Calamus Translations

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Terminological notes on Lebanese and Syrian politics in 2015


I just had the pleasure of joining the twelfth iteration of the Beirut Exchange in early January, a 10-day political conference and exchange run by While discussing the politics of Lebanon as well as Syria some 12-14 hours a day, I couldn't help but notice some of the terminological issues that came up as we talked about these issues in English and Arabic.

One of the headline topics through 2014 and 2015 is of course the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, aka the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham, ISIL, ISIS, the Islamic State, IS, Daesh, etc. Western usage seems to have moved towards ISIS over time while Arabic usage prefers the corresponding Arabic acronym داعِش Daesh (IPA: /da:ʕeʃ/). I find it unfortunate that in both Arabic and English we insist on using the old names of ISIS/Daesh, even as the group's current name is simply 'the Islamic State'. Even as I may or may not like the group, I have a strong bias towards calling entities by their own names for themselves. We don't object to using other charged and questionably accurate names like the Islamic Revolution of Iran, Hezbollah 'the Party of God', or for that matter the Holy Roman Empire, so why can't we stomach typing the two words 'Islamic State'? I trust readers to be able to read the actual name and still make up their minds out about it.

We can divide the Islamic State's current situation into two pieces. On the one hand, there is the contiguous territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, a piece of territory so large and with such large revenues that it makes it unlike any other 'terror' group that has come before it and indeed makes it look much more state-like than say Al-Qaeda ever did. However, on the other hand there is currently the phenomenon of jihadi groups around the world (in Tunisia, Egypt, etc.) now 'pledging allegiance' to IS. In Arabic, the term for this is بَيْعَة bay'ah and there are a few options floating around in English. We can find "swear allegiance" and "pledge allegiance" as the verb and "pledge of allegiance" and "oath of allegiance" as the noun. As an American, I shy away from "pledge of allegiance" in this context because that term is already taken here in the US, but I don't find it wrong per se. In my own translating, I prefer 'swear' as the verb and 'oath' as the noun unless I find a reason to do otherwise.

Many people talk about how the Islamic State took advantage of a 'security void' (Arabic: فراغ أمني), but for me the clearly preferred term is 'security vacuum'. I find some 150,000 hits for the latter compared to 50,000 hits for the former, with many of these coming from presumably non-native writers from websites in the Arab world. I likewise would generally prefer 'presidential vacuum' for the فراغ رئاسي faraagh ri'aasi that Lebanon is still going through currently.

A similarly tricky topic is talking about various parties' 'involvement' or 'intervention' in conflicts. In Arabic, two terms are frequently used: تورط tawarruT and تدخل tadakhul, and each has its problems in translation. The first can mean 'involvement' but also carries connotations of 'entanglement', so when I hear it, I hear an Iraqi or Vietnamese-style 'quagmire' lurking behind the word. It is frequently used to describe, for example, Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, one which Lebanese critics say in the end can not help but bring the Syrian Civil War to Lebanon. The second term, تدخل tadakhul, is tricky in its own right. It can run from a somewhat positive meaning like 'intervene' to a very negative one like 'interfere'. Multiple times in Lebanon, I was surprised by people saying things in English like "the West needs to interfere" where they didn't mean the negative connotation that 'interfere' brings with it.

I even found terminological problems in referring to political issues themselves! Many commentators are now talking in English about things like "the Iranian nuclear file" or "the Palestinian file", but this usage leaves me wanting. I certainly get the image of a number of files sitting in a desk, but it strikes me how little I encounter such usage outside of the circles of Middle Eastern politics. One factor that's helping this usage is that is a literal translation of Arabic ملف 'file', for example in الملف النووي الإيراني 'the Iranian nuclear file'. 

To be clear, this usage of 'file' is not exactly wrong or non-native, but it is highly specialized: a quick look at google hits for 'the Iranian nuclear file' finds sites from the Washington, DC think tank world and some Middle Eastern English-language publications. For a general audience, I would prefer the more natural sounding 'Iranian nuclear issue' which is approximately ten times more common on the web. There is even the European variant 'Iranian nuclear dossier' which betrays its origin in pan-European English by its presence on webpages from France, Beligum, Romania, Switzerland, and Carnegie Europe, all on the first page of google hits alone.

Lastly I am interested in discussing what are called in Arabic خروقات جوية/خروق جوية literally 'aerial violations' - i.e. overflights of Lebanese territory by the Israeli Defense Force. A classic Arabic usage shows up for example in this article: خروق جوية وتحركات معادية على الحدود في القطاع الشرقي, 'Violations of Lebanese airspace and hostile mobilizations on the border of the Eastern sector'. Whereas Arabic like to use this term by itself, the best English rendering generally involves a bit of rewriting or reorganization to phrases like 'violation of Lebanese airspace', 'breach of Lebanese airspace', or 'violation of Lebanese sovereignty'. Finally, here are a few examples of these usages from the English web: "an Israeli reconnaissance aircraft also violated the country’s airspace on Wednesday" (source), "Israeli fighter jets violate Lebanese airspace" (source), or "Since the civil war, Israel has routinely breached Lebanese airspace" (source).

Olivia Barrett