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Lost in Translation

Over the past two or so weeks, I have spent a lot of time looking at signs. Perhaps because I don’t know my way around Jerusalem, because I force myself to read and translate as many Arabic words as I can, or because I am unfamiliar with written Hebrew, my eyes are always glued to street signs, billboards, shop awnings, museum blurbs—literally anything that is meant to be read. What interests me most about these signs are the languages that words on them are translated into and the way(s) in which they are translated.

An Example from today:


At a stoplight on our way back to Jerusalem from Hebron, my eyes were fixed to a road sign identical to the one above. The sign points drivers in the direction of Jerusalem and provides Hebrew, Arabic, and English names/translations of the place. Upon seeing the sign, my eyes started at the bottom of the sign, attracted immediately to the familiar English characters; darted directly to the top of the sign, fascinated by the less familiar Hebrew letters; and finally fell upon the center of the sign, intrigued by the two words, especially because one was parenthesized.  As my eyes traced along the Arabic letters, I softly mouthed the words “Oor-shal-ee-yum” aloud. I paused for a second to make sure that the word was indeed a transliteration, and continued onto the following word in parenthesis “al-Quds.” While I had never really seen a transliteration of the word “Yerushalayim” in Arabic, I had seen the word “al-Quds” many times, especially in Abu Dis just one day prior.

While translations in general, and road signs in particular, may seem relatively insignificant at the surface level, I think they always have the potential to be significant if examined closely. Signs, I believe, are a part of material space, a continuous area that is, according to Dr.Yousef, the product of social forces and attitudes. This space informs the power relations that affect the everyday lives of individuals. It’s interesting to consider signs as mechanisms of power, perhaps ways to control the historical narratives of spaces. I wonder what different people feel when they see this sign or others like it. Do they really affect, as Dr. Yousef suggests, the identity that an individual forms in relation to her or his nation? If so, how? If not, why not? I really wish that I could give a more detailed analysis of the impact of signs, but I can’t, at least not now…maybe after some intense Saussure, or Barthes, or Hall, sessions, but probably not…


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