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Wiped off the map?

Peter Rippon | 10:23 UK time, Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Did Iranian President Ahmadinejad say Israel should be wiped off the map? There is a body of opinion who argue he did not, and he has been misquoted. The BBC does attribute the quote to him so I thought it might be useful to set out why.

The PM programme logoPresident Ahmadinejad made the remark at a conference. The comment was picked up and translated from the Farsi by the BBC's Monitoring Service. Those who challenge the 'wiped off the map' translation argue other translations would be more accurate, among them:

"The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time".

They argue the President was merely repeating a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini. They also point out that when subsequently asked about the quote President Ahmadinejad said he had not been advocating practical military action against Israel and that he was saying Israel has no legitimacy as a state.

ahmadinejad_203_300afp.jpgSo why do we continue to use it? The BBC's experts at the Monitoring advise "there is no direct translation into English of the Farsi phrase used by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Therefore there a number of possible ways of rendering the Farsi original into English. However, in the context of the whole passage we believe our original interpretation is an accurate reflection of the words."

At the end of last year after a complaint from a viewer that Andrew Marr had used the phrase "wiped off the face of the map", the position was investigated by the BBC Governors' Complaints Committee (before it was replaced by the BBC Trust). The judgement reads in part:

"The Committee carefully considered the wording of the translation of the speech from a number of sources, including translations from BBC Monitoring and from the Middle East Research Institute in Washington. The Committee also reflected on how the speech had been translated in British newspapers and on Al Jazeera Online. The Committee noted the inherent problem with accuracy in translations. It noted that all the translations varied to a greater or lesser degree, and it was difficult to decide which, if any, was the most accurate. None of the various translations provided any evidence for the charge that Andrew Marr had misrepresented what the Iranian President had said.

The Committee felt that the language used by the Iranian President was highly emotive by its nature and had been recognised as such in the international condemnation of what he had said. Andrew Marr had done nothing more than highlight this in his introduction. The Committee was also clear that neither the language nor the tone used by Andrew Marr could be considered as showing bias."


That there is a degree of uncertainty in all translations seems a fairly weak excuse for confusing "this regime must ultimately vanish" with "this country must be destroyed".

If the Persian phrase is really so ambiguous as to allow both interpretations (which I would dispute anyway), that should have been made clear in BBC reporting.

This [mis]quote was widely reported with no "what could be interpreted as..." qualifiers, while other quotes that could have helped to clarify - such as Iran's Supreme Leader Khomenei's recent commitment not to attack any other nation state, and offers to negotiate peace with Israel and reduce Hizbullah to a solely political entity - were all but ignored.

  • 2.
  • At 12:30 PM on 06 Mar 2007,
  • Aaron McKenna wrote:

I think a lot of people are hearing what they want to hear, rather than what the guy actually said. If he said something like that then it gives a lot more credence to the idea that Iran is wanting to be the regional strong-man. That doesn't fit into the worldview of the anti-American's out there, who seem to think that anyone against the US should be our friends and are themselves above reproach.

  • 3.
  • At 01:23 PM on 06 Mar 2007,
  • smb1971 wrote:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also said in his 2005 'World Without Zionism' speech:

"The issue of Palestine is not over at all. It will be over the day a Palestinian government, which belongs to the Palestinian people, comes to power; the day that all refugees return to their homes; a democratic government elected by the people comes to power."

And in his interview with Time Magazine in 2006, he added:

"Our suggestion is that the five million Palestinian refugees come back to their homes, and then the entire people on those lands hold a referendum and choose their own system of government. This is a democratic and popular way."

Ahmadinejad clearly supports a one-state solution with Palestinian right of return. Now, I am not so naive as to believe that his heart truly yearns for deep universal democracy. It obviously doesn't. However, Ahmadinejad is very definitely interested in 'democracy' if it works to his advantage, and so this strand of thought is not so unbelievable - shared as it is by so many western leaders, past and present.

As Professor Juan Cole correctly points out, many of Ahmadinejad's statements are "morally outrageous and historically ignorant, but he did not actually call for mass murder." So accepting that there is two or three different ways of rendering the Farsi phrase in question into English (none of which include the word map), may I suggest caution, and hope that the BBC abides by the principle of total evidence.

  • 4.
  • At 01:38 PM on 06 Mar 2007,
  • Andy wrote:

I think it is a rather important thing to correct, since many people that I come across are under the impression that he was advocating military action, and in their minds interpret this literally to mean a threat of annihilation.

This is certainly not how it ought to be construed.

It is important to realise that there are huge cultural differences in how such issues are discussed in the Middle East - something the west often fails to give proper consideration, unfortunately.

It must surely be a good thing to give this story some airtime on BBC news (it seems suitable for Newsnight at least).

One final point - it would be disappointing if this particular translation were to be used for the pretext of any future military action against Iran.


If no accurate translation can be made then no translation should be made at all when reporting News.

Anything that is not 100% factual is dangerous. It is hard enough reporting news without the proper context but combine the ambiguity of context & translation and you open a story up to one huge game of Chinese whispers.

  • 6.
  • At 02:52 PM on 06 Mar 2007,
  • Winston84 wrote:

The BBC's experts at the Monitoring advise
"there is no direct translation into English of the Farsi phrase used by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
.......we believe our original interpretation is an accurate reflection of the words."
and "The Committee felt...."

So, you "believe" and you "felt" that he said "Israel should be wiped of the map" ?
One question : Did the Iranian President say what you have quoted him for or didn't he ?
Either he used those words or he didn't, your "feelings" and "beliefs" are irrelevant .

