of Iranians in Israel.

You wrote to say that you could not remember “a more biased report on CBC Television,” that Mr. Milewski drew from sources that were “mostly, if not exclusively Israeli” and that he “made such a compelling case for a preventive Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear installations that it could be used verbatim (as justification) to carry out such an attack.”

Among other issues, you objected to Mr. Milewski's statement that Israel faces an enemy “with a messianic vision of conquest in the name of God.”

Mark Harrison, the Executive Producer of The National, subsequently wrote, apologizing for the lengthy delay, but disagreeing with your assessment. He said that the item was “narrowly focused” on the debate within Israel over what to do about the threat that Israel sees from Iran. He said that policy did not require that any statement that might be interpreted as critical of Iran be balanced with an approving voice. He said that balance for an issue like this required an assessment of coverage over a period of time.

You rejected Mr. Harrison's reply and asked for a review, adding a continued objection not only to the report, but to the introduction by Brian Stewart. Mr. Stewart said “…many think that the West is not taking Iran's nuclear ambitions seriously enough, including Israel, which hasn't forgotten Iran's threat to wipe it off the map. It is preparing for the worst.” You argued that “many think” was merely cover for personal opinion and that the translation of Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's words to imply the necessity of a military attack to wipe Israel from the map was faulty.


It is with considerable trepidation that I dip my toes into the troubled waters of translation.

The first thing that should be noted about the “wipe off the map” controversy is that the initial translation was done by the “official” Iranian news service. Under normal circumstances it would not be bizarre to assume that their translators had a fairly good sense of their Prime Minister's intentions. People have pointed out that some of the words used in the translation do not exist in Farsi. As I am sure you know, good translations are not word for word, but more flowingly idiomatic. So the key element is the intention of the speaker.

Despite the presumed closeness of the official news agency to government officials, I think we have to accept the subsequent explanations that it was not Ahmadinejad's intention to call for military action. Rather, he said subsequently, it was merely a repeat of the wish of Ayatollah Khomeini that the “regime” in Israel would disappear after one country was created, including the Palestinians. One should note that Mr. Ahmadinejad's sophistry surrounding the Holocaust leaves ample room for less tolerant interpretations.

Your argument that Brian Stewart was expressing a personal opinion when he said that “many” people felt that the West was not taking Iran's nuclear ambitions seriously enough does not really stand up to analysis. It was clear at the time and remains clear that, while by no means universal, there is a substantial body of opinion that believes that. It is not an endorsement of that view to cite it. As I think you have acknowledged, Mr. Stewart has wide experience as a correspondent and an enviable roster of sources.

The notion that Iran's political leadership might be inspired by messianic views requires deeper exploration. While there are some commentators who say that the Prime Minister's clear identification with messianic and millenarian tendencies in Iraq may be inspired more by politics than faith, there are many others who argue that Ahmadinejad's beliefs are sincere. You may find nothing threatening in his apparent belief in the imminent return of the 12th Mahdi, but I trust you can understand that others may take a different view. I am sure that there are many in the West, the U.S. in particular, who would view with considerable alarm the emergence of a truly fundamentalist Christian leader who would see armed conflict in the Middle East as fulfillment of prophesy and scripture.

In any event, Mr. Milewski's brief description of the Prime Minister's clearly stated views was certainly an appropriate citation. However, I do agree that Mr. Ahmadinejad's exact intentions in relation to Israel's continued existence are less clear. It would have been more accurate for Mr. Milewski to attribute that comment to those who believe that is what the Prime Minister meant.

Conclusion

Your complaint is largely unfounded, with the exception that the very murky circumstances surrounding the translation of Mr. Ahmadinejad's words would argue for attribution rather than assertion by a CBC correspondent.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman