Failure to Translate

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Anyone 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.

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