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Lost In Translation: Setting the Records Straight in the IDF Archives

Soon after I arrived in the Dover Tzahal unit of the IDF, I began browsing the army's online historical archives. The Dover Tzahal is the Spokesperson Unit, essentially responsible for army PR. One of Dover Tzahal’s responsibilities is to maintain … Read More

By / July 9, 2008

Soon after I arrived in the Dover Tzahal unit of the IDF, I began browsing the army's online historical archives. The Dover Tzahal is the Spokesperson Unit, essentially responsible for army PR. One of Dover Tzahal’s responsibilities is to maintain the IDF website, which is written in both English and Hebrew, features news updates and cutesy human interest stories, and a reliable weekly declaration that we will protect the State of Israel, given by Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi. With a bit of browsing, you’ll also find that the IDF has historical archives, which are basically summaries of historical events that have taken place since just before Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948.

As a native English speaker who is also proficient in Hebrew, I was wide-eyed with both shock and disgust as I began to explore what struck me as an historically inaccurate, grammatically incorrect massacre of supposed facts. The archives weren’t manipulative or skewed in one way or another; they simply didn’t make sense. After a bit of investigation, I discovered that this mess was a result of translations by native English speakers who lacked sufficient historic knowledge and Hebrew language skills. They had been forced to translate the archives from Hebrew to English within a couple of days, an order that was given by (what I’m generous in calling) an incompetent officer that, thankfully, is no longer anywhere to be found in Dover Tzahal.  With my sincere interest in history, the written word, and the historical and political image of Israel, I requested the responsibility of editing the archives. Since then, the task has been officially delegated to me just as I’d so desperately wanted—and yet, I feel cursed.

I’ve spent the last several years of my life playing catch-up after being raised in an assimilated family and having attended public schools that glossed over the history of the Middle East and Israel, in particular. At this point, I consider myself to be more than generally knowledgeable about the topics of Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli history along with contemporary affairs, and so I’d simply assumed that editing the historical archives would be somewhat effortless and maybe even fun. I was wrong.

My difficulties are completely unrelated to historical accuracy; I can easily read one paragraph at a time and alter what is not correct, verify facts with credible sources and make certain that the information is solid. The major issue, which impedes the process most of the time, is word choice. For example, there are no generally accepted definitions of a terrorist, a Palestinian, a defensive operation, a massacre, an arrest, or any other term that is essential in describing Israel’s past. I’d become accustomed to using these words in a way that coincided with my understanding of these loaded terms and phrases. Now, however, I’m not speaking for myself, my education, my personal bibliography, or my group of likeminded friends—I am speaking for the IDF, and thus, in some ways, I am speaking for Israel.

Israel critics would have difficulty finding historical inaccuracies or biased terms in the IDF historical archives that are written in Hebrew. That said, the country also needs to express its political actions and ideals as fairly and articulately as possible in English—its second language. For example, in Hebrew, the word piguah refers to an attack. It does not strictly refer to acts of terrorism, but most English-speaking immigrants in this country—the ones that do all of the translating for the IDF—only hear this word in that particular context. If there was a piguah, in all likelihood, a suicide bomber has attacked. Linguistically, however, the word could refer to any type of attack, even a justified counter-attack, and certainly any number of attacks that are not politically motivated. It isn't easy to find translators whose understanding of the cultural and linguistic connotations of the sensitive words used to describe Israel’s “official stance" is deep enough to be published and disseminated, especially considering that they are the very translations taught in classrooms, aired on the news, and influencing voters and policy makers, everywhere.

Most people don’t have a reason to read the IDF website, especially when it comes to the online historical archives. That thought in particular has reduced some of the stress associated with editing the archives, but my general understanding of both the fate of all that is written and the ideological conflict that surrounds the State of Israel, regardless of what it or its supporters do, makes this endeavor nearly impossible. My understanding is that even if the overwhelming majority of people rely on other news sources, books, academic journals, and credible professors for their information, one thing is certain: those looking at the IDF with negative, preconceived notions about our military history and our interpretation of it will read the IDF historical archives, and they will, however unfairly, use our website to conjure up arguments that could falsely represent the position of the IDF and thus fuel the opposition in the ideological war that Israel is, and always has been, fighting.

I know that the IDF archives are misleading due to bad translations, but to most others, they are simply a representation of the IDF and its official stance regarding controversial, historical events. In Israel, we do not have the luxury of overlooking typographical errors, misquotes, or numerical mishaps. Everything associated with this country—every military operation, every sentence written in any publication, the general justification of our existence—is scrutinized in an aggressive way that no other sovereign state has had to contend with.

I see no need to embellish or to leave any portion of our narrative untold, but it's a challenge to make certain that the language coincides with the truth, both in the context of the archives and out of context. For now, I’ll continue to research both Israeli policy and international law in order to best define some of these terms. I'll strive to choose words that speak the completest truth possible, and that serve to further the understanding of our people’s national experiment.

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