Translating Iraq: Journalism as Hermeneutic Enterprise

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IRAQ WAR CULTURE REVIEW. Iraq War journalism has occasioned a debate over how to represent Iraqis as people rather than images of Western manufacture. As Iraq comes to define itself post-Saddam Hussein, it will be on terms of Iraq's own self-understanding rather than those provided by US journalism.

Kyle Conway

In Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism, Mohammed el-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar take the Arabic-language news channel to task for employing a politically charged—and therefore problematic—vocabulary that risks compromising the organization’s claim to journalistic objectivity. For example, they criticize Al-Jazeera because “its correspondents call Palestinian suicide-bombers shuhada (martyrs), not terrorists”. They explain, but do not excuse, the word choice by putting it in the context of the cultural expectations of much of Al-Jazeera’s audience: “To put it mildly, many Arabs view the Israeli occupation of Palestine as unfair, even illegal. Palestinians who are killed while fighting for freedom from occupation are subsequently portrayed as martyrs. Al-Jazeera reports this because it reflects the attitude and beliefs of its Arab audience”. In Al-Jazeera’s defense, they note that US networks such as CNN employ a vocabulary carrying an equal political charge, avoiding the term assassination, for instance, in favor of targeted killing when speaking of Israeli actions against leaders of groups like Hamas.

While they are certainly correct in pointing out the influence that the culture of reception has on how news stories are framed, el-Nawawy and Iskandar do not entirely escape their own critique. Just as Al-Jazeera frames its stories for a predominantly Arab audience, el-Nawawy and Iskandar frame their analysis for an English-speaking, predominantly American readership. One consequence is that they must provide a gloss for Arabic words such as shuhada, translated in the quote above as martyrs. However, although the term martyrs is no more neutral for American readers than shuhada is for Arabic viewers, el-Nawawy and Iskandar don’t subject the apparent equivalence between the words to the same critical examination they bring to bear on word choices made by Al-Jazeera and CNN. They fail to ask: in what ways does shuhada resonate differently in Arabic than martyrs does in English? After all, the terms’ respective meanings have been shaped by different historical events and discourses. Shuhada can mean “witness” as well as “martyr,” and those Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation and bear witness to what goes on there are shuhada, whether they raise arms against Israel or not. Likewise, martyr in English—especially in the current political climate in the US where the Christian religious right wields considerable power—has specifically Christian overtones that shuhada does not share.

The inadequacy of the translation of martyrs for shuhada is symptomatic of something larger, however. It points to a crucial paradox shaping journalism as a hermeneutic enterprise—that is, as an enterprise wherein journalists endeavor to make the world as seen from a foreign perspective meaningful to their readers, viewers, or listeners. In linguistic terms, the paradox is that journalists must work within the language they share with their readers in order to expose the inadequacies of their language. That is, they can use no words other than those provided by their language to express ideas for which their language might not necessarily have words—even an imported foreign word is meaningless without a gloss. Only with great difficulty can they escape the framework imposed by language because they work against the very framework that affords them the means to communicate.

This paradox is a function of more than just language, of course. Journalists face something analogous each time they write a story about a foreign interpretation of an event, such as how Iraqis understand the US invasion. If such an interpretation depends for its meaning on an Iraqi context that is not directly accessible to most American readers or viewers, to what degree can a journalist make it into a story meaningful to an American audience?

To examine these news-writing processes, I consider in this essay the discussions about how journalists have covered the Iraq war that the Columbia Journalism Review has been publishing since prior to the US invasion. I ask: how do journalists deal with translators and translations as they gather news about Iraq? What impact do the material conditions involved in reporting in a war zone have on how journalists go about their job, and how do these affect how they “translate” the perspectives of the people they write about? Finally, how do questions such as these lead us beyond a consideration of the process of news-writing to the articulation of an ethics of news-reading?

Translation and Translators

Translation in the most literal sense plays a large role in coverage of the war in Iraq. For instance, the Washington, DC-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), reasoning that there is “nothing like primary sources to give the true picture of any country,” posts translations of Arabic- and Farsi-language editorials and news stories to its website

Beyond this, journalists reporting from Iraq who don’t speak Arabic must rely on translators, who do more than just facilitate interviews. As Russell Working writes, “an interpreter embodies the adventure of reporting abroad. He becomes your voice and ears, your cultural advisor in a foreign land, smoothing over your faux pas [and] offering [cultural] tips”. (CJR, Jan.-Feb. 2004) Translators provide a crucial link and must be trustworthy because “a reporter in an alien land is no better than his interpreter, and when your conduit to a culture is unreliable, no amount of enterprise can make up for it”. Problems arise when a translator doesn’t like or trust the person being interviewed and, as a result, translates that person unfavorably. Problems also arise when the translator is provided by a government hostile to the journalist’s presence, as happened in Iraq before Saddam Hussein’s overthrow:

Before the war, in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, one of the many things that made reporting there so difficult were the escorts—minders, in the language of journalists; guides, in the language of the government. They were dispatched by the information ministry to accompany any foreign reporter working in Iraq.
Their job description left little room for subtlety: rigorous surveillance. For reporters who didn’t speak Arabic, they made sure a lot was lost in translation. By virtue of reports they filed to their superiors at the ministry, some journalists found themselves on blacklists. (CJR, May-June 2003)

In virtually every case, according to Anthony Shadid, the minders delivered a healthy dose of menace. On the other hand, good translators might be able to make contacts for the journalist, arranging interviews with people who, by virtue of their trust in the translator, would also trust the reporter.

Translating the US Military Experience

The material conditions in which journalists in Iraq must work also exert a great deal of influence over the stories they produce. To get their stories, they must face “land mines, suicide bombs, and accidents on the battlefield,” by the account of CJR contributing editor Michael Massing (CJR, May-June 2003). Journalists who have been “embedded” by the US military are granted at least a degree of protection, in contrast to those who are not embedded, the so-called “unilateral” reporters. Embedded reporters, however, don’t have easy access to Iraqi citizens and often end up reporting a military perspective, translating the military experience for a domestic US audience, which isn’t to say that their job is easy. Quite the contrary, according to Orange County Register columnist Gordon Dillow, who found himself “at what the US Marines call ‘the point of the spear,’” that is, among the infantry or “grunt” company that would be the first to enter Iraq:

...journalistically, there was no better place to be. But covering the spear point wasn’t always easy.
Marine grunts are often an insular, standoffish bunch even among other marines; they pride themselves on being leaner, harder, somehow more marine-like. Rear-echelon types are dismissed as “pogues”—rhymes with “rogues”—a term said to stand for “Persons Other than Grunts.” And to the marines, no one occupies a lower, more miserable place in the pogue world than reporters. (CJR, May-June 2003)

While gaining the trust of the “pogues” was in the end easier than he expected, Dillow writes that there was still a limit to what he could report, with casualty figures being taboo and “the astonishing crudity of young men in wartime” being inappropriate for a large circulation daily. More important, from the perspective of this examination of journalism as a hermeneutic enterprise, is Dillow’s mea culpa: “I found myself,” he writes, “doing what journalists are warned from J-school not to do: I found myself falling in love with my subject. I fell in love with ‘my’ marines”. After spending so much time in isolation with his unit, he began to see the world from their perspective. The effect this had on his stories, according to him, was tangible; while he would not choose not to report an event that might reflect poorly on “his” soldiers, he would go out of his way to contextualize the event in a way that was at least sympathetic: “The point wasn’t that I wasn’t reporting the truth; the point was that I was reporting the marine grunt truth—which had also become my truth”.

Translating Iraq

If embedded reporters like Gordon Dillow were reporting “marine grunt truth,” were others reporting some version of Iraqi truth? What would “Iraqi truth” be, if that were the case? For whose benefit would “Iraqi truth” be reported, and how would the perspective adopted shape the story produced? These are complicated questions, especially when we take into account the following point, raised by Gal Beckerman: “The American discussion about Iraq is, after all, more than just about Iraq and Iraqis. It is about ideas, about competing prescriptions for what America’s role in the world should be” (CJR, Mar.-Apr. 2004). In other words, stories about the Iraq war cannot be read outside of the ideologically charged context in which they appear, nor can reporters avoid participating in the ideological struggle taking place around the war’s “meaning” per se. “[I]deologically driven writers tend to choose evidence that fits their point of view,” Beckerman warns. “But reporters cannot merely build a case. Their job is to search through the gray zones, to try to grasp the ambiguities. [...] Reporters must find a way to learn what Iraqis really think”.

To that end, Beckerman profiles four journalists she believes to be successful in negotiating the hazards associated with reporting in Iraq and uncovering what Iraqis “really think.” George Packer is one such reporter. Writing for the New Yorker, Packer has had the luxury of time and column space, according to Beckerman, which he has used to get to know his interviewees well and, in articles up to 20,000 words long, to portray them as “complex and, in many ways, conflicted”. Packer describes the role of the Western journalist in Iraq as that of an empathetic psychologist:

...the Iraqi psychology, shaped by more than thirty years of totalitarian Ba’athist rule, made reporting on Iraqis feel more like a job for Freud than for a magazine writer. Perhaps “what was truer of Iraqis than most people was how much talking they needed to do in order to express the fullness of their thinking,” says Packer. “It was a bit like therapy. You are peeling back layers and layers of dogma and rumor.”

What reporters needed, then, in order to overcome the gap separating them from the people they were writing about, was to “make the little imaginative effort to get into the skin of Iraqis,” in Packer’s words.

Hassan Fattah, founder of the Baghdad-based English-language daily Iraq Today, picks up where Packer leaves off. He is careful to distinguish between the “sense of empathy, which is the real power of journalism,” and sympathy, or the tendency of certain Western journalists to feel sorry for Iraqis. But Western reporters, he emphasizes, cannot truly know Iraq because “[y]ou haven’t been in Iraq until you have lived in a house, not a hotel, where the generator breaks down, the electricity goes out, and there is nothing you can do about it”. As a result, Fattah is training Iraqi journalists in the “ethics and professionalism” of Western journalism.

