If there is one word that most alienates English-language readers of Arabic literature it’s neither masha’allah nor insha’allah — which are perhaps mostly objects of curiosity — nor jihad nor madrassa (except for specialist Islamophobes) but شهيد, commonly translated as martyr.
This is not because we Anglos lack the idea of dying as witnesses and would only die for our Big Macs or laptops or Prada whatchamacallits. Americans have a great reverence for fallen soldiers, for instance, even such soldiers as were fighting in unjust, corrupt wars. But there isn’t really a word that coalesces around this respectful reverence. It could be felt for any of those who witnessed and died at the World Trade Center in 2001. But an English-language speaker would not call these men and women “martyrs.”
Originally, the words شهيد and martyr (from the Greek) had much in common: The word martyr originally meant a witness (شاهد), but then it morphed — into someone who witnessed with risk, someone who died, a religious person — as it was used and made use of by the early Christians.
The English-language term changed again (according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the year was 1931) to become an “exaggerated desire for self-sacrifice.” When the word martyr now appears in (non-Arab) English-language discourse, it usually carries this connotation. OMG, don’t be such a martyr. One surely could write a whole book about the sociocultural shift in the meaning of “martyr.” I won’t.
Or, in the specialty Islamophobe dictionary, the term means (roughly) look what those freaky Arabs mean when they say martyr. It turns around and points back at itself, but is no less scary for that.
Still, I guess, the words martyr and شهيد remain similar enough that most translators will substitute one for the other. I suppose it happens in both directions, although I’m not sure what sense would come out of, Wallahi, don’t be such a شهيد.
And then, recently, I found someone working against this translation of شهيد as martyr. It wasn’t in a translation of Arabic literature to English, but in a book written originally in English, Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. Soueif doesn’t entirely eschew the words martyr and martyrdom. She uses them as synonyms for shaheed/shuhada several times, as if getting the reader ready for the switch. Then, as the book goes on, she substitutes shuhada. It is as though she is trying to gently move us to a new linguistic and cultural understanding. Off you go: shuhada.
Soueif does not explain herself here, but she does say in an endnote: “Shaheed, plural: shuhada. Martyr. The root sh/h/d is ‘to see’ and ‘to bear witness’. A ‘witness’, for example in a court case, is a ‘shahed’. Being a ‘shahed’ is only part – a temporary part – of a person’s identity or function. A ‘shaheed’ is someone who bears ultimate witness; someone whose sole function now is to bear witness”.
Of course, one could argue that many English/Arabic terms are “false friends.” They seem alike in the dictionary, but have developed very different nests of associations in actual practice. One could further argue that we can’t react by transliterating every blessed one of them.
But shuhada, I argue, is a special case. When an Anglo reads martyr, it isn’t just that she gets the wrong associations. It isn’t just that she doesn’t understand the word’s much broader application in Arabic. It’s that a dense roadblock is thrown up between her and the whole text. Either the word causes her to giggle or flinch in terror, or both.
I suppose it could feel honest to translate شهيد as martyr. After all, one doesn’t want to “clean” these sort of uncomfortable moments out of the text. But, I think, while the effect on the text will (probably) be messy, it will (probably) also be wrong.