The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler has a fascinating article today on the six-year dispute surrounding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declaration that Israel must be "wiped off the map"--a line that has become shorthand for Iran's belligerent (some would say genocidal) posture toward Israel. The quote first stirred controversy in 2005, when Nazila Fathi of The New York Times cited a report by the Iranian Students' News Agency on Ahmadinejad's remarks at a "World Without Zionism" conference (the Tehran-based Fathi later issued a full-text translation of Ahmadinejad's speech, and official Iranian sources like IRIB ran with the same translation). Since then, however, some have argued that Ahmadinejad was mistranslated, and that getting the translation right is critical to decoding the meaning behind the Iranian leader's incendiary words.

Here is the passage in question from Ahmadinejad's 2005 speech in Persian, rough transliteration, and Times translation (we've taken what appears to be the full line in Persian from an archived transcript of Ahmadinejad's address):

امام عزيز ما فرمودند كه اين رژيم اشغالگر قدس بايد از صفحه روزگار محو شود

Imam ghoft een rezhim-i eshghalgar-i Qods bayad az safheh-i ruzgar mahv shaved

Our dear Imam said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map

Let's isolate the key phrases in the line:

  • Imam ghoft: People generally agree that these words mean "our (dear) Imam said," and indicate that, instead of making a brazen, unprecedented proclamation, Ahmadinejad was quoting comments made by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, in the 1980s.
  • een rezhim-i eshghalgar-i Qods: Again, the literal translation here isn't really in question. These words are translated as some variation on "the regime occupying Jerusalem." But the meaning of the words is a matter of dispute. The liberal Middle East expert Juan Cole and the The Guardian's Jonathan Steele have argued that the phrasing suggests Ahmadinejad is calling for a change in the Israeli government rather than military action against Israel, especially since he was comparing regime change in Israel to regime change in Iran in 1979. But, as The Times puts it, others argue that the line "indicates the depth of the Iranian president's rejection of a Jewish state in the Middle East because he refuses even to utter the name Israel."
  • mahv shaved: Cole, Steele, and the Mossadegh Project's Arash Norouzi have all disputed the Times' "wiped off" translation above, arguing that these words instead mean "vanish from." But an Iranian translator and consultant supported The Times' "wiped off" or "wiped away" rendering in 2006, asserting that the Persian verb is active and transitive (Cole says the verb construction is intransitive). At the time of Ahmadinejad's speech, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) translated the verb as "eliminated." 
  • safheh-i ruzgar: This is where things really get interesting. Ahmadinejad actually misquoted Khomeini, who used the phrase "sahneh-i ruzgar." As the Times noted several years ago, "sahneh" literally means "scene" or "stage" and "ruzgar" means "time," but translators in the 1980s interpreted Khomeini's words as a metaphorical reference to a "map"--an interpretation that stuck when Ahmadinejad substituted "sahneh" for "safheh," or "page." But the Cole-Steele-Norouzi trio recommends the literal translation of "page of time" (MEMRI, for its part, went with "pages of history"). Steele claims that the "page of time" phrase, along with the rest of his translation, suggests that the Iranian president was expressing a desire for an end to Israeli occupation at some point in the future. "He was not threatening an Iranian-initiated war to remove Israeli control over Jerusalem," Steele writes.

So there you have it. Depending on who you ask, Ahmadinejad was either endorsing Khomeini's battle cry for Israel to be wiped off the map or invoking Khomeini's wish that, someday, somehow, the Israeli government will collapse under its own weight. The varying translations, of course, may be inextricably linked to people's political views on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And some argue that the distinction is academic at this point. In a study for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Joshua Teitelbaum states that Ahmadinejad's public statements, taken as a whole, indicate that the Iranian leader is bent on the "actual physical destruction of the State of Israel," however one may translate his 2005 speech. Other Iranian leaders, he adds, have made even more militant comments.

And what of Ahmadinejad himself? He hasn't exactly brought closure to the debate. In a 2006 interview with The Washington Post's Lally Weymouth, he evaded her question about whether he wanted to "wipe Israel off the face of the Earth," in Weymouth's words. "Let the Palestinian people decide their fate in a free and fair referendum, and the result, whatever it is, should be accepted," he told Weymouth. "The people with no roots there are now ruling the land."

More recently, Ahmadinejad has declared that a NATO missile defense system in Turkey "will not stop the fall of the Zionist regime" and that Iran's response to any provocation by the "bankrupt, uncivilized and criminal Zionist regime" would be "crushing and regrettable." Well, at least he said those things according to the Fars News Agency's English translation.