OMG! More on Translating Insha’allah

Marie Dhumières had a piece last month in the Guardian—which I just caught making the rounds on Facebook—in which she complains of the literal translation of insha’allah and other religious formulas, which, she says, make fundies of us all. (Well, all of us Arabic speakers, at any rate.)

I wrote about that issue last June after an interview with literature professor and critic Dr. Samia Mehrez. I happen to be a frequent user of insha’allah in conversation and, in texting, ISA. Not to mention masha’allah, which I find absolutely indispensable, as well as el hamdullallah.

I am—in English—also an enthusiastic, ironic OMG user, and also say Jesus when frustrated, and use God bless: sometimes ironically, sometimes in perfect, although non-religious, sincerity.

I never did get a satisfactory answer to “How do you translate insha’allah?” It depends on the context, the author, the character, and ultimately the answer is probably never satisfactory. Should you just leave it in Arabic, as insha’allah? Does it become God willing, or I hope?

I recently saw a (sneak) preview of a film, Maydoum, co-written by Ahdaf Soueif and Omar Robert Hamilton. Characters switch back and forth between Arabic and English, and I noted at some point that insha’allah, and perhaps other religious stock phrases, were generally not rendered in the captioning. Characters said them, you could hear it for yourself, but it didn’t appear in the English version.

This seemed like quite a sensible solution, although I’m not sure it works quite as happily with text. (If only the characters could be heard speaking in the background. Yes, that would do it….)


  1. Surely second “a” should be capitalised?


    1. Well, yes, God in English is a “proper noun,” e.g. capitalized.

      For this reason, AP stylebook rules (for instance) insist on a capitalization of “Allah” as it stands alone. That is: You’re in English transliteration and thus is subject to English-language rules.

      I don’t see a style guide ruling on “insha’allah” (or hamdulallah, or masha’allah). And I find no general agreement in news articles, although insha’allah seems more common (although perhaps it should be in sha’ allah, shouldn’t it?) I’m sure there’s a proper ruling somewhere.

      Transliteration is a beast: Are you El-Aswany or Elaswany or Al Aswany? How does عبدالله become Abdullah? Etc.

  2. I like to use insha’Allah as I write an article or text because, well, I use it in my everyday speech (I believe in its power, and just its flow on my tongue is enough to ensure me that what I hope will happen will happen). And, aside from that, that word, along with masha’Allah, or even Al Salam Alaykom have become a part of the Arabic (and especially Egyptian) culture itself; both Muslims and non-Muslims use it in their everyday lives – the only difference is how much you believe in it.

    I think you can never *really* translate it. Some Arabic words just lose their charm and their *whole* meaning when translated into English, but you’re right: depending on the context and the author it might be God willing or I hope (but, really, are they as powerful?)

    But I wonder why didn’t they attempt to translate it – I do hear a frequent ‘mamma mia’ when someone from an Italian background, for example, is speaking in an English-speaking movie (but again I haven’t heard of *Maydoum* so maybe it’s a different case…)

    1. I don’t have the time to re-watch /Maydoum/ for the reference, but I believe—for instance—a British-ified, Anglo-Egyptian character was talking to a fellah, and said “insha’allah” or “el hamdulallah” without content. The phrase (or phrases) were repeated several times. Does it make sense to the audience to translate that “God willing” / “thanks to God” from a clearly secular character? Does it change/misconstrue his character, for an English-language audience? Do you only translate it from the other character?

      When I write in English, I also feel at liberty to use as many insha’allahs and masha’allahs as I like. At least for the ArabLit-type audience, I feel pretty comfortable doing so.

      But there is a satire somewhere—I can’t find it at the moment—of “how to write about Egypt,” modeled after the essay “How to Write About Africa.” It includes the pyramids, the noise, and, of course, the requisite man on the street who proclaims “insha’allah.”

      I believe that particular phrase…while it makes a different kind of sense to you and me…has come to mean something perverse, lazy, hyper-religious, fundamentalist in the eyes of a Western-reading public. Perhaps what we need is to change perceptions of the phrase, rather than changing the phrase. Or change perceptions of the culture, which will change perceptions of the language….

      1. I completely agree, but I just thought it would add some character – some background, you know?

        And, yes, I think the same as well (regarding what it means to the Western-reading public). Mmm… I wonder what the world would be like without all the cultural bridges – but they define us all, don’t they? 🙂

  3. There are words that simply don’t need translation. Ma’alesh is one of them and inshallah is another. I use them all the time in English as they mean so much more than anything I could translate them into. That’s the problem. Inshallah can mean “god willing”, “I hope”, “I won’t hold my breath” or “when pigs fly”….or any two at the same time.

  4. I think in a case like this, leaving the words untranslated (and transliterating them in whatever manner you settle on) is probably best. The fact that it is not translated, even though a literal translation is available, should disincline the reader from perceiving a literal meaning to the original Arabic utterance, even if they know what it means. If the use of the phrase stems from a character being an Arabic-speaker, rather than a Muslim, then leave it in Arabic. It’s more characterful, and hopefully more representative too.

  5. hihi. this old thing again. i’d say leave out or replace. but then, i don’t say ‘enjoy your meal’ for ‘bon appétit’, either. maybe that’s why i don’t get invited back, hmmm.

  6. Interesting. It depends on to whom I’m talking/writing, etc. I’m Muslim and when I’m talking/writing with other Muslims or non-Muslim Arabs, it subconsciously enters my speech and writing probably because they’ll know what I’m saying. It’s either “inshaAllah”, or if it’s a close friend, someone my age, or younger, and I’m trying to be quick about it, it becomes “iA”.

    On the other hand, if I’m talking/writing with someone who is not Muslim and not Arab – meaning that if I used it, I’d have to stop and explain the meaning – it gets dropped. Sometimes I’ll replace it with “I hope” and quietly say “inshaAllah” to myself, sometimes not.

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