The limitations of translations

Commenting on my satirical post "Understanding Muslim Language", someone on an Internet discussion group shared an entertaining anecdote from Australia that illustrates one of the pitfalls of cross cultural translations in general and the literal translation of Muslim religious rhetoric into Western languages:

In Iran when you are frustrated with someone that you are talking to you say la ilaha illallah. Here in Australia they show Iranian movies rather frequently on a foreign language channel called SBS. In these movies they always translate this literally and I do love it when I am watching a movie with an Australian and he/she turns to me puzzled wondering why that man just spontaneously said ‘there is no god but God’ in the middle of a heated argument :^O

Of course, cross-cultural miscommunication and gaffes are endlessly entertaining, but I think ones concerning Islam such as this highlight an important concern, namely how difficult it is for relatively secularized Westerners to understand the significance of religious utterances by Muslims. 

When you lack a background in a traditional religion and an experience of religion as being consciously at the center of one’s worldview, there’s a great risk of mistaking every innocent invocation of God and every natural manifestation of religious faith in a person’s life as religious extremism. 

Religious Westerners who shudder at recordings of crowds in Muslim majority socieites chanting "God is Great!" should consider the from a traditional religious perspective very sad implications of the fact that Western street protestors are far more likely to invoke on "Freedom" or "Democracy" than God when making a moral argument today. I’m not sure that is an improvement.

Perhaps they need to read Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square.

And then there are all the nuances that are difficult to ever grasp as an outsider to a religious tradition…

I was once speaking to a respected non-Muslim scholar of Islam.  He, a very sympathetic observer with decades of experience among Muslims who had studied Arabic in the Middle East, made a error that was on the one hand entirely understandable but also inconceivable to most Muslims, even uneducated ones: 
I gave him news of a mutual friend who was dieing of a painful condition and he exclaimed, "Oh, Masha’Allah, Masha’Allah! 

Now, from a strictly lexical perspective this might seem appropriate, as the term after all means, "God has willed it" and Islam is of course the religion of "submission" to God’s will, but as anyone from a Muslim culture knows the phrase is in practice only reserved for good news or praise.  What he clearly meant to say was Subhan Allah ("glory be to God"), which is what Muslims traditionally say upon hearing sad news.  If one only judges by the literal meaning, "Masha’Allah" seems the more appropriate choice for such situations, yet cultural and religious practices in effect supercede its literal meaning.

One could also get into the differences between Al-Hamdulillah ("all praise is due to God") and Subhan Allah ("glory be to God").  On the face of it, they would appear to mean the same thing, yet they are also used quite differently situations and have different implications.

These examples are simple and perhaps even trivial, but if even they are not intuitive to a reasonably well informed observer, how much more confusion is likely  to attend discussions of more challenging, variegated or even sharply contested ideas or practices? 

Anyone have similiar experiences?

This is one of the reasons why in matters of religion I instinctively distrust accounts by outsiders.  Whether it’s a Christian talking about Judaism–a long standing problem in Western intellectual life–or a Muslim holding forth on Hinduism.  Of course, there are times when an outsider’s perspective casts new light, but I think more often than not that eye distorts and obscures more than it reveals. 

Being an outsider does not ensure rigor, either.  On thorny questions of theology, the reverse is sometimes true.  Not only does successful interpretation require a large store of knowledge and experience that are difficult to acquire artificially from the outside, but adherents of a religious tradition are far more likely to make the intellectual effort required to make sense of confusing sets of facts due to their emotional investment in that tradition.   For example, as a Muslim I have little need and thus motivation to look beneath the surface of Biblical accounts of Christ’s birth which appear at least from a surface reading to contradict one another.  Rather than reflecting and researching these possible contradictions in an depth as a Christian might, I am more likely to take the path of least resistance (which in academic discussions of religion is often to "problematize") .  I don’t need to get to the bottom of it, so I probably won’t.

In short, when traveling one needs a native guide, not an aloof, "objective" observer from the outside who even if proficient in the language is liable to fundamentally misunderstand local ways.

Of course, there are honorable exceptions to this rule and there is no question that outsiders sometimes bring new insights–e.g., amazing scholarship in Islamic Studies was done by those despised 19th century orientalists that Muslim and non-Muslim alike continue to benefit from today–but by and large I think it’s a wise motto to live by for people who are serious about seeking truth. 

I’m reminded of a line from a Woody Allen movie.  After telling somebody that he–a white and quite self-consciously Jewish man–was doing a PhD in African-American Studies, he quips, "Another few years and I’ll be Black!"   For me that alludes to a fallacy many of us in academia unconsciously accept, that with enough study we transcend our backgrounds and become objective and no longer in need of native guides when we study other cultures. 

It’s both noble and very important for people to interest themselves in other cultures, religions and ways of life, but the painful truth is that scholars who venture outside their own backgrounds must never
forget that like a person speaking a langauge other than their mother
tongue they are congenitally more at risk of errors both great and
small and therefore in need of regular validation of their assumptions
with the objects of their theorizing.  Woody Allen will never become Black, whatever "Black" really is.