  • 7.
  • At 03:17 PM on 06 Mar 2007,
  • Robert wrote:

"One question: Did the Iranian President say what you have quoted him for or didn't he? Either he used those words or he didn't"

Of course he didn't use those words - he wasn't speaking in English. The issue is what English expression best captures the MEANING of the Farsi expression he used. Which English word best conveys the meaning of the word 'coup', or 'schadenfreude' or 'zeitgeist'? It will depend on context, and it will also be a matter of judgement, what someone 'feels' or 'believes'. If you want a 'right' or 'wrong' translation, then you're just plain misguided. What's more, a literal translation may be misleading, as it will fail to capture the flavour of an expression - try translating "he said Tony Blair was a lame duck Prime Minister" word for word and you'll see what I mean.

  • 8.
  • At 04:13 PM on 06 Mar 2007,
  • keith fleming wrote:

Winston84 (apropos #6),

given that 'there is no direct tranlation into English of the Farsi phrase' it would seem that the question 'did the Iranian President say what you have quoted him for [sic] or didn't he?' cannot be answered in the categorical manner you demand.

Given that, surely the very best that could be hoped for in translating the phrase in question would be (a strongly held) 'feeling' or 'belief' based upon consultation and research.

We know for a simple fact that he didn't use the words in question: rather, he used Farsi. In translating in general (and particularly from an indo-european language to another langauage 'type') it is not possible to say that a given quotation contains the words 'actually said' (as the words 'actually said' were in another language, not that used in the report) and (again particularly evident between langage 'types') often the best that can be hoped for is something 'similar' to what was actually said.

I can see perfectly well the problems of translating this phrase, and the potential minefield in so doing; better, surely, to have a translation that one 'believes' or 'feels' accurately captures the essence of what was said than no translation at all, particularly on so important a topic.


  • 9.
  • At 07:48 PM on 06 Mar 2007,
  • Jake Hamed-Poori, Tehran wrote:

Please do not take this out of context. The president is not a good person, but he never advocated vioence or said that he wanted to wipe Israel off the map - I was there at the speech, and he said he wanted the Palestinian refugees to go back to their occupied land, and Israel as a state to cease to exist.

Whether you agree with him or not, he did not say anything violent, AND much worse things are being said everyday al l over the world.

  • 10.
  • At 11:55 PM on 19 Mar 2007,
  • Steve Abbott wrote:

No, I'm sorry, but on this one the BBC owes an apology to their entire audience and to our children as well.

The issue of what Ahmedinejad said is being used, as we have seen before in the case of Iraq, to soften up society for an elective war. To suggest that interpreting the speech as a statement of belligerence was, justified on the grounds that you can't possibly know what was intended is utterly immoral, and stupid besides.

Quite apart from that, there is ample evidence that the BBC did indeed cherry pick translations and arguments in order to achieve even that amount of doubt as to the actual intentions. There is ample evidence that your translations were wrong.

  • 11.
  • At 11:10 PM on 31 Mar 2007,
  • Pete wrote:

Arash Norouzi from the Mossadegh project has offered this word for word
"Imam (Khomeini) ghoft (said) een (this) rezhim-e (regime) ishghalgar-e
(occupying) qods (Jerusalem) bayad (must) az safheh-ye ruzgar (from page of time) mahv shavad (vanish from)."

Even I can pick out the words 'regime' and 'Jerusalem' and the western phrase 'wiped off' is nowhere to be seen, nor is the word for 'Israel' never mind the word 'map'.

Regimes do end and don't last forever. Later on this year, who knows if Mr Blair's regime will vanish from the page in time too? I suspect Gordon would love to know.

Consider this important point. If there is no direct translation, has anyone approached the foreign ministry for an explanation? In February 2006, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Ahmadinejad's comments had been misunderstood and that he had been speaking about the Israeli "regime" not the country and a country could not be removed from the map. - Has the BBC ever reported this and if not why?

And finally to clarify one point in the blog post, Russell Merryman from
AlJazeera online has said that AlJazeera "have not translated
Ahmadinejad's words. For coverage of this conference we had to rely on wire agency copy; the translation was included in those agency reports... On the report on the English website we clearly credit our source as "Agencies"; had we reported on this ourselves that credit would have read "Aljazeera".

  • 12.
  • At 07:54 AM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • brian wrote:

'Therefore there a number of possible ways of rendering the Farsi original into English. However, in the context of the whole passage we believe our original interpretation is an accurate reflection of the words."

Well, thats a neat way to say you prefer your own interpretation. It is also dead wrong: as the interpretations differ remarkably, to make Ahmadinejad either a peace loving democrat (which he is) or a ranting genocidical maniac (which you prefer). You interpretation is not only not original, its not even correct, as we all know by now. A better translation is made by a real Farsi speaker: Arash Norouzi, which you already know. You know it, but prefer your own interpretation...Now why would that be? Isnt the BBC a new service? It sounds more like a latter day Pravda servicing the interests of the state.
Thanks for confirming the BBC has ceased to be an objective news site.

  • 13.
  • At 08:05 AM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • jalus wrote:


'As Professor Juan Cole correctly points out, many of Ahmadinejad's statements are "morally outrageous and historically ignorant,'

Where morally outrageous statementshas president Ahmadinejad made? What is more morally outrageous than deliberately mistranslate someones words to incite war(or as its called nowadays: 'humanitarian intervention') against Iran.

  • 14.
  • At 08:16 PM on 02 Dec 2007,
  • bob mellor wrote:

'par for the course' for the bbc (they'll provide the farsi translation).......remember how the english language term 'strikebreakers' or 'scabs' was mysteriously translated as 'new faces' in the 1984 coal dispute?

Goerge Orwell modelled his work 1984 on the bbc, and so the 'ministry of truth' continues to live up to its reputation.

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