Sunday, April 04, 2010

Revisiting Sacred Texts

The British Guardian asks if the spirit of the original religious text can be adequately conveyed in a different language.

Alexander Goldberg compares this seeking for the original to translate to interpreting art. And since "G-d is good at Hebrew", the knowledge of the original Torah is of paramount importance to Jews - except that Biblical Hebrew is sort of dead, and Aramaic is best spoken by the Iraqi Christians - not the best candidates for translating the Torah into English! The question then becomes who has the sufficient knowledge or who has the power to interpret.

Dr Usama Hasan, a senior lecturer at Middlesex University, tells a story of misrepresentation that made me smile: "When I first participated in electronic discussions about religion as an undergraduate about 20 years ago, I began all my posts with, "In the name of God." This was the standard translation of bismillah, a phrase that prefixes all 114 chapters of the Qur'an bar one, and by which Muslims start all kinds of daily activities (...) One of the other students responded with, "In the name of myself, since I can't speak for God … " Whilst other colleagues asked him to apologise, fearing that another humourless Muslim would be offended and disengage, I was creased with laughter. But I took his point, and ever since that exchange I have tended to use the prayer-like "With the name of God" for my own correspondence, reserving "In the name of God" for translations of the Qur'an. This illustrates the difficulty of dealing with nuanced religious texts."

Language is a vehicle of meanings, and one of the arguments cited to support the disputed existence of mentalese, in which we allegedly think, is precisely the possibility of translation between languages. For Dr. Hasan, "the best translation of the Qur'an is in the language of action."

Heather McDougall, a music teacher with interest in comparative religions, maintains that in the beginning was Logos, and then it got translated into "word", "reason" or "intellect". Logos is a difficult concept to translate, a bit like the Na'avi "I see you". She then talks about mistranslations of the Revelation of St. John by certain door-knocking groups. But any translation is an interpretation, and any interpretation is by default subjective. Some see the Lamb. Some see the FBI. Some see Bin Laden.

I tend to see Bedlam. That, too, is subjective.

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