How Do You Translate Insha’allah? Foreignizing vs. Exoticizing the Text

The other day, I was rather ham-handedly interviewing Dr. Samia Mehrez when she started to talk about an interesting dilemma: How do you translate إنشالله?

I would say, by informal survey, that most literary translators (and reporters, who seem to delight in the phrase), present it in transliterated Arabic: insha’allah.

After all, English-language readers “know” what it means (or think they do), and it gives a flavor (not too spicy!) that they’re expecting. Those Arabs, they just love their God.

But—Mehrez notes—beyond the debate of whether and when to “domesticize” or “foreignize” a text, there is also the translator who exoticizes it. “And,” Mehrez said, “I think exoticizing has that need to maintain certain Arabic words in Arabic. When they need not necessarily be in Arabic.”

I had noted earlier that Ahdaf Soueif says she is “very careful” about using Arabic terms in her English-language texts.

Mehrez added:

And the religious formulas are a case in point. How important is it for a Western reader to have a formula like insha’allah stand in the text as insha’allah, when it doesn’t mean God willing—it really doesn’t mean that when people say that. They mean a million other things.

The same could be said for “el hamdul’allah” and other oft-heard phrases that invoke a diety. Further, Mehrez says:

Obviously that’s constantly misread…that these are a religious people, that they cannot speak one single sentence without a religious evocation.

And indeed: I am not a religious person, but I use these phrases constantly. Once, I was out having coffee with a friend who uses these phrases exceedingly rarely. I told her that I would be home by four o’clock, insha’allah. She turned to me—because she is also this sort of friend—and said, “What do you mean by that?”

For a moment, I was speechless. Finally I said, Well, traffic on Gezirit Suez looked bad going the other direction, and maybe I’ll be stuck, and…and….

So on the one hand, I had meant something akin to the English “I hope”: Traffic looked bad, I hope I’ll get home by 4. But on the other hand, it was also an acknowledgment that getting home by four o’clock was not something entirely under my control. I wanted to be home by four; I’d promised to be home by four; but would I be?

So what is a translator supposed to do?

a) Leave it in the text as insha’allah, potentially exoticizing the work, re-creating the (expected) hyper-religious Arab?

b) Translate it as “God willing” or “I hope” or “we’ll see,” depending on the context?

c) Erase it from the text entirely?

None of these seem a particularly satisfactory answer. I would love it if someone else had a d), e), f), or g)….