Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Annals of attribution: Afwan!

Some strange lands will always look a bit stranger than others through the lens of Your National Media, won't they? Here we have a USA Today blog called "The Oval" (Tracking the Obama Presidency), providing a pretty ho-hum transcript of today's presidential visit to the current head of the Al Saud -- ho-hum, at least, until you get to the update, in which the nation's largest daily calls in a Berlitz teacher to affirm that "shukran" indeed means "thank you."

Wouldn't it be nice if one of the few fishwraps that can make a claim to being a national newspaper had, oh, an Arabic dictionary around the office? Or maybe just a guidebook? Well, take heart! USA Today is quite capable of translating Arabic all by its lonesome:

On that day, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (death sentence) against Rushdie for having written his novel The Satanic Verses. (1/18/1996)

Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini placed a "fatwa," or death sentence, on the author. (7/18/2000)

Fundamentalist Muslims called it blasphemous, and the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (death sentence) on Rushdie. (4/9/2007)

See? All you have to do is have the right Arabic word!

There is one slight problem. "Fatwa" doesn't mean "death sentence."* It means an answer to a question of religious law: a "formal legal opinion," as the Wehr & Cowan dictionary puts it.** There are fatwas and fatwas; the famously antediluvian Abdelaziz bin Baz issued a fatwa after the first US-Iraq war declaring that women shouldn't drive, but a few years later he came out with one affirming that it was perfectly all right to make peace with Israel.

So how did "fatwa" get to be the sort of noun USA Today can translate without help (or clues)? Khomeini's repellent decree about the Rushdie novel*** is the cornerstone, but it couldn't have happened if "fatwa" didn't make cultural sense as a way of describing Those People. It's the flip side of having a kazillion words for "snow": a single word for "religious death sentence." Pullum, thou shouldst be hanging around at this hour.

Given that it didn't get the longed-for presidential genuflection out of this Obama-Abdullah meeting, it's strange that the Fair 'n' Balanced Network hasn't glommed on to Obama's adventures in Basic Friendly Arabic yet. But the trip is young.

(The USAT blog was first flagged by Wonkette, to which/whom thanks)

* It doesn't have an "h" on the end either; that's hyperforeignizing.
** If the Supreme Court declines to hear your last-minute appeal, that formal opinion might spell curtains for you, but it doesn't make Times v. Sullivan into a "death sentence."
*** There's still substantial debate about whether Khomeini's statement was actually a fatwa, which you can look up on your own for extra credit.

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