Being trained in linguistics, in particular translation theory, I see the “Allah” issue as one involving semantics and the translation of a key religious concept – GOD. The word for the Muslim concept of God ALLAH has been transposed or borrowed to represent the Christian God in the Bahasa Indonesia translation of the Bible.
Cultural and religious concepts are the hardest to translate and often the most elusive. Many words like “Allah” are culturally loaded and have evolved in the holy books and its teachings among the multilingual community of followers. They are often embellished and reinforced by their distinctive sociolinguistic environment and have acquired specialised contextual meanings.
In the lexicon of a language some words have a direct referential or denotative meaning – the most obvious being a name. “Ali” refers to or denotes the person of Ali. Others have a referential meaning as well as a connotative or implied meaning e.g. “pig” refers to the pig (animal) but it can be used to imply the pig’s characteristics such as “gluttony” as in “You are a real pig”. However this expression would be culturally offensive to a Muslim or Jew to whom the pig is taboo. Similarly the idiom “like a pigsty” should not be translated literally and would need a translation relevant to the particular language and culture.
“Allah” is a culturally loaded concept in Islam both in the language of the Quran and the language of its Malay Muslim adherents in Malaysia. It is imbued with many meanings including the 99 attributes of God familiar to the Muslims. To juxtapose “Allah” in the culturally distinct Christian milieu is to translate what are basically untranslatable concepts– both of the unity in the Muslim understanding of God and the trinity in the Christian conception of God. These concepts are highly complex and abstract in themselves. Why confuse the people further with poor or inaccurate translations/ transpositions? 
In translation theory there is the notion of “untranslatability” and when a concept is untranslatable the translator resorts to employing the generic term supported by notes or an explanation. In this case the generic Malay word for the concept of the universal God “Tuhan” can be used in the Bible translation with notes and an explanation about the Trinity.
Translators must demonstrate the highest linguistic sensitivity and exercise the greatest caution when they translate important texts and documents. Not only must they be specialists in the subject area but also linguists in their own right. Ideally, the translator must be a native speaker of one of the two languages involved and have a mastery over the other.


7 Responses to “”

  1. 1 harum manis
    January 12, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    satD of Pure Shiite blog has done some research and found that the first translation of the Bible into the Malay/Indonesian language was made by Dr. Melchior Leijdecker in 1731 – he was the first person to have translated God as “Allah”. Sadly, Robert Hutchens and J.McGinnis later found approximately 10,000 words in Liejdecker’s translation that were not in the standard Malay dictionary of that day – Kamus Bahasa Melayu.

    Then began the use of “Allah” in the Christian Bible used in Indonesia. Some found their way into Sabah and Sarawak used by the Christians in those states. Now the Christians insist on using the word “Allah” in Malaysia partly on the ground that the word has been used in Sabah for a long time.

    But that argument does not hold water. The Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia have been using the word “Allah” long before the Christian missionaries came. Islam had come to the Nusantara region through the Arab traders and travellers after the Islamic expansionism in the Middle East and parts of Europe beginning from the 8th Century. Even if based on hard evidence alone, Islamic inscriptions on tombstones found in Acheh, north Sumatra, had been dated as early as the 13th Century. Islam had also come to Peninsular Malaysia not long after its establishment in Acheh.

    The old Brunei Sultanate once ruled large parts of Sarawak and Sabah. Islam had reached them and as far as the Sulu islands in the Philippines. The Christian missionaries came much later, in Sarawak probably during the rule of Rajah Brooke.

    There was no question of the Dutch translator demonstrating any linguistic sensitivity and exercising caution when translating the Bible in Indonesia in 1731. But what baffles me is that, when the use of the word “Allah” has become a major issue now, the Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka is deafening by its silence. So are the “pejuang bahasa” and “Sasterawan Negara” who demonstrated on the streets on the PPSMI issue.

  2. 2 ninitalk
    January 12, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Thank you harum manis for the link to the Pure Shiite blog and the summary of the Christian/ Islamic interface in our part of the world. Etymology, which traces the historical evolution of words,is a branch of linguistics viz lexicology which the inter-faith leaders,scholars and academicians must go into if they mean to allay the legal/constitutional impasse and influence the court decision on the “Allah issue”.

    You are right – why aren’t the DBP and the Institute Terjemahan Negara providing any input on this? Where are the country’s renowned linguists?

