Translation and Terrorism

This is a guest post from Acacia O’Connor, a recent graduate of the MA program in Literary Translation here at the University of Rochester. She’s currently living and working in D.C., and searching for a publisher for her translation of Exhausted Space by Tommaso Pincio.

Translation, though it is infrequently admitted, is a political act and has the ability to shock, to scandalize. Translation can be polemical. Now, with the trial of Massachusetts man Tarek Mehanna, translation has been connected not only with political action, but allegedly with terrorism. Mehanna is accused of advancing terrorism by attempting to join a terrorist camp in Yemen (hilariously, he apparently failed to find and join one once he was there) and by allegedly plotting to shoot people in a mall. However, he also faces charges for speaking out over the internet on his English-language blog and because of a jihadist text he translated into English.

Mehanna’s trial has caught the ear of the media because his legal team is turning to a First Amendment defense. Boston.com reported that Mehanna’s attorney, J.W. Carney Jr., told the jury that Mehanna’s views—whether morally right or wrong, against the American government or not—should be protected speech.

“I’m not here to convince you to believe that his view and the view of millions of others was correct. . . . I am asking you to find that you can hold that view in the United States of America even if the government does not want you to hold that view.”

“We can hold onto these views, and we can speak them, even if it’s what upsets the United States government,” he said. “It’s what makes the United States so great, so strong, and so free.”

Leaving aside the other charges, what makes this story so interesting is the treatment of translation and the question about whether translating a text necessarily constitutes supporting the views, spirit and goals contained therein. Mehanna translated radical Islamic texts, including a book entitled “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad” and published them on his blog. The prosecution alleges that, in doing so, he was encouraging terrorism and violence. The defense claims Mehanna’s interest in the texts was more academic and that he had gone to Yemin to study Arabic, not to participate in a terrorist camp.

In an interview with NPR, Mehanna’s brother Tamer responded:

“Find me one spot anywhere on my brother’s blog where he condones violence. Find me one word that my brother wrote.”

“We live in a country where the First Amendment is supposed to allow us to say these things,” Tamer Mehanna said. “We’re supposed to be able to talk about our views and share. I should be able to translate a text and not worry about being charged with terrorism. How is this not ridiculous?”

A fair question. Interestingly, the issue hinges on whether Tarek Mehanna, as a translator of a violent text “wrote” the words. Did Mehanna translate the text so as to incite his audience to violence? If so, how could that ever be proven? And does his motive even matter? If translating a Jihadist text is a licentious offense that could land you in prison, what other translations of political texts fall out-of-bounds?

The translation and speech-related charges are not the only charges in this particular case. However, couldn’t arresting someone for translating a text have a “chilling effect” on translation and publishing overall?

A story like this is fertile ground for debate about what it is a translator does and who she does it for and the best part is, in my opinion, is that it brings to the foreground the political nature of translation—something that many writers and translators would often neglect in favor of being (dare I say it) belletristic.

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