Monday, July 31, 2006

Oslo: Did The Arabs Say 'Yes' or 'YES!'

I've mentioned before that I am reading Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind. The problem is that every chapter or so I come across something that makes me stop and think: that's an idea for a post!

I'm going to indulge myself, so please bear with me.

In the chapter Under The Spell of Language, Patai writes:
Similarly, a simple assent from an Arab can be, for him, nothing more than a polite form of evasion, while the same word may mean for his English interlocutor a definite, positive commitment. If the Arab wishes to make such a commitment, he will use mubalagha [exaggeration] and tawkid [emphatic assertion], as well as repetition, which to the English speaker will sound strange, to say the least. The same difficulty works in the reverse. A simple “Yes” or “No” is, for the English speaker, a definitive statement. His Arabic interlocutor, however, conditioned as he is by the exaggeration and overassertion that are the rule in his own mother tongue, is simply incapable of understanding such brief and simple statements in the same sense. For him, “Yes” only means “Perhaps.” (“No” has for the Arab a similarly indefinite meaning.) Only if the English speaker had said: “Yes, I am telling you definitely, yes; I assure you positively and emphatically, yes; my answer is irrevocably and permanently, yes!" would the Arab have got the point that what the English speaker meant was “Yes.” (p. 60)
Now Patai's book first came out in 1973, and things may have changed, but I couldn't help wondering what kind of Arabic translators did they have for Oslo (and Oslo II, and Wye, and The Road Map)? Were these translators who just translated the Arabic literally, or did they--or anyone else there--have an underderstanding of the way the Arab language works?

Did the Arab representatives agree and say 'yes' in a non-commital way and seriously didn't feel bound by the agreement?

Kind of like when my wife asks me if I'm going to take out the garbage.

Maybe that's the answer: woman translators!

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