How Do You Translate ‘Islam’?

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.


  1. It is unfortunate there exists an English meaning to Arabic words. I think terminologies or words in foreign language should be translated, interpreted, perceived in the meaning of no other cultures but the culture of origination of the words.

    1. JoV,

      I think that would be rather limiting. Imagine a language that had never borrowed words from another. I have a feeling we’d still be saying “ugh, erg,” and pointing a lot.

      What if we’d never taken the Arabic for al-jabr, for instance—algebra? English is richer for many of these borrowings, in ideas and mental structures. But poorer, I suppose, when the intention is to make the word (like kaffir) into a slur.

      1. do americans use “bint” or is it purely british?

  2. English have this old sickness of misrepresenting words,first they did it with their own religion by inventing terms like jesus moses judaism christianity which were a greek pick up and no were close to original hebrew n aramaic words and now they are trying to do the same with islam.

  3. i don’t think insha’allah and jihad have entered english (or any other language), except in a very limited sense (say, 1 meaning out of five), so for a while longer, we’ll still have to translate them.

    on a more general note: when a language (people, obviously, but let’s keep it as abstract as possible) needs a word, it will either make it up, or borrow it. if it works, it will become its own. simple as that.

    1. Bibi, I don’t think I’m explaining myself well.

      It’s exactly that “limited sense” that I’m talking about. I think if you went up to most people in America and asked them for a definition of “jihad,” they could give you one. Therefore, it’s an English word, regardless of whether it reflects the nuances and meanings of the Arabic.

      I’m sure there are fewer people who’d know what “insha’allah” meant, so you could argue out that one, but “jihad” has certainly become an English word with its own, separate English-language associations.

      CERTAINLY we still need to translate it (more than ever!), because the two words are not the same; so I’m saying by just leaving “jihad” in the text (rather than saying “struggle” or something like that), a translator evokes the English word and English-language associations, not the Arabic. So it is not, then, an act of translation…

      1. sorry, my bad.
        i think i left an example about the use of “jihad” under one of your entries on insha’allah — that’s what i meant here. when a word enters other languages, it is rarely with multiple meanings: usually it’s there to fill a very specific void; the other meanings it may have in the language of origin will still need tto be translated.

    2. Why your bad? Assuredly mine. If I really wanted to be clear, I suppose I’d have to spend hours on these blessed posts.

      1. nah, re-reading your post, you did it perfectly well. my sloppy reading this morning.

  4. You called it right MLQ. At least IMHO. Context is always the determining factor in choosing which way to go with a word that already has connotations in the target language. Your example of the word madrassa is a good case in point.

    1. The borrowed word “madrassa” drove me blessed crazy the first time I was back in the States.

      At least the crazies haven’t gotten their hands on the word hidana!

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