ISIS or ISIL: Lost in chronological, cultural translation

Here on AFD’s blog and on our show, I’ve consistently used “ISIS” (not spelled out often at all) as the name of the group seizing control of parts of Syria and Iraq right now. Part of that is for convenience (or, as Nate said, to mockingly associate them with the spy organization on the FX animated series “Archer”) and part of that is not quite knowing how to culturally translate the meaning of the group’s name.

As a new article in the New York Times explains, that’s proven a problem for the whole English-speaking world, from governments to the media. The organization uses an old-school Arabic geographic phrase in their name which doesn’t precisely translate at a 1:1 word ratio into existing English terms for the region’s geography and history.

الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, or al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham. The difficulty comes from the last word.

Al-Sham is the classical Arabic term for Damascus and its hinterlands, and over time, it came to denote the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, south of the Taurus Mountains and north of the Arabian desert. Similarly, in Egypt, “Masr” may refer either to Cairo or to the whole country. Used in that sense, al-Sham takes in not just Syria but also Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and even a part of southeastern Turkey.

That is fairly similar in extent to what Western geographers call the Levant, a once-common term that now has something of an antique whiff about it, like “the Orient.” Because of the term’s French colonial associations, many Arab nationalists and Islamist radicals disdain it, and it is unlikely that the militant group would choose “Levant” to render its name.

The fighters do not like “Syria” either, though. Syria is what the Greeks named the region in ancient times, possibly after the Assyrian people who once lived there, though that derivation is disputed. And at times in the past, the term “Syrian” was used to mean specifically a Christian Syrian, while Muslims or Jews living there would be called Shami. Today, when Arabs speak of Syria, they usually mean only the modern state, which the insurgent group is fighting to obliterate.

Compounding the problem is that the rebel faction appears to frequently use archaic Arabic phrases/words that are not common in modern Arabic, in place of their modern synonyms. This would perhaps be equivalent to insisting on using only Anglo-Saxon rooted words in place of every Franco-Norman rooted word in the English language.

Or I guess a bit like the pedants who insist on not using any of the newfangled American English words (and new usages) that have come into vogue since the rise of computers… But I digress. Or as George Orwell might edit me: I am getting off track.

If you disagree with our use of “ISIS,” contact us. It might impact our choice.
Read more