July 15, 2004

Iraqi chicken

Yesterday I heard a presentation by a U.S. Army linguist (meaning "language specialist") about her experiences during a year with the CPA in Baghdad. She put this joke up on the screen to make a point about the problems of translation in Iraq:

Why did the Iraqi Chicken cross the road?

The fact that the chicken crossed the road shows that decision making authority has switched to the chicken. From now on the chicken is responsible for its own decisions.

We were asked to help the chicken cross the road. Given the inherent risk of road crossing, and the rarity of chickens, this operation will only cost $326,004.

Muqtada as-Sadr:
The chicken was a tool of the evil Coalition and will be killed.

US Army Military Police:
We were directed to prepare the chicken to cross the road. As part of these preparations, individual soldiers ran over the chicken repeatedly, and plucked the chicken. We deeply regret the occurrence of any chicken rights violations.

The chicken crossed the road, and will continue to cross the road, to show its independence and to transport the weapons it needs to defend itself. However, in future, to avoid problems, the chicken will be called a duck, and will wear a plastic bill.

1st Cavalry:
The chicken had no right to cross the road as it did not have the correct identification. Thus, the chicken was searched and detained. We apologize for any embarrassment to the chicken.

Al Jazeera:
The chicken was forced to cross the road multiple times at gunpoint by a large group of occupation soldiers, according to witnesses. The chicken was then fired upon intentionally, in yet another example of the abuse of innocent Iraqi chickens.

We cannot confirm any involvement in the chicken-road-crossing incident.

Chicken he corss street because bad she tangle regulation. Future chicken table against my request.

According to a comment on the Soul Pacific website, the author of this joke is Joshua Paul, now working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. This may be the same Joshua Paul whose op-ed piece on an American Foreign Legion is reprinted here.

Among the interesting points that yesterday's speaker (a captain in the Army reserves) made:

Her DLI (Defense Language Institute) training in Arabic was less useful than she would have wished, mainly because it was in MSA (Modern Standard Arabic), whose relationship to Iraqi Arabic is roughly like the relationship between Latin and Italian. As a result, as she put it, "they could understand me but I couldn't understand them". I've heard that DLI used to teach a number of modern Arabic languages (often called "colloquials" or "dialects"), but stopped some time ago because the military's personnel system couldn't deal with the distinctions. As far as the personnel system was concerned, Arabic is Arabic; but sending someone trained in Moroccan Arabic to (say) Kuwait is like sending a Portuguese speaker to Romania.So DLI decided to stick with MSA, which is the language of formal discourse throughout the Arab world, though it's no one's native language. I don't know whether this is the reason, but it's certainly true right now that DLI teaches MSA rather than the local languages.

As a symptom of other sorts of communications difficulties, she cited the fact that it took her several months to locate a translation of the Bill of Rights into Arabic.

She's heading back to Baghdad next week for another tour. I wish her well.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 15, 2004 05:57 AM