Monday, January 21, 2013

Why your vote matters

Tomorrow Israel holds general elections for the Knesset (parliament). Like many democracies, Israel has seen a decline in voter turnout, and voters who care are trying to encourage others to vote.

There has even been some discussion of countries where voting is compulsory. I'm not sure whether this would be a good idea, or how it would be enforced. I think it is better to convince voters of the importance of casting their votes voluntarily.

I think people would be more likely to vote if they saw it as a duty rather than a right. While it is often perceived as a right, and therefore not compulsory, voting in a democracy is intended to ensure that the ruling body reflects the wishes of the people. The more people vote, the more closely the composition of the parties in the Knesset reflects the opinions of the citizens.

Israelis often talk about the civic duty to serve in the military, which is compulsory here, and complain about those who manage to avoid this duty. I would say that voting in the elections is another civic duty that people should take more seriously. It requires less time and effort than military service, and has an impact on more aspects of daily life.

Many people say they are not going to vote because none of the parties reflects their views. To this I would say that you don't have to agree with 100% of the positions of a party in order to vote for it. It's sufficient that you think this party is closer to your position than any other party, or that it's the least bad of the parties available.

Some people are frustrated because they think their vote is not going to have any impact among the 5,656,705 eligible voters. This is like saying that nothing you ever do matters because there are so many other people in the world. If everyone thought like this, nobody would vote. You can't leave this responsibility to others. I argue that everything you do matters in the total sum of human actions.

All of our actions matter and have some influence, large or small, on others around us and ultimately on the whole of humanity and the world. This is why I think everyone should be considerate and cooperative at all times. If you believe smiling at a stranger can somehow make the world a better place, even if only to a small extent, then you should believe that every vote matters.

Apathy and a feeling of disempowerment are attitudes that people inflict on themselves. Here you are given an opportunity to express the power that you are able to have within a democracy, and turning away from it can be harmful to your sense of controlling your destiny and belonging to a community.

Other people say they don't understand politics. I find this strange, since it is quite easy to grasp the positions of the different parties and what their policies would mean for different individuals and groups. Part of our civic duty is to learn about things happening in our country and community, and form opinions about these things.

I have voted in every Knesset and municipal election since I reached voting age (18). I think it matters in two ways. First, this is how I can influence, even in a small way, what happens in my country and community. Second, it matters to me to know that I consider myself a person who cares enough to express her views and make this contribution to her community.

I will vote tomorrow, and urge all eligible voters to do their civic duty and vote, both for the sake of our democracy being more representative, and for their own sense of who they are.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

ITA Lectures: Zuckermann and Sela-Shapiro

Last week I attended a lecture event organized by the Israel Translators Association in Haifa, at the Mount Carmel Hotel.

The first lecture was by linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann. I had previously heard him speak about his somewhat controversial assertion that what we speak in Israel is in fact Israeli, not Hebrew, since the revived language includes influences from Yiddish and other modern Indo-European languages, and has not remained strictly a Semitic language like its ancestor. Thus far, his theory was quite convincing, but it turned out he also advocates a very "descriptive" rather than "prescriptive" ideology, which went a bit too far, in my opinion, in accepting the spoken language and rejecting the idea that there are rules people can learn and use.

This time, his lecture was on a rather different subject, Revival Linguistics. Zuckermann now teaches linguistics in Australia, and has been involved in reviving some of the Aboriginal languages. Some figures quoted: There are 250 Aboriginal languages in Australia, of which only 18 (17%) are still living. Of 7,000 world languages, we will lose 90% within the next century (unless action is taken). 96% of the world's population speak 4% of the world's languages, which means only 4% of the population speak the remaining 96% of languages, probably only a small population per language.

Much of the lecture was devoted to the reasons for reviving "sleeping" languages, which was the aspect I found most interesting. The Aboriginal languages became extinct through a deliberate policy of linguicide imposed by the colonialists. Loss of a language entails loss of cultural autonomy. These languages contained traditional stories and symbols and contributed to cultural diversity. Some languages contain unique concepts that do not exist in other languages. Learning a native language empowers individuals and groups and being bilingual improves other skills.

I found myself becoming convinced of the importance of reviving minority languages. While it would be easy to argue that in today's world it is most important to speak one of the major world languages, I now understand the ideology and idealism that wishes to teach people the traditional languages of their ancestors, even if these are spoken by relatively small groups. I find this particularly worthwhile if the children are brought up bilingual, as I was, and learn to move between two linguistic and cultural worlds from an early age.

After dinner, the second lecture was by translator Yael Sela-Shapiro. She discussed the problems of translating scientific and technical material into Hebrew, where there are vocabulary voids. After explaining the problem, the suggested solutions were as follows: where there is a familiar and accepted translation, it can be used, taking the target audience into account. Where there is an accepted but perhaps less familiar translation, the word can be used with the foreign word in parentheses the first time. Where there is a translation that is unfamiliar, or there are two translations, it is worth consulting the customer and also placing the foreign word in parentheses. Where there is no Hebrew equivalent, consult the customer, and discuss inventing a new word, with explanation, or transliterating the foreign word, or leaving the foreign word in the original, according to the target audience's preferences.

This lecture led to a lively discussion about word formation in Hebrew, and about how to estimate the expectations of the target audience. Towards the end she presented some words she and other translators had invented to translate into Hebrew words that were invented in English in SF books.

Both lecturers were knowledgeable, charismatic, and experienced speakers who engaged with the audience. I was pleased that about 50 people attended this lecture, a similar attendance to the ITA events held in Tel Aviv, and hope many more such events will be held in Haifa.