Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Inching down a rabbit hole

So I read this article quoting Bashar al-Assad that he would retake "every inch" of Syria. Which made me wonder "did he really say 'inch'? Does Assad use the English system for measurement when he gives speeches?"

Thus began a ridiculous time-consuming search to figure out what word in Arabic Assad actually used in his speech. That creaking sound you just heard was my rusty Arabic as I puzzled over various Arab-language articles about the speech. The problem wasn't just my decaying ability to read Arabic (although that was probably the biggest problem!) it was also the fact that Assad said a bunch of other stuff when he spoke. While English-language sources highlighted the "every inch" line, Arabic sources seemed to focus more on the part where he attacked Turkish President Erdogan, threatening to make the Aleppo battlefield the graveyard of his dreams (or something like that).

The BBC Arabic article was here I was able to find the actual quote:
".الجيش سيحرر كل شبر من الأراضي السورية مثلما فعل في (مدينة) تدمر"
Which I would translate as "The army will free all 'shabr' of Syrian land like what it did in [the city of] Palmyra."  That word "shabr" I didn't know. Google translate says the word means "span." Meanwhile, Google translate translates the whole sentence as "Army frees every inch of the Syrian land as he did in the (city) Palmyra," which I think is a clearly worse translation than the one I did with my rusty Arabic. (Victory Noz!) Except notice that when I give it the whole sentence, google translate suddenly makes "shabr" into "inch" instead of "span." "Span" is also what my various Arabic dictionary apps say "shabr" means. I didn't have Hans with me on the train while I was running down this rabbit hole, maybe I will check it when I get home tonight.

If I ask google translate to do an English-to-Arabic translation of the word "inch", I get a totally different word I do not know "بوصة" ("Busa"). My apps agree that "Busa" means "inch." Not one suggested "shabr" as a translation for the English word "inch."

This post has no real point other than the fact that I spent too much time on this today and I needed to get something out of it. A post isn't much, but it is something.

UPDATE (6/9/16) (as if anyone but me cares): According to Hans, "shabr" (شبر) actually means the span of the hand. It is also used in a bunch of idioms about short distances that seem to be translated into English with "shabr" translated as different English units of measurement. Like, "shabran fa-shabran" (شبرا فشبرا) is translated as "inch by inch" while  "shabr min al-ard" (شبر من الأرض) is translated as "a foot of ground." As for "busa" (بوصة) it just is translated as "inch." Busa is not tied into any verbal root, which sometimes means the word was originally foreign. But the masculine form of the word "bus" (بوص) means "reed," so maybe it became the word for inch because an inch is close to the width of a reed.

Sometimes I really do miss being a student of Arabic.