For someone as obsessed as I am with how to render “insha’allah,” “masha’allah” and other religious sayings in English (I once wrote a whole, indignant piece about the word madrassa), it does seem a bit strange that I missed Joseph Massad‘s talk at the AUC.
After all, I didn’t miss any of the other talks in the “In Translation” series (well, after Humphrey first told me about the series last January): Humphrey Davies, Jonathan Wright and Khaled al-Khamissi, Ahdaf Souief.
Massad is professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at New York’s Columbia University, and is author of several books, including Desiring Arabs. In her piece about Massad’s talk for Al Masry Al Youm, Kate Goodin writes:
Massad began by discussing the broader context for translation between Arabic and English, arguing that while translation is often perceived as opening doors between languages, it can also sharpen the definitions of words and promote an ideology. He saw this following 9/11, for example, when the American government rushed to fund translation of works it thought would bring about cultural change in the Middle East.
I wasn’t there, but I assume that he was referring to untranslated words like insha’allah, masha’allah, jihad, madrassa and so on. And indeed, this subtle definition by “un-translation” that seems to create new (and sometimes nefarious) meanings. Insha’allah becomes something that connotes laziness. Jihad connotes some absurd “clash of the civilizations.”
Commentators of the American far right seem to have the biggest vocabulary of such terms, including words like dhimmi that I’ve had to look up. (Oddly, no one uses that word in my daily life.)
These words take on different meanings in English than what they had in the Arabic. This is the case with most words that move from one language to another. According to the fascinating website Word Origins, for instance, “cushy” came from the Hindi khush, meaning pleasant. Now that it’s an established English word, it’s got all sorts of its own meanings. (Amin Maalouf used to blog about these things, but apparently he’s quite ill.)
Of course, the word “cushy” isn’t going to start any wars, and I doubt anyone associates it with Hindi. (India, the land of cushy jobs? Cushy chairs? Nah.)
For an uglier example, you can read up on the etymology of kaffir.
Anyhow, according to Goodin, Massad talked about these supposedly “untranslateable” words—such as jihad and Allah—and argued that they were widely used by both Muslim and Christian Arabs. True indeed. However, what interests me more is how we would take apart these words, or give them a better “translation.” I think, in many cases, rendering them in “plain English” better serves the listener. Why say “Allah” when it means “God”? Why say madrassa when you can be more specific? Is it a government school? A Quranic school? What?
As for the word “Islam” itself, well. Thank goodness we no longer say Mohammedism.
Massad apparently said (Goodin reported) that the question becomes about how we think about translation. “Is it about about respect for difference, or about emphasizing difference?”
This, I suppose, returns us to the question as literary translators pose it, of “foreignizing” vs. “domesticizing” a text. I suppose neither method really “respects” difference in itself. And while “foreignizing” might seem to emphasize difference for its own sake, it can also allow the culture/text to speak for itself, rather than being turned into something it’s not.
And as for the idea of the “untranslateable,” surely we wade into a larger discussion of how to map one language (culture) to another, and to what extent this is possible. Perhaps you can’t translate “insha’allah.” But perhaps you also do the reader a great disservice by putting what is now really an English word (taken from the Arabic, with its own meanings) down on the page.
As with many questions of translation, I seem to return from theory a little empty-handed, and with the admonition that these tasks must be taken up case by case, trying to render the literary text as it echoes and speaks from the original, and not as it best fits the reader’s expectations.
So, Which Insha’allah?
Maybe what I really want to argue is that words like insha’allah and jihad have now entered English. So they have an Arabic meaning and associations in Arabic, but they also have English-language meanings as well.
Thus, when we “translate” insha’allah, we must be conscious of both of these words: The “insha’allah” in English and the إن شاء الله in Arabic. If we mean the English insha’allah, then by all means use it. I think it works very nicely in the mouth of teacher Madame Michelle in Radwa Ashour’s Specters: “Inshallah! Inshallah! This is how you conduct your lives, and you always will! Carelessness, oafishness, and disorganization.”
But if you don’t mean the English insha’allah or the English jihad, then there must be another way of bridging from the Arabic term that sounds so very much the same.