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.

Update 1: Since this post was first published, the group has renamed itself “Islamic State.” We are continuing to use “ISIS” on both this blog and the radio show, because we don’t feel that such a generic name is useful/informative, nor do we feel any strong obligation to honor the arbitrary nomenclature demands of a fully unrecognized pseudo-state laying claim to the term “Islamic State” on behalf of many Muslims who don’t support them. Using the abbreviation “ISIS” obviously still includes the name if spelled out (which we don’t tend to do), but it’s less bland and unspecific and doesn’t seem to connote the same propaganda value they were going for when they tried to assert their establishment of an actual state with a government and territory by changing the name.

Update 2: Another name now popping up in the media is “Daesh,” which is the abbreviated name being used by the surrounding Arabic-speaking countries’ governments, I assume based on an Arabic acronym or shortening. The French government — which played an extensive colonial and interwar role in the Arabic-speaking world and continues to have a large Arabic-speaking population in the French homeland as well as some linguistic exchange — seems to have settled, at the recent summit in Paris on combating ISIS, on using “Daesh” as the name for the group.

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and a local elected official.
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