Being bilingual has taught me a thing of two. For instance, the thoughts we think come organically into our heads are often a product of the very words we use to express them. The person I am when I speak English is subtly different from the person I am when I talk in Hebrew. My sense of humor, my perception of the world, my understanding of the minutiae of human nature, all these are slightly altered by the very words that I speak, for it is the words that give meaning to what I think. But if words in different languages have varying definitions so too must the thoughts of people speaking those languages. To say “I like you” in one language may in fact mean something slightly different in another, replete with hidden agendas and subtext. This is evident to me when a word in one of my spoken languages doesn’t quite define what I’m thinking or feeling and I slip between languages to make a point.
It should have come as no surprise that I would run into one of these matters of definition when attempting to translate the title of my latest short film, “Fence”, into both Hebrew and Arabic. Shot in Israel during my recent visit, the film is a study of the fence that sits at the bottom of my sister’s street. This is no ordinary fence, as it is also the border between Israel proper and the land governed by the Palestinian Authority, a land itself without clear definition. In many parts of Israel this is a formidable concrete wall, grey and imposing, although on my sister’s moshav it’s still just a regular fence with some barbed wire across the top. Unsightly and mostly unmentioned.
The Hebrew word for fence is גדר (gader). No problem there. However, given the subject matter of the film, it was important to me to also translate the title into Arabic, a language that I am embarrassed to admit I do not speak, despite having grown up in Israel. How much healthier might dialogue between us and our Palestinian neighbors be if we all spoke both Hebrew and Arabic? That issue aside, I asked my father (himself a translator) to ask his linguistic cohorts for the Arabic translation of the word. Here are my findings.
The word fence can be translated in at least two ways. (I would have liked to include the Arabic font here, but Microsoft Word isn’t compatible with Arabic.)
According to the experts (many thanks to Judy, Arie, Yoram, Saeed, and David), “jidar” is the word used for a fence or wall, often a wall made of concrete, and is in fact the word used by the Palestinians themselves to describe The Wall, “Al-Jidar”, put up by Israel.
“Siyaj” can be used to describe a barbed wire fence or partition, but also an obstacle or moral reservation. It is similar, therefore, to the Hebrew סייג (siyag).
Having mulled over the various meanings (and listened to the varying opinions of what I should do), I have decided to use the latter “siyaj” as my Arabic title.
Why? Good question. However, in making this short film I wish not to answer questions so much as pose them. And explaining my reasons or saying too much about the film might subtly alter your own interpretation, your own feelings. But I am certainly interested to know what you see, what you think, what you feel. I just ask, though, that you think about the words you use to express yourself. Are they an expression of what you actually feel, or have your emotions been restricted by words that limit you?