Orientalism and non-translation

One thing that has stood out to me as I have undertaken my recent crash course in Islam is the sheer number of Arabic terms that are left untranslated. At times, even a dedicated student like me became bogged down in technical terminology that was left in Arabic even though it seemed as though there were suitable translations for most terms. The one that sticks out to me the most is falsafa, which is a kind of adaptation of the word “philosophy” into Arabic pronunciation. One could certainly understand the point of emphasizing that Arab philosophers kept the Greek term — but, then, you know, so did we. That insight could be conveyed in one sentence, and the term could be straightforwardly translated as “philosophy” after that point.

There are other more ambiguous cases, and I don’t want to adjudicate every one. Taken together, however, the mass of untranslated terms gives the impression that Islamic thought is somehow radically incompatible with Western languages and thought-patterns. Again, falsafa is a great example, because it makes Arabic philosophy seem like this bizarre foreign pursuit — when in fact they are quite literally drawing on the exact same sources as Western philosophy. That’s an extreme case, but in general it’s not as though Islamic thought is radically and incomprehensibly different from Western thought. In addition to its use of Western philosophy, it draws on the same monotheistic and prophetic heritage as Christianity and Judaism. I’m inclined to agree with Norman O. Brown, who claims in The Challenge of Islam that Islam is a reinterpretation and reappropriation of “our” Western traditions — and hence the “least foreign” foreign tradition out there.

Perhaps that very proximity is what creates the pressure to exoticize and obsfuscate Islamic concepts by leaving them untranslated a disproportionate amount of the time. And while some might argue that keeping the Arabic words is an attempt to maintain the differing layers of meaning, etc., in practice it most often serves to simplify the concepts. Take the concept of jihad — to a Muslim, it has many meanings that are generally in the ballpark of the English word “struggle.” If we translated it as “struggle” instead of leaving it in Arabic, we might understand how the concept could in some cases include something like violent resistence, while conceding that most of the time it would refer to the believer’s spiritual struggles. But once we’ve decided that jihad just means “holy war” — and what’s more, a particularly nefarious, specifically Islamic form of “holy war”! — then to most Western observers, it sounds like misleading apologetics when a Muslim tries to tell us what the term actually means for the average Muslim’s spiritual life.

When I pointed out the jihad example on Twitter, Adam Roberts responded that perhaps we could translate the term as Mein Kampf — and I think that’s actually a great example of the use of foreign words to exoticize, in this case defensively. It’s as though Hitler’s “struggle” in life is a specifically German phenomenon that could never be duplicated among sound-minded Anglophone people! The retention of the German title of Marx’s Das Kapital (with obligatory mispronunciation of Kapital as though it were a French word for good measure) serves much the same purpose of defensive exoticization. Never mind that Hitler had many sympathizers in the US and UK, never mind that Marx wrote Capital with England in mind and drawing primarily on English-language sources — it’s all foreign gibberish that we can never understand!

It is also possible, of course, to fetishize foreign-language terms as an attempt to appreciate or respect a foreign tradition — or earlier stages of one’s own, as when educated Christians treasure isolated New Testament Greek terms as precious talismans of the unparalleled genius of Christianity. Even if the motivation is “positive” in these cases, though, the effect is still exoticizing and obsfuscating. And just as with the “negative” deployment of the strategy, the stakes are most often political rather than scholarly or intellectual.

But enough of my blathering — what do you think, dear readers?

26 Responses to “Orientalism and non-translation”

  1. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I’m not entirely sure if this is always kept or if I have this quite right, but I had understood falsafa to be used as a way of signaling a certain kind of “use of reason” distinct from another, namely kalam. In some sense both are “philosophy” in the sense we tend to use the word, but the use of the Arabic terms is to distinguish what kind of philosophy is being talked about.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I am more convinced by the rationale for keeping kalam, because “theology” has connotations of “official doctrine” that are lacking in Islam, but still, the distinction is broadly that between what we’d recognize as philosophy and theology.

  3. Ruth Marshall Says:

    Just a clarification Adam – what are the principal sources/genres that display this failure to translate? (ie. translated primary sources, or secondary commentary et al?) As you point out, the motivations behind deciding or maintaining that these terms are untranslatable can vary quite considerably. My sense is there is a sort of defensiveness involved in translating terms, related to a quite understandable opposition to the potential reductions in using a Western (Christian) lexicon. But it doesn’t necessarily help.
    I’m currently in reading group on the English edition of the “Dictionary of Untranslatables” edited by Cassin, and you’ll be interested by the entry on “Europe – the languages and traditions that constitute philosophy” contributed by Remi Brague. He starts by saying “everybody inherited something from the Greeks, but not everybody inherited the same thing, and not everybody inherited it in the same way.” And his ‘everybody’ includes Islam. He also points out that in this history of philosophical borrowings, exchanges and translations, philosophia is paradoxically the only word that is literally never translated; even if the Dutch coined Wijsbegeerde and Kant once used Weltweisheit, translations like this never caught on. In Islam, falsafa was always explicitly conceived as a Greek word, and continues to be. Brague points out that possible translations were not used, but rather served as means for marking the strangeness (or exotic origin) of the term. Hence falsafa could be contrasted with hikma (wisdom), whose use by Ibn Khaldun ‘bears witness to a desire to assume a certain distance with respect to foreign sciences. It was preferred whenever there was a concern to ensure continuity between the disciplines native to Islam and their intellectual elaboration in a synthesis in which Aristotelian elements were juxtaposed with apologetics and/or mysticism.” But this strategic choice of terms could only work for native speakers of Arabic, which is clearly the opposite of what is going on your case.

