Consider the following examples: (1) in an interview for James Lipton's Inside the Actors Studio from a decade ago, the Jewish-Ashkenazi (of western origins) actress Natalie Portman was asked about her favourite curse word. Her response was ‘there's one in Hebrew, it's actually in Arabic, but we use it in Israel: kus emmek, it means “your mother's vagina”.’
(2) In 1978, the Jewish-Mizrahi (of eastern origins) singer Ofra Haza released a hit song in Hebrew, "Song of the freha", of which the chorus was:
Cuz' I wanna dance, and fool around
I wanna laugh, and I don't want you
I want in the days, and in the nights
I wanna scream: "I'm a freha"
The word farha in Arabic means 'joy'; it is clear from the above sexual insinuations that in Hebrew the distorted meaning (and word) is much closer to the negative pejorative 'slut', or in Arabic, sharmuta. It is indicative that these lyrics were written by Assi Dayan and Tzvika Pick—two renowned male upper-class Ashkenazi producers in Israeli culture, while only the female lower-class Mizrahi performer, Haza, was criticized for the open and celebratory use of the word.
(3) Since 2012, a SlutWalk has been taking place in Tel-Aviv and other cities, under the Hebrew banner of ‘The Sharmuta Walk.’ Even the Israeli-Hebrew version of the Wikipedia page of the SlutWalk translates slut to sharmuta. Another website reporting the walk had put it in this way: ‘Sluts of the world, unite. Or, as they say in Israel: "Be proud to be a sharmuta," which is a Hebrew slang term for a woman who is sexually open’. And yes, for those wondering, Hebrew has plenty of its own words for 'slut' - zona, prutza, to name a few - and yet, for some reason, in some cases the Arabic is preferred.
This intimate relation between language (Arabic, Hebrew), sex (kus, freha, slut, sharmuta), and politics (the Zionist class-struggle, Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is all but accidental. The Slovenian philosopher Alenka Zupančič has concisely formulated it in her recent book What is Sex? by arguing that ‘the point is not to explain the satisfaction in talking by referring to its 'sexual origin'. The point is that the satisfaction in talking is itself 'sexual'.’ And this is just a taste of the problematic about to unfold below.
Usually, political conflicts are accompanied by linguistic conflicts. This contradicts the somewhat peaceful and common notion that more communication means less conflict. In accordance with (Lacanian) psychoanalysis, more communication means first of all more conflict. Lacan's recent populariser, the philo-superstar Slavoj Žižek has phrased this in the motto ‘there is no ethnic cleansing without poetry’. Before him, it was Foucault who (by reversing Clausewitz's own reversal) analyzed the idea that ‘politics is war by other means’. Thus, if politics is the continuation of war, and if political conflicts involve linguistic ones, then language itself becomes a site of war charged with sexual tension. This scenario could not have been made clearer than in the criminal trial of the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, currently taking place in Israel.
Tatour, a 35 year old Palestinian citizen of Israel from the village of Reineh (near Nazareth), was arrested by the Israeli police on 11 October 2015, and was prosecuted by the State Attorney with incitement for violence and supporting a terrorist organization a few weeks later. The case was opened: The (Jewish and democratic) State of Israel against (the Palestinian Poet) Dareen Tatour. At the heart of this trial lays a poem that Tatour wrote in Arabic and posted on her Facebook page, attaching it to a video on Youtube. The indictment against her, in Hebrew, lists the poem as well as three other Facebook posts as evidence. The arrest of (especially young) Palestinians over social media posts is a growing tendency in Israel, to which great resources are allocated including a predictive computerized algorithm.
Since Tatour's poem was written in Arabic, a language only 0.4% of Jews in Israel can deeply understand (based on a 2015 study), the prosecution necessitated a translation which was solicited from the police. The policeman-cum-translator has three decades in the Nazareth police behind him, yet he had never translated a literary text to Hebrew—a language he is not professionally acquainted with. When the translation was delivered in court, he apologized for some mistakes and omissions including that he did not pick up that Merkava is a name of an Israeli tank.
‘And what about shaheed?’ he was asked on the witness-stand by the prosecution. In a remarkable tautological way that says it all without saying anything at all, the policeman/translator got stuck midway between Arabic and Hebrew: ‘Shaheed is shaheed. Shin – haa’ – daal.’ Žižek recalls that Hegel analyzed tautology through expectation and surprise: ‘the excess here is the unexpected lack itself: “A rose is… a rose”—we expected something, a determination, a predicate, but what we get is just the repetition of the subject, which makes the phrase latent with virtual meaning’. The tautological answer of the policeman signifies a break in the Law of language, in the normal flow of speech. Žižek continues, ‘far from being an index of perfection, it hints at an obscene contingent underside. When do we say, “The law is the law?” Precisely when the law is encountered as unjust, arbitrary, etc., and we then add, “But, nonetheless, the law is the law”’. In his book Hamlet's Negativity, Andrew Cutrofello elaborates on how ‘tautologies not only suspend the very act of predication by identifying the logical subject with itself but in so doing they disclose the inherent negativity by virtue of which an object can be related to itself. The effect in either case is to reveal the object’s incompleteness’. For the Law of language recognizing the object's incompleteness is disastrous.
