Algeria, lost in translation

January 25, 2013

The North African country of Algeria, a former French colony that endured an awful civil war in the 1990s, doesn't make it into the English-language news as often as its neighbors. Unlike Iraq or Egypt, its history, and how that history shapes the country today, is just not as well known among Americans. And that can make it tougher to understand developments there such as the recent hostage crisis, much less the underlying puzzle of militant groups and extremist ideologies that appears to link the hostage-takers back to al-Qaeda.

As a window into the ways that Algeria's essential nuances can get lost in translation, see these two headlines, both from the same news organization. Africa Intelligence ran this short post, in English and in French, arguing that the hostage crisis had helped empower hard-liners within Algeria's military-dominated government. But, in the French (and presumably original) version, Africa Intelligence uses a word you don't see much in English-language Algeria coverage -- "Eradicateurs" -- instead of hard-liners. Here are the two screenshots, side-by-side:


So why is this important? Lots of countries, especially ones that are facing internal threats from militant extremism, have "hard-liners." But only Algeria has "eradicateurs," a faction within the Algerian government that has argued, since the civil war broke out in 1991, that the military can never negotiate with Islamist movements and must destroy them outright. The war ended, in 1999, only when an Algerian leader from the opposing faction -- "conciliateurs" -- outmaneuvered the hard-liners. But that central tension has remained within the government ever since, a particularly Algerian dynamic that is important for understanding the country's militancy crisis and the government's response.

Whether you read a headline that says "hard-liners" or "eradicateurs," of course, does not dramatically change how much that headline tells you about Algeria and its internal dynamics. Rather, the touch of nuance that was lost here between French and English is a reminder of Algeria's complexity and the uphill struggle, in the English-language world, to make sense of it.

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Max Fisher | January 24, 2013