  4. Ruth Marshall Says:

    I see Anthony-Paul has just made my point about falsafa in a much more economical fashion. I was too busy typing to notice…

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Almost every source I’ve read — from Hodgson to more popularizing works — has used a ton of untranslated terms. I may have chosen the worst possible example in falsafa, admittedly, but my point is more about the predominance of untranslated terms in Islamic scholarship than about any single term.

  6. johnkutensky Says:

    I tend to dislike leaving things untranslated in general. There’s nothing more annoying than trying to read an article in English only to come across an untranslated paragraph of Greek or French. At least use footnotes or something.

    For something like this, I would probably use a strict one-to-one translation for especially tricky words, such as jihad=struggle always, and if there is ever the word struggle in the text, then you can go to the original and find “jihad,” and so on for any other especially important terms. Then just have an explanatory glossary in the beginning that describes these particular terms and why the choice was made.

  7. Scu Says:

    I haven’t read enough Islamic works to know, but is this like the phenomena of a lot French philosophy translated in the 90s? You know, the ones I originally learned dispositif, jouissance, agencement, etc from? Or is the situation a lot worse than that?

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m starting to think I’m making up the whole phenomenon.

  9. Joshua Ralston Says:

    It’s a difficult balancing act and one the I also struggle with, especially in writing about shari’a and fiqh. I’m unhappy with either Islamic Law or jurisprudence for a host or reasons, but I also realize that leaving shari’a untranslated reinforces certain assumptions regarded say punishments (had to resist writing hudud!).

    Kalam and Falasfa seemed tied together in many ways (and also distinguished between by Muslim thinkers), so I tend to leave them untranslated when taken together. When I’m just talking about philosophy then I tend to use philosophy.

  10. Joshua Ralston Says:

    am also wondering how much might have to do with the fact that often within the Islamic world, the terms remain untranslated because of the priority of Arabic…I’m thinking of untranslated terms in Persian or Swahili or Malay.

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yes, it’s true that to a certain extent Islam brought this problem on itself with the insistence on the untranslatability of the Qur’an.

  12. Sam Says:

    This does seem to be a pretty pervasive tic among translators of philosophy. I’ve seen e.g. a lot of translations of Hegel that do this (far beyond what the text might arguably require), with what appears to be a similar subtext to what you’re pointing out here: making the original seem more remote/mystical/”other” than a straightforward translation would do. But while this may be widespread, I’d agree that it is especially problematic in the case of Islam, given the ugly past and present of the othering of Islam.

    Anywa, regardless of who’s being translated, it just seems tacky at best. After all, there is no translation without betrayal. In their fetishistic effort to avoid committing any little word-by-word betrayals, it seems to me, these translators end up committing a far greater betrayal: delivering a “translation” that isn’t even in English.

  13. bzfgt Says:

    Isn’t the example par excellance “Allah”? It reads as a proper name, when it just means “God.”

  14. Matt Petersen Says:

    I’m not sure I agree with this. Al Attas leaves many of the terms untranslated because he believes that the Arabic language is the language of the Koran, and hence is the truly scientific language, in which, and through studies of its terms, one can learn the true knowledge of God, and of his world. (I don’t have my copies of his works here, so that’s probably a little rough.) When we leave the terms in Arabic, then we underscore that these terms belong to be in Arabic, the holy language, and only have poor approximations in English. So for instance, in his discussion of din, he leaves it as din, since he is *not* discussing “religion” or any of the other possible translations of the word, but “din”.

    Of course, on the other hand, leaving terms untranslated could, if English is taken as normative, be a means of making them foreign, and, to English readers, ugly. But to translate Arabic terms is to provide a commentary on them, and, in the process, to make them not the terms of the Koran. That commentary may be important, but the original Arabic term is the true term, and that’s the one we should be learning and understanding.

    (Though, I’m definitely a scholar of Islam, and I may be mistaken.)

  15. M Says:

    All use of English has an artificial feel today because of its unchallengeable status as the global lingua franca, but in general only the native speakers of English are not aware of this. If anything makes me queasy it’s when philosophy translators translate EVERYTHING to English. The words that I am typing now, the books in my bookcase, I have no interest in the purity of this shitty hegemonic tongue, it is all convenience and compromise, if in the middle of my studies I come across a word in German or Arabic or my own first language, it’ll make me happy because the world is a big catastrophe and whoever it was that left that word untranslated believed in something very beautiful at that moment.

