Although technically translation refers exclusively to language, language is a core component of culture. The language people speak has a direct impact on how they think (Shouby, 1951). Translators who interpret texts from one language into another, therefore, simultaneously translate one culture into another. This act of interpretation, understandably, can be fraught with problems.
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A misinformed translation does not simply waylay the meaning of words; it misinterprets crucial cultural information, which in turn can lead to sustained alienation, misunderstanding, mistrust, and mutual hostility between cultures. This is especially true in the case of the Middle East. A responsible translator appreciates the fact that to communicate the essence of the Middle East, language is not enough. Cultural interferences persist because cultural differences implicit in the Middle East do not, as a rule, find their way into translated texts.
In his article The Influence of the Arabic language on the Psychology of the Arabs, Shouby (1951) was one of the first psychologists to highlight “the influence that language itself exerts on the psychology and culture of the people who use it” (Shouby, 1951). Essentially, Shouby showed the effect of the Arabic language on its native speakers, not simply in the sense of what they say, but its effect upon the deeper cognitive level, namely, how language affects thought.
In Shouby’s words, “any close scrutiny of the relations between language and psychology will show that there is an intimate interdependence between the two” (Shouby, 1951). One of the main failings of translators, where the Middle East is concerned, is the lack of translation of Middle Eastern cultural concepts which remain alien to those from an English-speaking or European background.
Amirahmadi (1993) spoke to this vacuum of understanding in his book The United States and the Middle East: A Search for New Perspectives. An informed translation of a Middle Eastern text into English, and vice versa, must develop a means to communicate the political environment of the Middle East, specifically, the “mixture of religion and politics” that the Middle East lives by (Amirahmadi, 1993).
Translations rarely purvey the spiritual configuration that most members of the Middle Eastern community order their lives by, and translations seem unable, in Amirahmadi’s words, to communicate the “pervasiveness of religion, Islam and others, in daily life” (Amirahmadi, 1993). Similarly, translation fails to convey how Middle Eastern cultures view martyrdom, namely, as a perfectly viable activity in keeping with spiritual and political values (Amirahmadi, 1993).
Amirahmadi highlights the “anti-imperialism and nationalism” of many Middle Eastern peoples, which remains alien to most English speaking peoples, and often remains unaddressed in translation (Amirahmadi, 1993). Other cultural issues that remain unsolved by translation include the “Arab-Israeli problem…[and] the goals of the Palestinians” (Amirahmadi, 1993).
Most importantly, translation also falls short of communicating the “Middle Eastern resentment at being unable to rule without external interference” (Amirahmadi, 1993). Cultural interference lives on, in Amirahmadi’s view, largely because translators have not found a way to express some of the core cultural assumptions implicit in the Middle East, and have been unsuccessful at using language to convey how Middle Eastern peoples think, and in turn, how they live (Amirahmadi, 1993).
Author Edward Said encountered these cultural roadblocks when it came time to translate his books into Arabic. Cultural interference on the part of translators, in Said’s opinion, meant that some of his work could not reach its intended audience in the Middle East. In Said’s words, “although my book on Palestine was given a fine Hebrew translation in the early 1980s…it remains untranslated into Arabic even to this day.
Every Arabic translator who was interested in the book wanted me to change or delete those sections that were openly critical of one or another Arab regime, including the PLO, a request that I have always refused to comply with” (Said, 1978). Similarly, cultural interference from Arabic translators rendered Said’s book Orientalism wholly misinterpreted by the very audience it was created to reach. The translator chose to avoid Westernized expressions, according to Said, which in turn limited its critical effectiveness. In Said’s words:
[T]echnical words like discourse, simulacrum, paradigm, or code were rendered from within the classical rhetoric of the Arab tradition. [The]…idea was to place my work inside one fully formed tradition, as if it were addressing another from a perspective of cultural adequacy and equality.
In this way, [the translator]…reasoned, it was possible to show that just as one could advance an epistemological critique from within the Western tradition, so too could one do it from within the Arabic. Yet the sense of fraught confrontation between an often emotionally defined Arab world and an even more emotionally experienced Western world drowned out the fact that Orientalism was meant to be a study in critique, not an affirmation of warring and hopelessly antithetical identities. (Said, 1978)
The power of translators to edit, subvert, or simply omit language and concepts from English speaking texts leads to cultural interference from the other side, as their actions deny Middle Eastern audiences access to critical, political work such as Said’s, which further divides and isolates the Middle Eastern intellectual community. As Said notes, “decades of loss, frustration, and the absence of democracy have affected intellectual and cultural life in the Arab region” (Said, 1978).
Cultural interference from the translators themselves perpetuates the “us and them” mentality that dominates much of the Middle Eastern community. In Said’s case, “books like mine are interpreted less usefully, productively speaking, and more as defensive gestures either for or against the “West” (Said, 1978).
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Uninformed translation also contributes to cultural interferences in the news media. Zieminski (2006) highlights this phenomenon in his article Quran or Koran? Newsrooms Grapple with Style Standards for Arabic Words. An ethical translation understands that some forms of the English language possess an implicit negative connotation that may not serve the Middle Eastern community’s portrayal in the news media.
Zieminski (2006) points to the example of Kay Siblani, whose bilingual newspaper the Arab American News provides news for Michigan’s Arab American community. Siblani “dislikes when people refer to the Islamic holy book with an emphasis on the first syllable, as in “Koe-ran.” “It’s like saying ‘A-rab’ or ‘Sa-dam,’” she says. “It’s sort of like an intentional denigration” (Zieminski, 2006).
Similarly, freelance writer Ray Hanania, a Palestinian American, notes that “if I spell ‘Mohammed’ [as opposed to ‘Muhammad’] in my story as a non-Arab columnist…readers who happen to be Arabs or Muslims or both are going to take a meaning out of it that the writer didn’t intend” (Zieminski, 2006). The subtleties of language, which rest in the hands of the translator, can work against meaning, and can interfere with, or destroy entirely, cultural appreciation and understanding.
Amirahmadi, H. (1993). The United States and the Middle East: A Search for New Perspectives. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Random House.
Shouby, E. (1951). The influence of the Arabic language on the psychology of the Arabs. Middle East Journal 5 (3), 284-302.
Zieminski, A. (2006). Quran or Koran? Newsrooms grapple with style standards for Arabic words. American Journalism Review 28 (6), 16.