September 26, 2007

Lost in translation - subtleties

Western media everywhere are having a good chuckle at the expense of Ahmedinedjad's Bushism "there are no homosexuals in Iran". Ah, funny. The best research available shows something between 1% or 2% of humans everywhere are homosexual, and that it is at least partially genetic in its roots. No reason to believe that this is any different in Iran.

But wait a second. Ahmedinedjad didn't actually say that, did he? He spoke in Farsi, not in English. His words were simultaneously translated. Simultaneous translation is tricky, heck, it's hard to translate if you have time to think about what is being said. So what did he really say? I don't speak Farsi, so beats me. But I've read that he actually said "In Iran we don't have the problem with homosexuality that you have here", or something to that extent, in several places. But that is entirely different. There is no problem with homosexuality in Europe either: it's accepted and the questions are only at the margin. Crucially, it isn't a political hot button, it isn't a cultural touchstone, it does not dominate public life like it does in the US. In the US, the twin issues of abortion and gay rights are crucial distinctions between the only two parties that play a national role. It's a crazy way to run a country, but it is baked into the system for now.

So I'm not even sure whether Ahmedinedjad's answer even qualifies as a Bushism. If he was just prefacing his answer (before being rudely cut off by the audience) by explaining that homosexuality just isn't a political issue in Iran the way it is here, fine. If he was just trying to explain that homosexuality isn't a cultural issue in Iran because it is universally condemned, then he's just pointing out the obvious.

Again, I don't know what he actually said, but simultaneous translation isn't reliable. The crowd reaction may have thrown him for a complete loop, if he was simply trying to explain something about Iranian politics or Iranian culture, on which the audience was simply not knowledgeable. It's hard to take an audience seriously after they react like that, but then again, Bollinger sort of set it up this way. This conversation would have been much interesting if it had been a discussion between Ahmedinedjad and a few Iranian dissenters, in Farsi, with transcripts available afterwards.

Incidentally, homosexuality is illegal in 70 countries, punishable by death in several countries, such as Saudi-Arabia, for instance, as well as Yemen, the UAE, Sudan, Somalia, parts of Nigeria, Chechnya [for repeat offences]. It is punishable by life in prison in Bangladesh, Guyana, India, Maldives, Myanmar/Burma, Pakistan, Qatar, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda. We have a long way to go before the world grows up about sexual preference, although - to be honest - several of these countries didn't criminalize homosexuality until they fell under the British empire (and the infamous section 377 of the penal code).


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