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What's in A Name: Translation and Politics

Posted on November 27, 2015

What is Daesh? What is ISIS? What are the meanings and implications of these names? 

Words without Borders contributor and Arabic translator Alice Guthrie’s blog post “Decoding Daesh,” which appeared on the Free Word Centre's blog last February, delves into the complexity of language and translation – and how our understanding and use of words could affect politics in potentially important ways. 

Daesh – the term that more and more global leaders are using to refer to the Islamic State – is the transliteration of the Arabic acronym for “Islamic State in Syria and Iraq,” but as Guthrie explains, it’s much more than that. Because acronyms are not as commonly used in Arabic as they are in English, the acronym “Daesh” comes across “inherently funny, disrespectful, and ultimately threatening of the organization’s status.” And, change one letter of this word, and it sounds like daes,  which means “to crush or trample” in Arabic. The result, says Guthrie, is powerful:

[T]he use of this word is part of a multi-pronged, diverse range of efforts by Arabs and Muslims to reject the terrorists’ linguistic posturing, their pseudo-classical use of Arabic, their claims to Quranic authority and an absolute foundation in sacred scripture, as reflected in their pompous name. 

This is why Syrian activists who oppose terror are working hard to encourage using this word instead of ISIS. And though it has been in use by France, other countries, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for over a year, most English-language news sources still use “ISIS.” Guthrie, however, agrees with Khaled al-Haj Salih, the Syrian activist who came up with the term, and who recently wrote: “the people who suffer most at the hands of Daesh should decide what they are called.”

Though Guthrie wrote the post last February, it remains relevant. Listen to Guthrie and writer Zeba Khan talk about recent Daesh developments on PRI’s November 17th episode of The World in Words.

 Read Guthrie’s full post.