Before going on a vacation, we collect things and pack our suitcases. However, most of the time, after saying “yes, I am finally ready for a vacation” we reopen that suitcase and either pull our stuff out or pile more things on top. So, that situation always reminds us of the importance of planning before packing. The process is similar in this case, too: when we want to learn about the characteristics of translation in the Arab world, we should be familiar with its history. Otherwise, we get stuck in a situation similar to the suitcase scenario.
The origin of translation in the Arab world was born during the time of the Prophet Muhammad because the spread of Islam encouraged people to learn Arabic and other foreign languages. Also, thanks to various translators, Arabic translation gained more importance and became a significant mediator among societies (especially among the Jews and Romans). At the same time, the second Abbasid Caliph Mansur (750-1250) established a small translation bureau called “Bait Al Hikma” to develop strategies and methods related to the act of translation. In this agency, people usually paid attention to the translation of Greek philosophy, works on science in India, and Iranian literature. Let’s focus on the structure of Arabic and the differences between that and the Turkish language.
Arabic and Turkish Translation Duality
Every language has a different structure, so every translation process has unique dimensions. If we want to talk about the act of translation in this context, it is necessary to mention that the translator should provide solutions regarding grammatical and structural differences between the languages, otherwise it seems that we are ignoring the artistic and countercultural capabilities of the act of translation. So, it is an important issue worth highlighting, and it should not be swept under the rug. However, it is a long process because it requires interdisciplinary thinking skills and a contrastive analysis, followed by the ability to produce solutions. If we also consider that we live in a system where time is volatile, it seems that the possibility of achieving this quality is slim. But by unearthing these hidden points, we believe we are at least a source of hope for our target audience.
One of the reasons translators go down a rough road during the translation process is the complexity of language structures. If we consider this issue within the context of Turkish and Arabic languages, what do the translators face?
Turkish is in the Ural-Altaic language family and an agglutinative language. The roots of Turkish words don’t take any affixes, and a word is composed of the root and stem. As such, the process of lexicalization is done with new affixes. When we look at this structure, we see that the subject comes long before the verb, and the modifier is also put before the determiner. The main action in the sentence is often at the end. Turkish is one of the languages where the syntax is the most flexible. Let’s give a striking example.
Note: The sentences are formed according to the Turkish structure, and the aim is to give you a glimpse of word order in a Turkish sentence.
“Adam kaplanı öldürdü”;
(Man the tiger killed)
“Adam öldürdü kaplanı”;
(Man killed the tiger)
“Kaplanı adam öldürdü”;
(The tiger, killed by man)
“Kaplanı öldürdü adam”;
(The tiger, killed by man)
“Öldürdü kaplanı adam”;
(Killed the tiger by man)
“Öldürdü adam kaplanı”
(Killed man the tiger)
Of course, the emphasis in these sentences may differ according to the meaning, but the premise in these three sentences always stays the same. Only the question of the subject, predicate, or object to be emphasized may be changed. Arabic, on the other hand, is connected to the western branch of the Semitic language family and structurally doesn’t contain vowels. Even vowel sounds are generated with a system called “hareke” (Arabic diacritics). Inevitably, systems in languages give birth to new systems. We mean to say, the job of a translator is difficult. In fact, there are a total of eight basic signs in this Arabic diacritic system. For example, Fetha (فتحة ) Damma (ضمة) etc. The sequence of the Arabic language is opposite that of the Turkish language. In Arabic, the action will be in the beginning of the sentence, and it has a grammatical gender structure. The Arabic diacritics system determines the role of each word and where it will be placed in the sentence. Also, the verbs are divided into sahih and mu’tel. Languages are limitless, and the act of translation, which reflects the cultures and lifestyles of societies, develops a new structure between the languages and reminds us how difficult the act of translation is.
Arabic Translation and Culture
Before ending our article and diving into the topic of Arabic translation and culture, we would like to quote the famous Russian writer Korney Chukovsky. In “Sublime Art”, written by Chukovsky, he criticized translators with these words: “Bad translators suffer from a small amount of blood going to their brains, and the texts they produce are just like themselves, exhausted, and underfed. Imagine if a Hemingway, Kipling, Thomas Mann, or any other writer that we should immortalize, fell into the hands of these anemia patients! It seems that they care about how to suck the blood out of the works of these geniuses and leave them lifeless. Such translators have a poor, lacking dictionary, in which every foreign word has only one meaning in their minds. They don’t use the richness of the languages, such as synonyms, etc. “Horse” only means “horse” to them. Why can’t a horse be a stallion, a trotted horse, a racehorse, or a mare? For them “palace” doesn’t mean anything else, only palace. Why can’t it be a castle, a pavilion, a mansion, an ornate house built in a garden, or a saloon? Translation undertakes the mission of transferring, recognizing, and perceiving different cultures, which should be considered a significant concern during the translation process. Despite all kinds of difficulties, it is important to use language and expressions accurately and clearly in translation because it is the key to cultural exchange and building a communication network. In literary work, cultural components are integral parts of national culture.”
This criticism is a bit harsh, right? He satirized it a bit much, for sure. But perhaps we should look at this criticism from his perspective, from his own world of language. For example, he sees himself as an expert, and he probably spent most of his time writing. So, this situation should say something to us. Perhaps it is a bit foolish if we analyze and criticize his words. We should interpret them while trying to understand his mindset. The main point is not whether Chukovsky is right but to understand why he satirizes translators with this harsh tone. When we are able to understand the reason beyond it, we can move a bit beyond the language and discover the connection between the language and the mind. After all, aren’t our minds made up of systems like languages?
Another translator would define Chukovsky’s words very differently. There is no doubt about that, and translators who transfer cultures bring people closer together. For example, in his trilogy Necip Mahfuz, a very important figure in world literature, allows us to experience walking through the coffeehouse of Fisavi and the Nile River, which we have never visited, seen through his translation. So at that point has he become more than a translator? Maybe a writer?
Languages are limitless, and the act of translation, which reflects the cultures and the lifestyles of societies, takes a new form between languages. This should remind us how much effort the act of translation requires.