Illogical ‘Convergence’

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published May 26, 2006, issue of May 26, 2006.
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Ehud Olmert has come to Washington to talk about his convergence plan. By now, we all know what that means. But why, oh why, does it mean that?

To converge, according to my dictionary, is “to tend toward or approach an intersecting point,” or “to come together from different directions.” What does this have to do with a policy of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank to borders determined by Israel? In what way, or on what intersecting point, might these borders be said to be “converging”?

Perhaps they are supposed to be “converging” on Israel’s pre-1967 frontiers, to which they are planned to go most of the way back. But if so, this is a poor choice of a word. The current Israeli government is planning to withdraw toward these frontiers, not to converge on them — a phrase that implies that all the vectors of the planned withdrawal point to the same central nucleus. However, this is not the case. In some areas, the projected direction of the withdrawal is westward toward the coastal plain and Tel Aviv; in others, southward and northward toward Jerusalem; in a number of places, even eastward away from the coastal plain. There is no convergence on anything.

How did “convergence” come to be the accepted term for the Olmert government’s plan? It all goes back to Olmert’s election campaign — in the course of which, as I wrote March 31 in a column devoted to the subject, the previous Hebrew term for unilateral withdrawal, hitnatkut or “disengagement,” was replaced by Olmert’s spin masters with the more positive-sounding hitkansut, which means literally “gathering [oneself] together.”

But one can’t really speak in English about Israel’s “gathering together plan.” A better equivalent had to be invented — and fast. Who first decided that this should be “convergence,” we’ll probably never know. As far as I can tell, hitkansut was launched by the Olmert campaign in the first half of March, and the earliest translation of it as “convergence” that I have been able to find occurred in the March 14 English edition of the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz. There, in a column by political commentator Ari Shavit, we find the statement, “The convergence plan will not implement the Bush [two-state] vision, but will destroy it.”

Of course, if this was the earliest translation of hitkansut as “convergence,” it wasn’t Shavit who hit on it. It was one of the many staff translators of the English Ha’aretz — who, working late into the night to meet a press deadline, couldn’t have had much time to think about it. Yet the word caught on. By March 26, we have The Jerusalem Post writing, in reference both to the term’s newness and its inappropriateness, “Olmert’s name for this process [of unilateral withdrawal], ‘convergence,’ is ironically an exact opposite description of what is happening between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Could a less clumsy English translation of hitkansut have been found? Several suggestions have been made. Hillel Halkin, writing in the May 2 New York Sun, proposed “retrenchment.” New York Times’s Israel correspondents Steven Erlanger and Greg Myre stated in a May 19 dispatch that hitkansut “best translates as consolidation.” Arab political commentators have gotten into the act, too, with Al-Hayat’s Maher Othman offering “redeployment.”

But although “redeployment” is a term that frequently suggests a withdrawal of troops or personnel to more defensible positions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that; an army or organization also can redeploy, simply by changing the positioning of its members without retreating from the lines it is holding. Although this is better than “convergence,” it is not as good as “retrenchment” and “consolidation.”

Retrenchment is not, even though it may sound that way, a military term like “redeployment.” The “trench” in it is not that of trench warfare, and to “re-trench” did not originally mean to retreat to a second line of defense behind the first one. Rather, the word’s base meaning was to cut off or cut back, from Latin truncare (whence also our English “truncate”), via French retrancher. In contemporary English retrenchment is something done by a business or corporation when it lays off staff or closes down operations in order to economize and turn a profit. Like hitkansut, it implies improving one’s situation by becoming smaller.

So does “consolidation,” which strikes me as an even better choice. A 16th-century English word with a Latin background like “retrench,” “to consolidate” originally meant to make something more solid by concentrating its diffused parts together. This is actually very close to the meaning of the Hebrew verb le’hitkanes, from which hitkansut comes, and it also has more of its positive spirit. One retrenches under pressure from without; one consolidates to firm oneself up inwardly.

Israel’s “redeployment plan,” “retrenchment plan” or “consolidation plan” — you can take your pick. Any of these would be better than “convergence plan.” And yet the latter has by now gotten such a head start that it will be difficult for other terms to catch up with it. In these days of mass media and the Internet, having been around for two months is as good as having been around for centuries.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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