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In the Newsroom

September 17, 2009
In the newsroom: Lost in translation

Mohammad al-Kassim covers the Middle East for Worldfocus.  He blogs here about an item he originally saw in the Jordanian online weekly about a perceived insult by the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, Deborah Jones.

The Kuwaiti Parliament is up in arms over comments made by U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones about the Kuwaiti legislative authority. The comments, which were part a speech she delivered on August 27 in Washington, were understood by some Kuwaiti parliamentarians as derogatory.

Ambassador Jones’ remarks came in response to those who called the first four female Kuwaiti legislators the “four cats.” She laughingly said “if the female legislators are cats, so the male parliamentarians are dogs?”

The Kuwaiti Parliament has criticized the ambassador for her “irresponsible remarks about members of the Kuwaiti Parliament.”

If you have lived in the Arab world for any period of time, you would know that the word “dog” is a word you don’t include in you conversation with people. But in defense of Ambassador Jones, I strongly believe that her comments were lost in translation. Her remarks were referring to the bickering between the two branches of the Kuwaiti government and not the offensive meaning it holds in the Arab culture. Since Kuwait’s independence from Britain in 1961, the parliament has been dissolved five times, including a suspension for almost six years between 1986 and 1992. For those who closely follow Kuwaiti and Middle Eastern news like I do, it’s not a secret that the relationship between the Kuwaiti Parliament and Kuwait’s executive branch is marred by continuing contentious disputes.

When I was a freshman in college, I had to take an English literature class where we had to read a short story about two neighbors. In the story the word “occupation” describes the physical relationship between the two neighbors. As a Palestinian, all I was thinking about was what that word meant to me: A symbol of Israel occupation of my land. It took almost the entire semester before I understood that the words in English have multiple meanings. American English is full of idioms, expressions and figures of speech; one should not take the meaning of some words literally.

It’s become reflexive in the Arab world to take comments made by foreigners out of context. This kind of irresponsibility is detrimental when real criticism is needed.

– Mohammad al-Kassim

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Translations would be better understood
from Words
written in Invisible Ink
on the Scroll of Virtual Silence


I wonder if…

had the Ambassador remained
‘Appropriately Silent’
(as, in this case
such Silence would
have proven


have been

the more discreet

for being the more
applicably appropriate)

…the ‘No-Words’…
then stated in context
of the Ambassador’s

Very Appropriate Silence

would also have been taken

out of context

as her Spoken Words

…out of context…

seemed to be?


The Amb. was referring to a common English expression, “fight like cats and dogs”. In the U.S. it might be said that brothers fight like cats & dogs even though they love each other. The real problem with the Ambassador’s remark is that she used, or even referenced, an idiom. In diplomacy or any other activity where language must be translated, idioms should NOT be used.

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