Words we live by: choice versus complicity*

Zsuzsanna Ardó

"Belinda: Ay, but you know we must return good for evil.

Lady Brute: That may be a mistake in the translation."

- Sir John Vanbrugh: The Provoked Wife, Act I. Sc.i


The “virgin birth” and the “virgin Mary” are, pardon the pun, pregnant with social symbolic significance in most, if not all, parts of the world. Whether you believe in them or not, they are solid social constructs, rehearsed endlessly in art, humour, everyday life and language.

And yet their existence is due to a relatively simple mistake in translation. The Old Testament talks about almah (young woman or maid, who may or may not be a virgin) rather than bethulah (virgin). However, 3rd-century scholars translated the Hebrew almah into Greek parthenos; thus the “young woman” in Hebrew metamorphosed into a “virgin” in Greek – and so she has remained ever since in translations across the world. The notion of Christian “virgin birth” was born, transposing and popularising the pagan idea of “divine impregnation”.

The mistranslation may have fed a (conscious or subconscious) “marketing desire” to make Christianity more competitive with pagan beliefs by co-opting the notion of divine impregnation. It echoes other virgin conception myths of ancient times, and has impregnated modern universal consciousness – as revealed in evidence that many more Americans believe in “virgin birth” than the theory of evolution.

This is just one example of the way that translation is, in the end, an interpretation of the source text. It is a creative rewriting from the intense, dynamic interaction between text and translator. “Writing is to translation what being a father is to being a grandfather” (Primo Levi). In my work as translator and editor of the dialogue of over a hundred feature films (from James Bond to Wall Street and Four Weddings and a Funeral), I have often been amazed at just how frail the source text is, how much at the mercy of the translator.

The linguistic barriers between languages are higher than we tend to realise; and we all bring to each text our own particular cultural and personal histories, our own stories subtly laid onto the stories we recreate from one language to another. This is balanced against the commitment to represent the author’s intent as expressively as possible – in Primo Levi’s words, a “superhuman task”.

All this is not merely a matter of linguistic nuance. Where collective memory and major public events are concerned, mistranslations can be powerful, sometimes painful or even subversive things. The beginning of a series of public commemorations of the liberation of the Nazi death camps in 1945 – such as “Holocaust Memorial Day” in the United Kingdom – offers an especially vivid occasion to reflect on this.

Many historians and media outlets routinely use the word “holocaust” to refer to the murder of European Jews and other “subhumans” – including gays, Roma, Slavs, the disabled and the mentally ill – by Germany’s Nazi regime during the second world war. Yet how many times do they reflect on the roots of this description, and its appropriateness to the terrible events it is used to describe?

One example chosen at random is from the New York Times (4 December 2002), where articles about Bruno Schulz (the Polish-Jewish writer shot in 1942) and Imre Kertész (the Hungarian Nobel literature laureate, and survivor of Auschwitz) repeatedly use the term.

Yet the etymology of the word “holocaust” reveals that its original meaning is “sacrifice consumed by fire”. It connotes a burnt offering or sacrificial killing in the service of a “higher” (spiritual, noble, or divine) purpose – even a form of redemption by proxy to achieve something benevolent for humanity.

The problem is that the events of the 1940s constituted the systematic, indeed industrialised, annihilation of fellow-humans. Now what exactly does that have to do with humanity?

“It’s just etymology; it’s just a word; it’s just common usage”, you might say. Well, exactly – that’s why it’s so important. We live also by words; they give unique insight into our attitudes, they contain subtexts and subliminal messages that can either aid or detract from understanding. The use of particular words, the easy resort to familiar (even if inaccurate) translations, can superimpose meaning on events and thus help to define and control much of our reality.

In the case of “holocaust”, the connotation of sacrifice or offering in relation to some divine meaning or purpose should disqualify the word from usage in relation to the Nazis’ atrocities. For their crime against humanity – even in the light of Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, or Saddam Hussein – is the ultimate weeping wound of the 20th century. After it, humanity’s self-image will never be the same again.

As with “virgin birth”, so with “holocaust” – a choice of word becomes part of our symbolic cultural system only if we let it happen. We can also make a conscious, rational choice to change our language use – not simply to prefer one word over another, but (as with the many language revivals in Europe over the past two centuries) to adopt a different linguistic register wholesale.

Here is one small but significant opportunity to amend linguistic usage in the direction of accuracy, respect for humanity, and what might be called complicity – embedding our attitude about what a word refers to inside our daily expression and writing. The term “holocaust” is inappropriate and mistaken, but it is not cast in iron. There is a readily available alternative: shoah, a Hebrew word meaning “catastrophe” or “calamity”. There is already evidence of discerning, reflective use of this term in (for example) Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary film of that name and Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

Our choice of words always matters – but it matters immensely when the reality it refers to is of universal and vital importance for humanity, its memory and its future. For everyone alive, the events of sixty years ago in Europe must become part of universal consciousness, a fundamental reality that we all still have to process – in order to be able to prevent them ever happening again, to any group of people.

And the right choice of word helps with that.

© Zsuzsanna Ardó

* Published by openDemocracy, 27 January 2005.