  • Abu Sinan

    Good subject. I think Westerners do not understand how much religion and God plays a role in the life of Muslims. I think even so called evangelical Christians dont get it because Christianity pretty much lacks the rigour, for lack of a better of, that Islam does.
    As to religious phrases in the lives Muslims, we must keep in mind that their use does not always denote a purely religious meaning, rather it is often cultural.
    I have met many rather secular people from Muslim countries who use such words, even in one case an Iranian Shi’ite girl who later married a Christian who always used terms like “Insha’Allah” even though she drank, ate pork, didnt fast, dated, you name it.
    Not to mention the worst dictators out there in the Middle East who invoke God’s name all of the time yet broke His rules almost every minute of the day.
    I guess since I am surrounded by the Arabic culture I have learned that these words often have nothing to do with religion, so when someone says “Insha’Allah” it often means “no, but since I am placing it in God’s hands I dont have responsibility when I dont do it” or those who will lie when they say “Wallah”.
    Kalam Fadi.

  • Charles

    For the most part, I agree, but I think the best understanding of a religion (not of particular words) comes from the combination of insider and outsider views. As Abu Sinan mentioned, much can be cultural. I remember once while in a “Islamic” country, a Muslim remarked that my “cowboy” hat wasn’t Islamic. In response, I asked him if his blue jeans were Islamic. Because the practice of Islam is permeated with cultural distortions, one who was once an outsider can sometimes see what the insider from birth cannot.

  • OmarG

    Salaam Svend, I was wondering, as a 2nd year MA in Near Eastern/Islamic Studies, what is your mission in doing this? For a while I had the “save the ummah through academia” complex from which I think I am recovering thanks to a convert anthropologist. But, what motivates you? I ask because I’m just not sure of why I, as a Muslim, would study Islamic Studies in a university any more. You alluded in this post to the dilemma of non-Muslims studying Islam which I think is valid, but I also wonder if people like us are *too* close to be useful to academia on one hand, and compromised by the West in the eyes of fellow Muslims.
    Anyway, I’ve heard from another convert professor of an email list for Muslim grad students in Islamic studies; are you subscribed?

  • Hajar

    Woody Allen is hilarious!
    I also agree with your discussion on the language barriers. When I was only fifteen years old I asked my grandmother, “If the bible we have is not the original language that it was when it was first revealed, then how do we know it’s right?” Even at fifteen I was smart enough to know that it was entirely probable that it was no longer the same as God had intended it to be. My grandmother’s response was, “We just have to hope that God gives us enough information through it that we can still make it to heaven.” I reluctantly accepted that at the time…but it always lurked in the back of my mind.

  • Svend

    Thanks very much for the intriguing question, Omar.
    What motivates me? My goals aren’t very lofty.
    1) After close to a decade devoting most of my energy to matters that just don’t matter much to me, I’ve decided I want a day job that overlaps with my hobbies and intellectual interests than Information Technology consulting.
    2) I want to gain a better understanding of what I believe or ought to believe, and consider academic studies the best way to get serious about that given my circumstances and abilities.
    So in a way my motivations are pretty selfish. I certainly would like to contribute to needed improvements in the world (advocating justice, encouraging religious reform, …), but I have no delusions of grandeur.
    As for “our” place in academia, I think there are pros and cons to every background and that academia needs (and eventually will come to value) all kinds of perspectives on religion.
    Or so I hope.
    Also, Muslims come in many shapes and sizes. Who’s to say that you or I are less rooted in the Zeitgeist of contemporary Islamic civilization than somebody born in a “Muslim” country?
    That’s an intersting question, Hajar. On epistemological matters in religion (i.e., what we know with certainty, as opposed to believe with varying degrees of justification), I’m actually a smidgin radical.
    Suffice it to say that I think much of what Muslims and other religionists claim to *know* they actually *believe* but are afraid to acknowledge the limits of their knowledge.

  • planck’s constant

    First, a disclaimer: I am an Islamophobe. I happen to think that Islam threatens Western Civilization and that American Muslim, like you, will not be able to change the course of what is going to happen, despite all your desires to be a moderate, or non-extremist.
    OK, that out of the way; your discussion of cultural differences and the inability of others not born into that culture to understand it properly is why I believe blacks make a big mistake converting to Islam.
    It would be like Uhura trying to become a Klingon (ignoring for a moment physiological problem). Sure they can parrot the rituals and some slogans but in the end, they are embracing a culture that despises them.
    Muslim to this day still enslave blacks in Africa. I still have not figured out the pathology involved, although I suppose growing up with friends who deprecate intelligence has something to do with it.
    Imagine for a moment ‘Jews for Mohammed’, which of course exists as much as there are still idiots who believe in a flat Earth.
    Living as a Muslim in America must require you to close your eyes every once in a while. I notice you did not comment on the recent apology of an Arab-American in the NY Post, see my article As a Muslim I Apologize, link:
    I agree that an outsider sometimes is able to see what an insider cannot.
    By the way, speaking about the correct use of words, I am not a racist, since I have no problem with Arabs, as long as they are not Muslim. The correct word here would be bigot or even more precise: an Islamophobe, since I have no problem with Muslim apostates.

  • Svend

    A typical of litany of misconceptions, half-truths and slurs.
    And btw you most certainly are racist. The bigot doth protest too much.
    You demonize and essentialize the overwhelming majority of members of several other races. Ergo you are racist.
    Also, in modern usage “racist” encompasses the whole spectrum of hatred resulting from nothing other than one’s background. It is no longer used in this narrow sense.
    You can’t have it both ways. At least have the integrity to admit what really motivates you.

  • Svend

    I didn’t comment on this “apology” because it was of no significance whatsoever, and because it actually reinforces the attitudes and doublestandards which inevitablty eventually result in tragedies like 9/11.
    That’s like asking a Black person why he hasn’t commented on Clarence Thomas’ latest observations on Affirmative
    Finally, a negro you can like!