If Shaheed is not a Shaheed, what is it then? And by extension, what is the meaning of the word used in the Arabic poem? For the prosecution, these questions are irrelevant; they are immaterial as in the Hebrew language and culture shaheed is always a terrorist. And so, from January 2016, Tatour has been held under several kinds of restrictions, including house arrest, forced wearing an ankle monitor, and the prohibition of using the internet. A verdict is expected soon (-ish).
If we insist on asking why this break in the Law of language happened here, in this precise instance of this specific trial, we must return to some principles. Words are signs, and a sign is that which represents something for someone; a combination of a signifier (the utterance, S) and a signified (the image, s). Departing from the mirror perspective of language, following Saussure we thought that the meaning of a word was largely determined by the signified (s), through a relationship with the signifier (S). However, with the understanding that language is more pragmatic than syntactic and semantic, and, namely, that language is spoken and enacted, the determination of meaning was reversed toward the signifier.
In translation we move from this discursive relationship in the origin language to the same formal relationship in the target language. This can happen in two ways. The first kind of translation, which for our purposes can be called metaphoric translation, works from the origin language on the left a signifier (S) is revealed; for example the word shaheed in Arabic. Then it slides onto its clustered-signified (s) to which it relates to conventional meanings in a time and place (martyr, victim, etc.), before it transforms into a similar clustered-signified (s') and in the target language on the right and emerges with a new word and signifier (S').
In contrast, the second form is metonymic translation and works from the signifier (S), which is sliding not to the signifieds-cluster (s) but directly onto the signifier (S’) in the target language. This would be, in effect, transliteration. And this is what the prosecution tried to argue for, the uprooting of the sapling from its meaningful soil and its cultural environment and planting it in foreign soil in order to create an imaginary, messianic Tower of Babel of words.
This difference in translations and its consequences are exemplified in the transcripts, which reveal several hours-long legal-poetic inquiries such as the testimony of Dr. Yonatan Mendel—a translator, translation researcher and a witness for the defense with an alternative translation—who was cross-examined for over five-hours:
Prosecutor: You claim that Israelis automatically interpret the word shaheed as related to terror.
Prosecutor: You say the Jewish-Israeli interpretation of the word is very distorted … and every Palestinian would understand it as “martyr”, and not as shaheed?
Witness: I would say that it is more “victims” rather than “aggressors”.
Prosecutor: You first wrote “martyrs” versus shaheed, and now you say “victims” versus “aggressors”.
Witness: The word shaheed is already loaded in Hebrew, most of the shuhadaa, or in Hebrew shaheedim, are civilians who did not go out to harm Israelis.
Prosecutor: The translation submitted by the police raises a call for violence.
Prosecutor: You translated “resist” whereas he translated “oppose”.
Witness: The root of the word in Arabic is qaaf – waaw – miim and I look for the equivalent in Hebrew: "resist" [hitkomem, from the root qof – vav – mem]. “Oppose” [hitnaged, from the root nun – gimel – dalet] is not a mistake, yet resist fits better.
To fully grasp this difference in (forms of) translations, we should note that metaphor and metonymy are two linguistic operations which are opposed and yet complementary to each other. The former allows for substitution and the latter for combination, and together they pave way for meaning to emerge. But relying on just one piston of this motor, as the prosecution tried to by combining a signifier with a foreign signified, is to forcefully assimilate the word/text as-is in the target language, while overriding its original contextual meanings. The prosecution used the metonymic translation which runs from a (origin) signifier to the (target) signifier, not through the semantic level of signifieds. This is why words such as shaheed are all considered and used—written and spoken—as Hebrew words. No matter what was and is the Arabic meaning of them. This is how shaheed is no longer a martyr, but a terrorist. Alla Akbar is not 'God is greater' but clustered around 'Muslim', 'terror', 'attack', 'decadence', 'irrationality'. They have acquired new meanings, based on Israel's political culture. Conversely, truthful rather than powerful translation is metaphoric, and runs from the (origin) signifier to its own signifieds, before sliding to the target language's signifieds and then to its chosen signifier. Roland Barth wrote that ‘in metaphor, selection becomes contiguity, and in metonymy, contiguity becomes a field to select from. It therefore seems that it is always on the frontiers of the two planes that creation has a chance to occur.’
One (Natalie Portman) would be mistaken to believe that kus emmek, freha, sharmuta, and shaheed are Hebrew words. Or would they? This metonymic form of translation (or transliteration) reveals what exactly is being 'used' or 'taken' by the Zionist Hebrew from the Arabic language to assimilate as its own. Poetics is also politics. We should uphold the Lacanian thesis that metonymic sliding must always be supported by a metaphorical cut. Translation is ethical and political by nature, because beyond the meanings to be associated between two given languages, the social context provides a frame for the translation (or translation of the translation). I would agree with Paul Ricoeur who remarked that ‘the work of the translator does not move from the word to the sentence, to the text, to the cultural group, but conversely: absorbing vast interpretations of the spirit of a culture, the translator comes down again from the text, to the sentence and to the word’.
