Add to My MSN

Failure to Translate

7/9/2008 2:16:52 PM

Tags: great writing, essay writing, Arabic, failure, translation, foreign languages, Washington Post, Bidoun

Arabic scriptAnyone who’s tried to conquer a foreign language at a certain age is familiar with the requisite textbook formula: You follow a few characters on adventures that somehow expose you to the vocabulary for fruits, polite greetings, and how to get medical help all within a simple, tidy storyline. (“Excuse me,” said Heidi, “I don’t mean to bother you, but I ate a poisonous apple and require emergency care.”) 

In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Harvard Law student Joel B. Pollak rails against the narratives available for the 24,000 students of Arabic in the United States. His main gripe is a political one—there’s too much Gamal Abdel Nasser-loving and too much Israel/America-bashing in his class materials—but it’s his description of the forlorn protagonist of his textbook that struck me:

We learn in Chapter 1 that Maha is desperately lonely. In later chapters, we are told that she hates New York, has no boyfriend, and resents her mother.

Soon we encounter her equally depressing relatives in Egypt—such as her first cousin Khalid, whose mother died in a car accident and who was forced to study business administration after his father told him literature "has no future."

The characterization jogged my memory to one of my favorite readings in the last year, a piece by Anand Balakrishnan in the Summer 2007 issue of Bidoun. In it, Balakrishnan recalls the primary theme of his Arabic studies in Cairo: failure (or fashil).

The Arabic word for failure is built from the tripartite root of f-sh-l to become fashil, the harshest, most damaging word in the language, at least the way my Arabic teacher pronounced it. The word often twisted his dyspeptic mouth, spattering our lessons like ordnance from a cluster bomb. Everything was fashil. Me as a student, himself as a teacher, Cairo as a city, Egypt as a state, the Middle East as a region, Asia as a continent, communism as a theory, democracy as an ideal, Islam as it was practiced, humanity as a species, and, in the summer when the smog congealed, the sun as a source of light.

Balakrishnan’s is a beautiful meditation on the theme of failure throughout Arab literature and Arab society. Pollak may or may not have a legitimate beef regarding his own lessons, but his polemical demand for a language neutered of politics and feeling rings hollow after reading Balakrishnan’s “Muse of Failure.” More important than the sterile reformulation of one language into another is the transcendent project of cultural translation.

Image by “Dr. Yuri Andreievich Zhivago,” licensed under Creative Commons.



Related Content

Like a Republican Needs a Bicycle: Conservative Cyclists Break the Stereotypes of Bike Politics

Conservative cyclists give the lie to the stereotype of biking as the sole domain of tree-hugging le...

Biomimicry Explained

An interview with innovative biologist and biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus.

Why Is Pink Floyd so Big in Iran?

The rockers from the band Hypernova explain….

Understanding Benazir Bhutto

The former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has rocked much of the world. W...

Content Tools




Post a comment below.

 

Hannah Lobel_4
7/21/2008 1:19:50 PM
Thanks for the links, reader. Those are two interesting blogs that I hope readers of my item will check out. I'll just note that I intended to pose Anand Balakrishnan's piece in Bidoun as a counternarrative to Pollack's -- one that holistically approached Arabic's roots in culture and politics.

reader
7/17/2008 11:02:49 AM
Pollak's attack on this textbook is based on distortions and is driven by an ideological agenda. Philip Weiss has a link to a greater letter debunking Pollak's claims about the textbook: http://www.philipweiss.org/mondoweiss/2008/07/the-washington-post-is-running-an-op-ed-by-a-harvard-law-student-named-joel-b-pollak-complaining-about-the-arabic-instructio.html KABOBfest has more information on Pollak's record as a pro-Israel fanatic and lackey of Alan Dershowitz: http://www.kabobfest.com/2008/07/joel-pollak-takes-on-arabic-textbook.html



Pay Now & Save $5!
First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
Country:
Email:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $31.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!