Freelancer Vivienne Walt takes a position similar to Fattah’s, except that she is a Western journalist attempting to overcome the gap Fattah identifies. She describes her reliance on translators and “fixers,” the people who know the community and can point out story leads. This reliance can effectively be a hindrance: because they “are just as much the product of Saddam’s culture of silence and fear as the subjects they help journalists interview,” fixers “lack the freethinking journalistic skills” to generate story ideas and find leads. For that reason, Walt explains that she has been “comparing notes [with other foreign correspondents] about how we are trying to train our Iraqi fixers to be journalists”.

The fourth journalist Beckerman profiles is Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, an Arabic-speaking American of Lebanese descent. Shadid, much like George Packer, recognizes the complexity of the situation in Iraq, not to mention Iraqi reactions to it. To understand Iraqis, Beckerman explains:

...he doesn’t force an answer. “Anybody who says they know how Iraqis feel is talking bullshit,” says Shadid. “You are going to find somebody who is going to express contradictory sentiments in the same conversation, at the same moment.” Shadid believes the best way to [capture the complexity of Iraqi sentiment] [...] is to lay it all out.

The implications of Shadid’s approach are many, and one question it raises is that of making apparently contradictory Iraqi sentiments meaningful for the Americans who read Shadid’s reports. This returns us to the question posed at the outset: is it possible for Americans to understand how Iraqis interpret the events occurring in their country when the context they draw upon to make sense of those events is outside the ken of most Americans?

Toward an Ethics of News-reading

The descriptions cited above reveal a great deal about not only the limitations of journalism as a hermeneutic enterprise, but also the possibilities that journalism opens up for advancing understanding across cultural lines. The paradox described in the opening paragraphs above is one that, ultimately, cannot be overcome, first because of the limitations imposed by the need to rely on translators and by the dangers inherent in reporting in a war zone, and second, because of the effects of the inescapable cultural lens through which reporters necessarily see the world. While this paradox might be insurmountable in absolute terms, however, it seems to be one journalists are well aware of and deal with in relative terms. In other words, some succeed in communicating foreign interpretations of an event better than others. At one end of the spectrum, we find stories from before the invasion about how Iraqis would welcome US soldiers as liberators, often based on specious, politically motivated descriptions of something like the “Iraqi psyche” under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. At the other end, we find long-form stories such as those written by George Packer in the New Yorker or Anthony Shadid in the Washington Post. These stories might not succeed in causing readers to leave behind their cultural lens altogether, but they do hold the potential to cause readers to become aware of that lens and to begin to imagine how life might appear if that lens were different.

In this respect, Packer’s new book, The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq appears exemplary. According to David Glenn’s review, Packer “hopes to extend a certain tradition of long-form journalism” closer in style to the personal essay than the typical news story (CJR, Sept.-Oct. 2005). This allows Packer to make his own assumptions reflexively explicit. It also allows him to describe how the dangers faced by reporters in a war zone affect the stories they tell; he explains, for instance, how his decision to move from a vulnerable hotel to one that was better protected, but filled with journalists rather than Iraqis, influenced his interactions with the people he was writing about, and, consequently, the stories he wrote.

If journalism as a hermeneutic enterprise is characterized by its empathetic approach, as George Packer and Hassan Fattah suggest, then it is this reflexivity that lends journalistic empathy an ethical dimension. Empathy is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, our effort as Americans to understand events from an Iraqi point of view can help us to begin to understand the motivations for their actions, or at least to see their actions as something other than alien or incomprehensible. On the other hand, however, a facile form of empathy deriving from the belief that we can know Iraqis in such a way that they become transparent to us is likely to lead us to substitute our image of Iraqis for living, breathing people. The relationship that results would not be between Americans and Iraqis acting as subjects but between Americans acting as subjects and symbolically dominated Iraqis reduced to the status of object. Such symbolic domination would lead—indeed, has led—to a situation where the United States attempts to reshape Iraq and the Middle East in its own image.

This is where journalists’ reflexivity brings an ethical dimension to the empathy that informs their writing. As they foreground the ways in which their very presence affects the news they are reporting, they also reveal how their knowledge is necessarily incomplete. In this way, journalists’ reflexivity has larger implications for readers (and listeners and viewers) of the news, too. As American readers we should be equally reflexive. Admittedly, to recognize that our knowledge is incomplete is to complicate our decision-making process by introducing ambiguity and undecidability: how do we reconcile the benefits of the overthrow of a dictator with the means employed to that end? How do we decide when US troops should be withdrawn, given the precarious Iraqi situation? How does an incomplete understanding of these issues from an Iraqi point of view—which, for most Americans, can be apprehended only indirectly, through the news—influence the decisions we make as we vote or communicate with our elected officials?

Ambiguity makes complete answers impossible, which makes many people uncomfortable. But it does something else as well: it allows us to enter into a tenuous, fragile relationship, one that requires constant care and effort, with Iraqis as people rather than images of our own making. As Iraq comes to define itself post-Saddam Hussein, it will be on terms of its own defining.

Kyle Conway is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He thanks Ziad Sudan for his help with the discussion of the word shuhada.

Copyright © 2005 by Kyle Conway. All rights reserved.

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