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Not very dangerous

What Jacques Chirac said

There has been a flurry of outrage over some remarks about Iran’s nuclear ambitions by Jacques Chirac. The New York Times, for example, reported:

President Jacques Chirac said this week that if Iran had one or two nuclear weapons, it would not pose a big danger, and that if Iran were to launch a nuclear weapon against a country like Israel, it would lead to the immediate destruction of Tehran.

And the BBC reported that Chirac:

said it would not be very dangerous for Iran to possess a bomb or two, adding that the real danger was from nuclear proliferation.

Chirac now says that his remarks were extremely simplistic and he withdraws them. Nonetheless, it might be worth looking at what he originally said. Often the plea that one has been quoted “out of context” is a weak defence, but the context in this instance is arguably illuminating. I translate from the original interview:

I should say that, in the first place, there are two different problems: nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. What disturbs us in Iran is not nuclear energy but nuclear weapons, uranium enrichment. That’s what worries us. It’s the fact that Iran refuses to accept the demands of the IAEA to stop enriching uranium. And that’s very dangerous. It’s very dangerous, we need to be very careful. I would say that what makes this dangerous is not so much the fact that it would have one nuclear bomb – maybe a second bomb a bit later, well… that’s not very dangerous. What is very dangerous is proliferation. That means that if Iran continues down this path and acquires all the technical know-how for nuclear power, the danger is not so much inherent in the bomb that it will have, which it won’t be able to use … Who would it bomb? Israel? The bomb wouldn’t get 200 metres through the air before Tehran would be destroyed. What is dangerous is proliferation, and it’s very tempting for other rich countries in the region to say “Well we’re going to do it too, and we’re going to help others do it.” Why wouldn’t Saudi Arabia do it? And why wouldn’t they help Egypt to do it too? That’s the danger. So we have to find a way of solving this problem.

I have put one sentence in bold, because the New York Times, which reports some of this paragraph as well, mistranslates it in a revealing way. It gives:

I would say that what is dangerous about this situation is not the fact of having a nuclear bomb.

But that’s not what Chirac said. What he said, in French, is: “Je dirais que ce n’est pas tellement dangereux par le fait d’avoir une bombe nucléaire”. The NYT has simply ignored the word tellement, meaning “so” or “to such an extent”. It thus reports Chirac as saying that the fact of a nuclear bomb is not dangerous, when what Chirac actually said is that it is not so dangerous as the broader danger posed by proliferation in the region.

It’s also interesting to look at the ways the NYT and the BBC reported the remarks in their opening paragraphs. “President Jacques Chirac said this week that if Iran had one or two nuclear weapons, it would not pose a big danger, and that if Iran were to launch a nuclear weapon against a country like Israel, it would lead to the immediate destruction of Tehran”; “he said it would not be very dangerous for Iran to possess a bomb or two, adding that the real danger was from nuclear proliferation” (emphases added). In both cases the reports separate the claims into a sequence: Chirac said one thing, and then he added another thing, almost as an afterthought. But the original context makes clear that the thoughts were not separable but logically interlinked.

You may remember the lies, eagerly propagated by the British government and media, about what Chirac said on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. (He did not say that he was determined to veto a war whatever happened.) This is a subtler case, but is it still nonetheless a form of structural Unspeak to boil Chirac’s argument down, as the English-language media has done, to a headline claim that he thought Iran having a nuclear weapon “would not pose a big danger”?

  1. 1  Richard  February 2, 2007, 3:18 pm 

    I’m curious about the role France plays in Anglo-American media myth-making. Is it simply that France can be used to inoculate readers against opposing arguments – that reasonable doubts or contrary opinions can be discredited by association with cheese-eating surrender monkeys – or is something more sophisticated, or more deeply Francophobic, going on?

  2. 2  Gwynn Dujardin  February 2, 2007, 4:32 pm 

    Very naive, but very earnest, question (i.e., I trust you folks will enlighten me, and thank you in advance): what exactly is meant/assumed by “proliferation”?

    Generally speaking, as well as in the specific context of Chirac’s comments?

    That is, how is “proliferation” distinct from having “one or two” bombs? Is it only a matter of quantity? (in which case how is the threat really more, once one bomb exists and threatens?)

    Again, forgive my naivete. I assume I’m missing something.

  3. 3  Steven  February 2, 2007, 4:46 pm 

    Proliferation is not the multiplication of weapons themselves but the process of more and more countries becoming nuclear-capable. So Chirac’s argumnent is that the greater danger from a nuclear Iran is that it would encourage countries with more resources and technical know-how to follow suit, such as Saudi Arabia, which could presumably build more bombs more quickly. (Whether other countries really need this encouragement from Iran in particular is another question.)

  4. 4  Gwynn Dujardin  February 2, 2007, 5:01 pm 

    Gotcha. Thanks. Still not at ease, but at least clear on the kind of threat we’re talking about.

    I assume you’ve written on the irony that the word pro-life-eration is applied to “weapons of mass destruction.”

    The OED traces “prolific” and “proliferous” to Latin (producing offspring; procreative; prolific), and indicates that we took “proliferation” from French. FYI.

  5. 5  Tawfiq Chahboune  February 3, 2007, 6:33 pm 

    Dear Steven,

    That’s a nice point you bring up. Why on earth is it that so many important comments are mistranslated so often? There is the famous Chirac one that he will veto any UN resolution that would involve the invasion of Iraq, something the New Labour automata still repeat. I’d imagine that this is trotted out because it is now known that every member of the UN Security Council, except for you know who, was to vote against invasion.

    We then have Ahmadinejad’s comment that it was his wish to wipe Israel off the map (what he said was that in time Israel would pass from the page of history). Evidently, the US and UK have been waiting for the clownish Ahmadinejad to say something silly, and they jumped on him when he eventually did. Yet these kinds of “threats” are common in the Middle East, so why make such a fuss about it now.

    And now the unlucky Chirac is mistranslated again. The UK media seems uncommonly prone to mistranslations. Presumably it is a case of our being uninterested in foreign languages. Although in the first two instances, there seems to be something sinister going on when so many in the media continue to repeat something that is known to be untrue.

  6. 6  Dr Zen  February 5, 2007, 1:29 am 

    The problem is not the first Iranian bomb, the second or even the hundredth. It’s the one some Jewhating nutter slips to Hezbollah. Chirac needs to read up a bit on the delivery of nuclear weapons. One doesn’t need a rocket. A truck will do nicely.

  7. 7  Steven  February 5, 2007, 10:25 am 

    Hi Tawfiq: indeed. It makes me wonder about how other statements get translated for us from Chinese or German or any others of the overwhelming majority of languages that I don’t speak.

    Dr Zen: well, so you agree with Chirac that, as you say, “the problem is not the first Iranian bomb” etc. The scenario you envisage would, I think, come under his general idea of “proliferation”.

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