The metonymic translation renders visible the logic behind these mental and physical constructions, namely, the Zionist meaning formation, and its relation to the place and its inhabitants. It demonstrates how Israelis systematically—culturally and legally—avoid engaging deeply with Arabic or the Arab, not in-spite of but precisely because it is also a (second) formal language of the State. Arabic involves anxiety and fear for the Israeli ear; a symptom of the political cause which in Zionism means the eradication and cleansing of not only peoples and bodies, but also of cultures and languages. This is why only 'bad', sexual tensed words are metonymically translated, as free-floating signifiers (with no genuine signifieds). They allow Israelis and Hebrew to cleanse themselves from what they find vile, and transpose the sexual, linguistic and political conflicts onto the Other.
Instead of passing through the network of the origin language (Arabic) signifieds, Israel's use of Arabic is purely instrumental (for intelligence or legality)—all can be taken and used as Zionists please, material or ideal, as long as their image and the symbolic order (the guarantor of meaning) that sustains it remains, as long as, the true meaning of this trial—young Palestinians must be afraid to post their cries for freedom online and will be arrested for long time and have their freedoms deprived—will be left unsaid. So the State's Attorney's response was as banal as possible: ‘The translation of the text accompanying the video was done by a veteran policeman of whom Arabic is a mother tongue. It is a literal translation which did not pretend to interpret the words’.
The (Marxian) shift from tragedy to farce is marked with Tatour's own words: ‘I can say that the interrogation and the trial are a farce and a shame for any system that claims to be democratic’. Tatour's original video-clip was viewed by 153 people; ironically, the sharing of the same video-clip by Minister of Culture Miri Regev garnered 62,000 views in just one day. Perhaps she should be arrested for incitement instead? If it was not for parliamentary immunity. For now, several initiatives (joint by Israelis and Palestinians) show public support of Tatour, calling for her release and for the right to create. They resist attempts made by Regev, to metonymically translate their acts into criminal acts ‘which allegedly undermine the State of Israel, its values and symbols’.
Thus we could use Walter Benjamin's terms from his Critique of Violence to distinguish between metaphoric translation as law-making, and metonymic translation as law-preserving: only the former strives for the new, the emergence of a new signifier, new words and ways of representing a different reality. Otherwise, one might wake up to a state which enforces The Law of Translation - that there cannot be multiple meanings for a word; or wake up to the nightmare (so vividly portrayed by the Arab-Jew sociologist Yehouda Shenhav as a situation) where ‘The Ministry of Culture will set up a licensing unit for the accreditation of poets, like dentists, and will set criteria for poetic negligence; the Ministry of Internal Affairs will safeguard against imposters and will enforce preemptive arrests accordingly; and the Ministry of Health will revoke the license of the poet suffering from mania or divine inspiration (whichever comes first).’
Meanwhile, the saga continues. In mid October 2017, the Israeli police arrested a Palestinian construction worker after posting a photo of himself against a bulldozer where he works, with the caption saying "good morning to y'all" (Ysabechhum). However, against him worked greater powers: the Facebook automated translation got it as: "hurt'em all" (Ydbachhum). Thus, he was arrested and questioned for several hours until the police cleared him. Facebook apologized for the "mistake". So while in Tatour's case the full, that is, linguistic and social translation was: (female + writing + freedom) / Police's translation authority = probable cause = arrest, here, the actual translation here was: (male + tractor + hurt) / (Facebook's translation authority) = probable cause = arrest. In both cases, what is being translated is hardly merely the word, but also the sexual and political contexts, which, as we can see, determine a great deal of the legal proceedings in the way probability is calculated.
For example, after (getting an extension and) submitting its written summations to the court at the end of June 2017, sentencing Tatour was set for October 18. However, since then a troubling silence was heard over the news and media. No word about the case, about Tatour, about the arrest of a poet over a meaning of a word. This was discovered to be a result of some 'newly discovered evidence' which as such makes room for postponing the verdict even further (while Tatour is, of course, still under house arrest). This new evidence is another Facebook post from Tatour's page, which is a profile picture with the words "I'm the next martyr" ([shaheed], posted originally in the male form). The prosecution claimed that having the photo on her phone close to her arrest (on October 2015) is enough to proof its original posting date. This is acutely important because Tatour, on the contrary, argued that she, as well as many others, posted that photo much earlier, on July 2014, closer to the horrific kidnapping and murder of the young boy Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Israeli settlers.
Crucially, the specific context of the photo, its date of publication (which was determined to be July 2014), goes to show Tatour's use and understanding of the word shaheed, which is a lot closer to martyr and victim than to an aggressor. Just like the eye cannot see itself, the Israeli court cannot see its own political context and how much it hinders the rights of the people and the justice of the law. This is why, for now, another hearing, regarding the new evidence, was set for December 28. What effects will that have on Tatour's case and on the ongoing legal injustice against Palestinians? The answer is surely dependent on the context in which violence is read and translated.