On August 6, 2021, MEMRI TV reached the milestone of publishing its 9,000th video – completing nearly 60,000 minutes of translated content since the project launched in 2004. These 9,000 MEMRI TV clips span multiple languages including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Turkish, Russian, Chinese and more.
MEMRI TV’s clips are widely used by governments, intelligence agencies, law enforcement, legislatures, media, and academia throughout the world – with over 320 million views to date – in 238 countries and territories.
On August 29, I sat down with MEMRI TV Director Yotam Feldner to discuss his team’s recent milestone and the importance of MEMRI TV’s mission. Below is the transcript of our interview.
Heath: Good afternoon Yotam, thank you for your time today. Firstly, congratulations to you and the entire MEMR TV team for hitting the impressive milestone of publishing your 9,000th video. Secondly, I was hoping to hear your thoughts on the evolution of MEMRI TV and its translation capabilities. At its inception MEMRI TV focused predominately on Arabic-language material. When and why did you decide to widen the scope to include media produced in other languages, such as the recent addition of Chinese and Russian?
Yotam Feldner: We have tried to adjust our work to regional and world developments. The foreign involvement in the Middle East has increased considerably since 2004, with an emphasis on the Russian military involvement in Syria and the spread of Chinese political and economic influence throughout the region. Although our financial capabilities have always been modest, we have tried to respond to these developments by establishing small monitoring and translation departments in those languages as well.
Heath: MEMRI TV serves an important function in bridging the language gap by making foreign-language media accessible to English-speaking (and other) audiences. What do you consider to be the importance of MEMRI TV’s work?
Yotam Feldner: If you follow social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, you see many times people posting short videos in foreign languages and adding their own synopsis of what is being said. However, I believe that MEMRI is the only organization that does the systematic work of posting significant videos where one can hear the original audio and read the full translation in the form of captions. This allows the audience to make their own judgment and analysis, rather than having someone tell them what is said in the video and what it means. This also helps speakers of these languages to sort of peer-review the videos and corroborate (or refute) the translation. But even in the rare instances when someone decides to refute the translation, his or her comments can be easily refuted by others who know the language. In other words, if someone decides to claim MEMRI has engaged in mistranslation, they will have to present a strong case, because the video is out there for everybody to see.
With the development of social media, the number of media outlets has become unlimited. A lot of the important content is being disseminated by video format online. In order to reflect the sentiment in the Middle East we must monitor this huge volume of online (and free-to-air) broadcasts. In addition, there are important cases where content is distributed only in video format. One example is the Friday sermons in the Middle East and everywhere else in the world. These do not have a written equivalent and monitoring online accounts of mosques is the only way of knowing what is being said there.
Heath: MEMRI TV’s work in monitoring, translating, subtitling, and publishing clips is highly specialised and requires a very high level level of language proficiency to ensure accurate translation. What do you think has made MEMRI TV so successful in this regard?
Yotam Feldner: We spend a lot of resources on training workers, trying to keep them working for us for many years. This allows them to acquire the language expertise and technical skills required for this work.
Heath: By exposing problematic and extremist media content, MEMRI TV has undoubtedly attracted criticism from its detractors over the years. For example, in December 2020 MEMRI was specifically targeted by Iranian FM Javad Zarif via Twitter after your analysts exposed the he had used an antisemitic slur during an interview with Arman Media. How does MEMRI TV respond to criticism?
Yotam Feldner: First of all, when talking about extremist media content, it should be noted that we are monitoring everything – the good as well as the bad. We have done extensive work of clipping interviews by liberal, moderate figures in the Middle East and have an entire project dedicated to democratization in this part of the world. Having said that, It’s undeniable that a significant part of the content might be Jihadi, anti-Western, antisemitic, homophobic, misogynistic, and nasty in many other senses.
The Zarif case is indicative of something I mentioned before. Zarif claimed that he didn’t use an antisemitic slur and that the word he used simply meant “Jews.” However, since the debate was available to all online, native Farsi speakers immediately join the discussion, and wrote that the word he used is indeed antisemitic and cannot be perceived as neutral. We don’t really mind criticism. Our material is out there and speaks for itself. This is our advantage compared to, maybe, other organizations. If someone wants to criticize us over a certain video – the video is out there and everybody can watch it and make up their own mind regarding who’s right and who’s wrong.
Heath: What is your reaction to the popular “MEMRI TV memes” shared across social media platforms?
Yotam Feldner: Obviously, we have nothing to do with these memes, but it is always fun to bump into one of our old clips out there. However, sometimes people take our videos and run over our subtitles with alternative, “funny” captions. I know this is very common online, but since our logo is still there, there is always the possibility that people will mistake this as our own translation. This happened several times in the past and required us to explain the circumstances.
Heath: MEMRI TV clips are widely shared and have been picked-up by governments, civil society organizations and activists. For example, in 2014 MEMRI TV translated and published a video exposing comments by Ismail Al-Wahwah, head of Hizb Al-Tahrir in Australia, who openly incited violence against Jews. This video prompted the ‘Keep NSW Safe’ coalition of ethnic and religious minority groups in New South Wales, Australia, to successfully mount a campaign to reform anti-discrimination legislation. Could you please share another example showcasing how MEMRI TV clips have been used to affect real-world changes?
Yotam Feldner: There were many cases in which our videos of Islamists in the West have led to their interrogation and in some cases legal action was taken against them. A notable case is that of the Imam of Toulouse, France, who had to face interrogation and a trial following antisemitic comments he made in a 2018 sermon. He recently received six-month suspended prison sentence. There are several such cases. In many cases, especially in the U.S., our publication led to apologies by the imams and the mosque and communities that hosted them. In one case, a union of mosques in New Jersey decided to start a training course that would teach imams how to avoid inciting comments.
Heath: Yotam, thank you for your time today. For those who are interested in supporting MEMRI TV, how can help contribute to your team’s work?
Yotam Feldner: There are three ways one can contribute to MEMRI TV’s work. The first way is to donate to our organization. This will allow us to keep our work and maybe even expand to other languages. Any size of donation is welcomed with gratitude. Donations can be easily made online on our website and are tax deductible.
Secondly, native speakers of the languages we monitor can help us by tipping us off about interesting videos they encounter online. The internet is endless and obviously we cannot monitor all of it, so tips like that really help us to find the needle in the haystack.
Lastly, please visit our website MEMRITV.org and follow our social media profiles to find our latest clips. MEMRI TV can be found on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Vimeo and TikTok. We also have a MEMRI smartphone application available on the iTunes store.