Sunday, August 9, 2020

Game of thrones – Special political traditions in France, Israel and the United States



The art of translating goes beyond knowledge of language and encompasses comprehension of culture. A professional translator must know how the societies of the source language handle a given situation and translate the whole concept in such a way that the speaker of the target language can understand. For example, while the United States uses the common law system of law, France uses Droit publique, thus requiring the legal translator to understand the function of each court level in both systems in order to properly translate court documents. Similarly, while many democracies exist, fortunately, each has its own peculiarities. Thus, translators of political and journalistic materials must be familiar with the electoral processes in order to transmit them from one language to another. As an example, I will present a special, sometimes unique, aspect of the French, Israeli and American democratic processes.


2nd tour or strange bedfellows - France has multiple political parties, with ever changing names. As a result, all French elections, from municipal to the presidential, are conducted into two rounds. To clarify, in the first round, any person, with or without party identification, may run for a public position but only the top two finishers appear in the ballot for the deuxieme tour. So, the deuxieme tour does not refer to the 1904 running of the Tour de France but instead to the second round of voting. This reduction to two candidates requires the losing local representatives and national parties to choose whether to remain neutral or recommend a vote for one of the two remaining candidates. Given the fluidity of modern French political alignment and the interaction between personal dislike and future ambition, the result is rather comical to an outside observer as personal and/or ideological enemies suddenly unite because they both despise or fear the challenger even more. The recently completed round of municipal elections in France provides numerous examples with a potpourri of local ideological alliances. Thus, the 2nd tour exemplifies that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, at least for the moment.

[Bread and crumbs]

Remainders or waste not, want not – Israel also has a multiparty parliamentary system. In fact, Israel has never had a non-coalition government. Thus, the distribution of seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is of vital national interest. To determine the final result, the national election committee calculates the total number of actual, not only registered, voters and remove all votes for parties that did not meet the legal minimum for a seat, currently 3.25% of the total vote. The resulting number is divided by 120, the number of seats in the Knesset. For example, in the latest national election in March of 2020, each seat was equal to 37,943 voters. The interesting issue is what to do with the votes from 37,944 to 75,885. To avoid throwing them away, each party signs a heskem odefim, an agreement on how to distribute the remaining, unused votes, right before the election. The goal is to help the party closest to gaining one more seat, which may be the difference between being the government or opposition. The how and why of these agreements are for the politicians but the result is that the official results take up to three days so that some ballots can be checked and the heskem odefim can be applied. Every little vote counts.

[Jigsaw puzzle]

Gerrymandering or scribbly lines – The United States is a federal government and has effectively two parties. Individual elections are much simpler, i.e. the winner of hte one and only election is the person getting the most votes. However, the U.S. Constitution, written with its typical ambiguity, creates a unique process for defining the voting district for a member of the House of Representatives, which is legislatively limited to 435 members. Article 1 of the Constitution merely states that a representative must be elected every two years by a district with no more than 30,000 registered voters. Having observed the dead borough phenomenon in the UK, i.e., districts where most of the voters has long died, the Congress allows the redistricting every change of decade after the census. Now the fun begins. Whichever party controls the legislative branch in a state gets to redraw the map, guided only by the Constitutional limit of equal districts of no more than 30,000 voters. The considerations are not administrative but electoral. To clarify, as a rule, most minorities tend to vote Democrat while many white suburban voters tend to vote Republican, depending on the local politics. So, if a party wishes to diminish the impact of a concentrated voting bloc, it divides up its voters among several districts while the opposite is true if the goal is to maximize electoral impact. The district lines do not have to resemble any known geometric shape. In recent years, the courts have started to reject extreme gerrymandering but it is clear that one of the strengths of the Republican Party has been its control of many of the state legislatures for several decades. The devil is in the details, even in politics.

Seen from the outside, these traditions are curious, even amusing, a bit like reading or viewing the Game of Thrones.  However, from the inside, they have a huge impact on the residents of the country. A customer requiring translation of an economic or political text must make sure that the translator understands the concept and can transmit it to the target audience. Unlike the series, this game is real.

*Caption pictures to allow full access to the blind. All images via Pixabay.

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