Friday, December 07, 2018

Philosophy and Arabic -- Translation and The Cultural-Linguistic Gulf

I have blogged here before about seeing my comparative advantage as a translator of sorts. This stems from considering myself fully bilingual (Arabic and English), bicultural (Arab-Muslim and American-Westerner), biliterate (social sciences and humanities), and so on. I have also blogged about my earlier frustration that potential publishers of what I had considered the culmination of all my years of study had no interest in (and perhaps some alarm at) my chosen subject of inquiry: The contemporary forms of Muslim Liberation Theology (the working title of my book was Islam and The Arduous Quest for Justice, and I had proposed to explain the good, bad, and ugly manifestations of that Muslim liberation theology). The bulk of the envisioned book would have been about how early Muslim thought integrated ancient philosophy within its religious language, and helped to shape medieval Western philosophy, and then I would work through the myriad ways in which modern Muslims have and/or could integrate post-medieval philosophy in their worldview, conduct, and society. Given the reactions of colleagues and potential publishers, and upon reflection on how many in my local community in Houston have reacted to the watered-down versions of my worldview as expressed in sermons and conversation, I have aborted that delusional book/lifetime project.

Earlier this week, a colleague who teaches Philosophy forwarded the link to an article about a "Philosophy in Plain Arabic" initiative at my alma mater (the American University in Cairo, where I had the honor to serve briefly as provost during academic year 2014-15). My first reaction was somewhat negative, especially toward the motivation of endowing philosophy with greater prestige in Egyptian society, which seemed to me antithetical to why one should study/apply philosophical thinking. My second reaction, upon reflection, was that translation is always good, but that by reaching out to university students, the initiative aims to rebuild a shaky structure starting on the 15th floor (a metaphor borrowed from the late Morris Kline's discussion of foundations of mathematics in his beautiful book Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty). The problem in Egypt, and the Arab and Muslim Worlds more generally, starts in early education and over-specialization at an early age (which is not coincidental; the social contract between autocratic regimes and autocratic clergy made both parties antagonistic to free thought). I suggested that if I had known those active in this initiative, I would have suggested reaching out to middle and high school students with a watered-down version of their Philosophical Thinking course at AUC, which is part of the core curriculum for their undergraduates, and simply partnering with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy project for translation of Encyclopedia entries and selected references in its bibliographies for the benefit of university students of Philosophy who are studying it in Arabic.

I woke up this morning thinking that the task is much more daunting. I thought back to my teenage interest in Philosophy. My late father gave me books by the late Zaki Naguib Mahmoud (to whom I wrote letters that went unanswered, understandably) and Murad Wahba (whom he had met in person on multiple occasions). I also read translations of ancient Greek philosophers and Arabic books by Muslim philosophers who built on that early thought, e.g. Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and so on, to Ibn Rushd. This literature all made sense whether it was written in or translated to Arabic. However, when I tried to read translations of later philosophical works (specifically, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche) the Arabic translations made very little sense.

Then, I reflected on an Arabic book that I had read last month, which was an Arabic translation of the author's dissertation on Hegel and Al-Farabi's Philosophical Sufism. The book made sense, but only by translating into English in my head. Al-Farabi had made sense in Arabic, when I read him more than 40 years ago, but the translated Hegel didn't until I read him later in English, and he made even more sense when I read him later still after my competence in the latter had improved to equal my competence in Arabic. By that time, I could understand Al-Ghazali's explanation and later repudiation of Greek and Arabic Philosophy differently: He, and later Ibn Rushd, who could play both games equally well, illustrated the gulf that was emerging between their philosophical and religious thinking, and tried to bridge it in different ways. I felt that gulf myself in the ensuing decades of my life, and worked hard to bridge it to my satisfaction. Once I felt, possibly in error, that I had achieved the latter goal, I wanted to share my synthetic and analytical thoughts by writing the book that I described above.

This is all to say the following: Translation is not a simple linguistic exercise. To translate poetry well, one must be a good poet oneself. We know that! Likewise, to translate philosophy well, one must be a good philosopher oneself (this is why Nietzsche, for example, never made sense to me until I read Kufmann's translation). Contemporary Economics, as we know, emerged from Moral Philosophy, but took a number of bad turns, in my opinion, especially since the mid twentieth century. To write a good book on Economics, especially in relation to a part of the world in which neither development of the discipline nor developments of its antecedent Philosophy were native, one needs to be well versed in multiple "languages," which are always pregnant with concepts and connotations that are accumulated with the evolution of human thought. This is why I said that translation is not a simple linguistic exercise. In the case of Modern Philosophy in relation to Arabic, a good translator must simultaneously transform the language into which she or he is translating. This is a task even beyond my delusional project, which was to translate into English using conceptions that are already understood in that language. I wish good luck to those who think that they can translate into Arabic, but think that it may be best to teach a Western language, which would have to include reading literature and philosophy in that language, while aiming to develop an actual "Philosophy in Arabic," in part by teaching the works of contemporary Arab philosophers (a couple of whom I named above), but more importantly by encouraging philosophical thinking in Arabic. This is, indeed, the second and ultimate goal stated on the AUC website: "demonstrating the relevance of philosophy and philosophical methodologies to matters of both private interest and public concern." 

I hope that they recognize how difficult this will be to do well. The "language" barrier is much more multidimensional than the uninitiated may think.