Between the Arabic ‘Da‘esh’ and the English ‘ISIS’: What’s missed in translation

Da'eshYou must have all heard of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shaam (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It’s been on the news a lot lately and a US-led coalition has just declared a full-fledged war against the terrorist group, which had established a self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate on parts of Syria and Iraq a few months before.

Both ‘al-Sham’ and ‘the Levant’ mean Greater Syria, though ‘the Levant’ is an old colonial name that most people have stopped using – except for US president Barak Obama and his team of Middle East experts, it seems.

The English acronym formed from the initials of either name (ISIS or ISIL) sounds pretty serious, or at least normal, in English. In Arabic, however, the acronym has come to have both derogatory and funny connotations. It has, nonetheless, been established as the most commonly used name when talking about the group, even by mainstream media. A few French and English media outlets have also just adopted it.

The full Arabic name of ISIS is al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-‘Iraq wa al-Sham (الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام). The Arabic acronym is thus formed from the initial letters Dal (د), Alef (ا), ‘ayn (ع) and Sheen (ش), which make Da‘esh (داعش).

The word Da‘ssh did not exist in Arabic before, but it does sound similar to other words that have funny connotations, or are rather appropriate to describe ISIS and what it does.

For instance, the verb da‘asa means to ‘trample down’ or ‘crush’. The present participle da‘es, meaning ‘crusher’, sounds similar to da‘esh.

Da‘esh also sounds similar to Dahes in Dahes wal-Ghabra’ (داحس والغبراء), a famous pre-Islamic battle between two Arab tribes that has a special place in Arabs’ imagination as one of the longest and bloodiest battles in ancient Arab history. Dahes and al-Ghabra’ were the names of the horses of the leaders of the two warring tribes.

When ISIS first surfaced in its latest incarnation in Syria, Da‘esh was initially used as an innocent acronym. It wasn’t too long, however, before Syrian and other Arabic-speaking activists and commentators started to use it in a mocking or derogatory way, playing on the word and inventing all sorts of funny derivations and inflections.

There are literary thousands of posters, animations and songs mocking the group and its name (see some example here, here and here. See also this article in Arabic). So much so that ISIS has banned the use of the word Da‘esh in the areas it controls. The punishment for anyone caught using it instead of the respectable ‘Islamic State’ can be very hash, ranging from lashing to decapitation.

Last month I wrote a whole dictionary entry in Arabic for the root da‘asha, a made-up verb derived from Da‘esh (‘to isis’ – it doesn’t really work in English!). Written in the style of an old, authoritative Arabic dictionary (Lisan al-‘Arab), the entry explains the word and its various derivations, complete with examples from (made-up) ancient history books, news headlines and even poetry.

Some of the derivations had already been used by other people; others I invented myself. The entry was preceded by a (joke) call for it to be added to the next edition of the dictionary.

There is little point in trying to translate some of these jokes or, indeed, the dictionary entry referred to above. As the title of this blog suggests, this sort of linguistic jokes are often lost in translation.