  16. eric Says:

    Another example is “madrasa”. It means “school” in Arabic, but in the Western media it usually means fundamentalist Muslim school. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madrasa)

  17. resminorica Says:

    I mostly agree with you. But on the other hand, the same situation exists more or less in Turkey as a country having muslim majority population. Turkish translations of Arab philosophy leave the words in Arabic with the reason of keeping nuances in the language. Arabic language is seen as a sacred language as the language of Qoran. People think that translating every word could mean damaging this sacredness.

  18. Joshua Mostafa Says:

    On the problem of translating vs rendering the original words in Arabic, see Emily Apter’s nuanced and thoughtful treatment in ‘Against World Literature: on the Politics of Untranslatability’ (Verso, 2013) – which I reviewed at length, incidentally, though I don’t think I referred to the Arabic material specifically: http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/emily-apter-against-world-literature/

    On the proximity of Christianity and Islam, and the way in which this proximity perversely tends towards western self-configuration as Islam’s opposite, see Denis Guénoun’s ‘About Europe: Philosophical Hypotheses’ (Stanford, 2013), especially chapters 4 and 23.

  19. Salma Says:

    Yes! I absolutely agree. This became really obvious to me when I noticed that people never translated the word Allah into God. It really bothers me. I understand that their are obviously some differences between the Christian or Jewish God and the Muslim God, but it always seemed to me that there weren’t any major differences (like in all cases its a single all knowing God, essentially) so I’d always just translate Allah into God without thinking about, but a lot of people don’t and it seems to me that by not translating it they’re making the idea of the Muslim God, Allah, out to be like this completely foreign concept that is in no way like the idea of “God”. And maybe they don’t translate it because the two concepts aren’t exactly the same but I think that the harm caused by not translating it outweighs any good they’re doing by like, trying to maintain the nuance.

  20. resminorica Says:

    And besides, if we radicalise the reason of ‘nuance’, we end up with not translating anything. Because everything is different than everything else.

  21. Carl Gregg Says:

    Great points. Reminds me of the confusion around leaving Nietzsche’s term “Ressentiment” untranslated. We have a fine word for that in English that removes confusion: resentment.

  22. Matt Bellinger Says:

    eric’s example is the one that grinds my gears the most…

    “They’re building all those madrasas!”
    “You’re upset because they’re building schools?”
    “But they’re religious schools!”
    “Like St. Mary’s down the street?”

  23. Ruth Marshall Says:

    Actually Carl, it’s not as simple as just using resentment in the place of ressentiment. It doesn’t ‘remove confusion’ for a few reasons: firstly, it fails to mark the fact that Nietzsche’s choses to use a French word in his German text. Secondly, the idea of a ‘perfectly fine word’, or a word which faithfully reproduces the semantic content of another foreign word, proceeds as if translation can transfer meaning without remainder, or at least, a remainder that isn’t significant. This is never the case, and even less so when the term in question has taken on a philsophical valence. Ressentiment has such a valence, largely through its use by Nietzsche, Kierkegaarde and Deleuze, and resentment doesn’t.

  24. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I agree with Ruth that we should respect Nietzsche’s use of a French word.

    As I ponder the translation issue in an Islamic context, I feel like we should make a distinction between actual scholarship written for other experts and introductory or journalistic works for a more general audience. For the latter, it seems the risk of exoticization is much more significant, as shown in the journalistic use of “jihad,” for instance. By no means was I ever advocating a blanket ban on using the original Arabic terms.

  25. selimk Says:

    If you ever listen someone speaking in a scholarly manner in Turkish or Urdu (two languages I know personally) you might be shocked to see that 1/3 of the vocabulary is not translated. This is not due to the imbecility of these languages, but I think and sources are explicit about this, but not to collapse esprit with روح ‘ruh’. Chakrabarty in provincializing europe does a great job by thinking these discords of translation in terms of formal subsumption. Yet, I agree that orientalism or its refurbished son islamic studies fails more than often to conceptually account for the differences -in the style of françois jullien, for example. As ruth marshall points out keeping ressentiment is important, or again recall gillian rose’s hegel contra sociology on the concept of validity and its translation problems. At the end, let me assure you learning 50 arabic terms won’t hurt anyone, people in the rest of the world do not complain about having to learn english. Ottoman ulama indeed was enthusiastic for it gave them a fighting chance, to speak back to the west, using the gap left by translation to undermine the hegemonic claims of concepts.

  26. biqbal Says:

    a lot is made of the untranslatability of the Qur’an, by Muslims and others both. Read semitically, it’s the paradigmatic case of Muslims being bound to the letter of revelation (instead of being open to its spirit, which as in the Christian case is open to translation). And yet the Qur’an is translated, constantly, into every language. The untranslatability story holds true only if you work from a correspondence theory of language/translation, surely. But then, every translation fails, even when it succeeds. So what is specific about the Qur’an? I’d be curious to trace this untranslatability story, see how far back it goes and the kinds of translation it implies.


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