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The meaning of translation and religion studies

March 1, 2010

I suppose one can say that this post is inspired by a student conference on Islamic studies I attended yesterday afternoon (too bad that matters did not quite allow me to attend it today as well). It has to do with the comments of a respondent to the one and only panel I managed to catch: about how one can critically translate a foreign terminology or sentence, not just to an audience who does not understand that foreign language, but also to an audience that may speak the language but may have had a shallow or superficial understanding of the loaded term used. Of course, many, including the presenters and certain members of the audience may think that the strong statement made by the respondent is a form of double standard; they may literally take his meaning of ‘translating it to English’ as equivalent to translating the term to a definite and direct term in English. I find this notion rather ludicrous and misconceived, and if majority of the scholars have no notion of double-entendre and the complexity of hermeneutics, I think it does not bode well for this field. It also speaks to the marginalization of the field, where only a few people are willing to do the work to translate the field critically to a larger audience, and where there is serious attempt to make this field a field of serious scholarship rather than just a more elaborate form of khatam al-Quran. There I said it. If I were to translate what I meant, the Arabic words included, it means descriptive elaboration without any form of critique. The critic of the respondent was pretty justified as I find much of the work, supposedly graduate level work, done by these scholars, to be similar to the kind of regurgitation of ‘facts’ and ‘meanings’ without engaging them at the multiple layers, levels and timeline in which they are situated. Moreoever, many did not seek to complicate the use of the terms they’ve employed to represent their arguments or critique. More problematic, there is at least one who considered disputes in definition to pose a problem to their work, when in humanities, disputes in definitions have always been the staple of the scholarship; otherwise, if there’s an arbitrary definition or meaning, it would mean that the kind of work you’re doing is nothing more than pseudo-scholarship.

I tried to make this point clear to one of the participants when I said that even most Germans have no undertanding of the terms employed by Heidegger in his writings, even though he is writing in German. This is because Heidegger plays with German, and uses German in a different way to present his arguments and his worldview. Therefore, to understand what he means, whether you’re a German speaker or not, you will still have to do a critical geneological and historiographical detailing of his arguments from different times, as well as the background in which the arguments are performed, and perform a sort of comparative hermeneutics. From there, you then try to translate his terms into terms that will speak to you and then you mediate that to the larger audience. That’s what scholars of particular philosophies or philosophers or theorists have been doing since time immemorial!

In the same way, the Bible, Torah and Quran has their own figurative use of the language that required critical wrestling. It has always been my critique that a majority of the so-called Islamic studies scholars in Malaysia have no notion of scholarship at that level, content as they were to merely argue about the fine points of contention and contradiction. What they’re doing is no greater than the lay teachers and preachers in the church I grew up in did, and you do not need to employ much resource of the academy to do that. They are not interested in revisiting previous interpretations or even rethink some of the terms that have been used and undergone evolution through time. However, I find this problem to also plague Islamic scholars in other parts of the world (I’ve seen this even when I was trying to understand religion scholarship while back in Malaysia) and this problem carry itself across the Atlantic to the US, whereby these graduate students from majority Muslim countries carry the problematic hermeneutics and analytical work in which they’ve trained to the American Academy, and do not seem quite interested in employing different tools to rethink the way in which they were schooled, bristling instead at any criticism. It would also seem as though that some of them are more interested to speak to the 5 people in the world who share their minute engagement with the tiniest portion of facts. I find this ironic that the humanities used to criticize the scientists for doing precisely just that.

The other question that has always been in my mind is when a person who tries to be a religion scholar is also a member of that religious faith. How much disinterestedness can you have when you’re dealing intellectually with a religion that you also adhere by virtue of ‘faith.’ How do you then grapple with the blindspots that are readily there, and the fact that you consider the book a ‘divine’ inspiration. Some, I realized, have no real notion of the fact that the work they’re doing, and the ‘Holy’ book they’re considering, are also mediated works; the work was not directly transmitted to them by the Author, but by way of many layers of people, and these are the people called ‘prophets’ by the adherents of that religion. And also the fact that the ‘facts’ are not stagnant, not all ‘divinely’ inspired nor without contradictions. To treat them as being purely facts that is unchanging in time is pretty scary, when it comes from a scholar. Moreoever, even ‘sharia’ itself is not a collection of arbitrary law but is a set of law that goes by different interpretation and precedence. I am not too schooled in jurisprudence to understand how it all works but I have read enough to know that many these laws are not divinely inspired, but are created along the way for the purpose of expediency at a point in time, and are thus as fallible as the humans. To treat them as certitude, and NOT subject to interpretation, is something NOT right.

I’ve seen many smart people doing scholarship in religion studies and I respect them, really. But some others have no business calling themselves academic scholars if they cannot grapple with the most basic tools of humanities scholarship: critique and translation of meanings!

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