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Saturday, July 03, 2004

Dealing with Saddam

Spencer Ackerman at The New Republic's Iraq'd, writes
Perhaps the most surprising finding in the poll is what Iraqis consider not to be a priority at all. By a tremendously vast margin--83.7 percent, with the next most-frequent response (about increasing oil production) coming in with only 6 percent--Iraqis are not concerned with "dealing with the members of the previous government."

Ackerman assumes that this means that Iraqis don't care much about Saddam's trial. Perhaps they don't want him to be tried at all. But "deal" doesn't mean "put on trial," it means something weaker like "take action towards." Another common meaning of "deal with" is "bargain with." Since the poll was presumably translated into Arabic and Kurdish, it isn't at all clear exactly what was asked, and what Iraqis understood it to mean.

The relevant part of the dictionary definition is:
Deal, verb intransitive
3 a : to engage in bargaining : TRADE b : to sell or distribute something as a business
4 a : to take action with regard to someone or something [deal with an offender] b : to reach or try to reach a state of acceptance or reconcilement [trying to deal with her son's death]

So a common meaning of "dealing with the members of the previous government" is "bargaining with them." Another reasonable interpretation is Ackerman's "taking action towards them." A bad translation could even be "accepting the loss of the previous government."

In general, we ought to be very cautious about interpreting polls translated into a foreign language, where we don't know the connotation of the questions. Even in English, the exacting wording of questions can make a big difference. Consider the popularity of "aid to the poor" and the unpopularity of "welfare." This problem must be even worse in polls translated into multiple foreign languages, like the Pew global surveys.

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