October 24, 2017
Instead of hiring a translator, Israeli police arrest a Palestinian worker for wishing his friends a good morning
by Ian Dreiblatt
We’ve written before on the dangers of mistranslation, which can lead a nation to confuse its president with a giant chicken, to make the wrong cookie a metonym for its desultory recollections, to forget the truth about its lesbian nuns. In the fourth century, St. Jerome mistranslated the Hebrew word karan (“radiant”) with the Latin word cornuta (“horned”), which led to centuries of antlered Moseses in European art. You gotta be careful with this stuff.
In Haaretz this weekend, Yotam Berger reported a more distressing example. A Palestinian man in Beitar Illit, one of the larger of Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements, was taken into custody after he snapped a selfie at work and posted it on Facebook, with a caption that read, in Arabic, “Good morning.” Apparently, none of the local Israeli police could read Arabic, and Facebook’s translation software mysteriously rendered the phrase with the Hebrew for “Attack them.” Because the man works in construction, the job site where he photographed himself included a bulldozer, which alarmingly reminded police of several attacks over recent years. They promptly arrested the guy, holding him for a few hours before acknowledging their mistake.
There is, of course, a lot to say here, about the difficulties of subjecting a people to apartheid without knowing their language, the bad will bred by such mishaps, the long histories of colonial misapprehension that encircle this planet, and the benefits of employing skilled human translators rather than corporate algorithms.
The story also calls up a remote—and fascinating—literary parallel. In his comedic play Poenulus (“The Little Carthaginian,” or, if you prefer, “The Puny Punic”), dating back to the early second century BCE, the ancient Roman writer Plautus tells the story of Agorastocles, a Carthaginian adoptee raised in Rome, who falls in love with Adelphasium, an enslaved Carthaginian woman. In the final act, a Carthaginian man named Hanno shows up, and (spoilers) turns out to be Adelphasium’s father and Agorastocles’s cousin. Although this means Agorastocles and Adelphasium are also cousins, it lands as good news: Adelphasium is freed, and she and Agorastocles marry, cousinhood be damned.
What’s most famous about the play today, though, is that when Hanno gets to Rome, he speaks several lines in Punic, the Semitic language of Carthage and a relative of modern Arabic. Agorastocles’s slave Milphio has pretended to be far more conversant in Punic than he is, and must cover for himself. Here’s an exchange in English translation:
Hanno: [in Punic] Good morning!
Milphio: Better you than me!
Agorastocles: What’s he saying?
Milphio: He says his jaw hurts; maybe he takes us for doctors.
The joke is that the words Hanno has actually said—the Punic for “good morning to you,” “me har bocca,”—sound like the Latin “misera bucca,” which means “wretched cheek” (compare the English “miserable” and the not-so-common-but-totally-a-word “buccal”). To the ancient Romans—who lived in a multiethnic polity and many of whom knew a little Punic—this was, how you say, hilarious. (For comparison’s sake, it’s a little like an old sitcom, where George Burns is taking cha-cha classes from a beautiful instructor, and a jealous Gracie Allen bursts in, only to be told that nothing untoward is going on. “Sí, sí,” the instructor affirms, to which Gracie replies, “I see-see plenty.”)
At any rate, it’s fascinating to think of the ancient Roman audience with enough Punic to pick up on the gag — and sobering to consider that Israeli police forces overseeing Arabic-speaking populations today might so totally lack the same skills. If nothing else, consider it one more reason we should support the work of translators — and should understand what people are saying before we rush in to police them.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.