One thing that has stood out to me as I have undertaken my recent crash course in Islam is the sheer number of Arabic terms that are left untranslated. At times, even a dedicated student like me became bogged down in technical terminology that was left in Arabic even though it seemed as though there were suitable translations for most terms. The one that sticks out to me the most is falsafa, which is a kind of adaptation of the word “philosophy” into Arabic pronunciation. One could certainly understand the point of emphasizing that Arab philosophers kept the Greek term — but, then, you know, so did we. That insight could be conveyed in one sentence, and the term could be straightforwardly translated as “philosophy” after that point.
There are other more ambiguous cases, and I don’t want to adjudicate every one. Taken together, however, the mass of untranslated terms gives the impression that Islamic thought is somehow radically incompatible with Western languages and thought-patterns. Again, falsafa is a great example, because it makes Arabic philosophy seem like this bizarre foreign pursuit — when in fact they are quite literally drawing on the exact same sources as Western philosophy. That’s an extreme case, but in general it’s not as though Islamic thought is radically and incomprehensibly different from Western thought. In addition to its use of Western philosophy, it draws on the same monotheistic and prophetic heritage as Christianity and Judaism. I’m inclined to agree with Norman O. Brown, who claims in The Challenge of Islam that Islam is a reinterpretation and reappropriation of “our” Western traditions — and hence the “least foreign” foreign tradition out there.
Perhaps that very proximity is what creates the pressure to exoticize and obsfuscate Islamic concepts by leaving them untranslated a disproportionate amount of the time. And while some might argue that keeping the Arabic words is an attempt to maintain the differing layers of meaning, etc., in practice it most often serves to simplify the concepts. Take the concept of jihad — to a Muslim, it has many meanings that are generally in the ballpark of the English word “struggle.” If we translated it as “struggle” instead of leaving it in Arabic, we might understand how the concept could in some cases include something like violent resistence, while conceding that most of the time it would refer to the believer’s spiritual struggles. But once we’ve decided that jihad just means “holy war” — and what’s more, a particularly nefarious, specifically Islamic form of “holy war”! — then to most Western observers, it sounds like misleading apologetics when a Muslim tries to tell us what the term actually means for the average Muslim’s spiritual life.
When I pointed out the jihad example on Twitter, Adam Roberts responded that perhaps we could translate the term as Mein Kampf — and I think that’s actually a great example of the use of foreign words to exoticize, in this case defensively. It’s as though Hitler’s “struggle” in life is a specifically German phenomenon that could never be duplicated among sound-minded Anglophone people! The retention of the German title of Marx’s Das Kapital (with obligatory mispronunciation of Kapital as though it were a French word for good measure) serves much the same purpose of defensive exoticization. Never mind that Hitler had many sympathizers in the US and UK, never mind that Marx wrote Capital with England in mind and drawing primarily on English-language sources — it’s all foreign gibberish that we can never understand!
It is also possible, of course, to fetishize foreign-language terms as an attempt to appreciate or respect a foreign tradition — or earlier stages of one’s own, as when educated Christians treasure isolated New Testament Greek terms as precious talismans of the unparalleled genius of Christianity. Even if the motivation is “positive” in these cases, though, the effect is still exoticizing and obsfuscating. And just as with the “negative” deployment of the strategy, the stakes are most often political rather than scholarly or intellectual.
But enough of my blathering — what do you think, dear readers?