    I suspect they fear being accused of blasphemy should they delve into the language of the Quran!

  3. January 13, 2010 at 1:39 am

    I once told A Samad Said, why are you letting yourself be used. He didn’t reply because the reporters and photographers are trying to take photgraphs in a cafe outisde SOGO that day, I think it was a Saturday or Sunday, cos tha’s the day I’ll meet my son.

    Anyways, thanks for the clear explainations to the subjects at hand.

  4. 4 ninitalk
    January 13, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Academicians, literary figures and thinkers must contribute ideas of substance not take to the streets!

    I suppose it’s fashionable to join in the demonstrations and candlelight vigils. I suppose it’s easier to be part of the crowd and show solidarity in numbers!

    Some people do better standing on a podium and speaking. Some contribute by writing. We each have to find the level that we find comfortable.

    However, to merely criticise or slander without substantiating what you say with the right arguments, evidence and references is irresponsible!

  5. January 13, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    PS may I be allowed to copy all or part of your opinion posted in your blog to my blog? Thank you

  6. 6 ninitalk
    January 14, 2010 at 9:03 am

    glassman – I think it’s better if you refer them to ninitalk. Thanks.

  7. 7 ninitalk
    January 16, 2010 at 9:55 am

    I’m sharing the comments of my FB friends here! Most enlightening!

    Ira Zain Allah is an Arabic word meaning God (in English) & Tuhan (in Malay). Really don’t get whatz d’big fuss if people from other religions use it..

    Afterall, not all Arabs are Muslims but they use d’word Allah & give salam etc in Arabic.. which is again, in my opinion, nothing wrong as Assalamualaikum means Salam Sejahtera ke atas kamu..

    Today at 8:48am · Charlie Chan “he has converted from Islam to Christianity” said Imran, my friend from the CarPhoneWarehouse….
    “it’s both the same God and so it’d have been a wasted effort unless the church is closer to his home than the mosque” said i

    Today at 9:26am · Farida Shah why were you disapponited in 101 east, halimah. ? i miss the show. Like your write up on linguistic perspective- I fully agree with you on the “untranslatable ” terms as i was also involved in lots of translation before
    Today at 10:56am · Din Merican No one should have a monopoly on words. We are arguing over nothing. What is in our hearts matters. Allah, does it mean “God”? Yes, in Arabic and it was in use before the coming of Islam.

    Today at 2:02pm · Halimah Mohd Said Thank you for your comments my friends!
    I too see religion and faith as personal and in our hearts we can communicate with God and talk to him in whatever language we want – even silently.

    However, the “Allah issue” involves the formal undertaking of the translation of a religious text, nothing less than the Bible which contains specialised concepts and technical details of Christianity.
    Today at 4:02pm · Halimah Mohd Said As Farida will vouch, the task of the technical or literary translator is tremendous. Our understanding of the subject matter of the text in the source must be excellent and it has to be rendered accurately in the target language.

    When the translators of the Bible into Bahasa Indonesia translated the Christian God as Allah they were not only insensitive but inaccurate.

    I wonder what the Pope would think of the translation of the concept of the Trinity of the Christian God into Allah which embodies the concept of the Unity of the Muslim God…. See More

    Of course at the personal level it doesn’t matter but at the level of religious doctrine and theology it does!

    Today at 4:10pm · Aman Shah Khalid Yes Din Merican….you are absolutely right when you said ‘Allah’ was used by everybody including the Christians before the coming of Islam. I was sceptical about the issue until I heard a religious talk on Islam on the radio after my Friday prayers today. A religious scholar of some standing in that state (Sorry, I am not at liberty to mention his… See More name) categorically stated the word ‘Allah’ can be used by any religion in this world as it was used universally before the coming of Islam. He even quoted relevant verses in the Quran to drive home his point. So to me the best method of coming to an amicable solution is to organise the Inter Faith Council and those representing Islam to speak the truth and nothing but the truth with fear or favour!

    Today at 5:37pm · Farida Shah i agree with Halimah.I have christian friends who do not like that the trinity of the christian god be synonymous as the trinity of” Allah” . Neither do do they like that their children to be praying to Allah ( int his term altho it means their concept of god.)
    I have hindu friends who said that they will be worried too if their children are … See Moreoff o pray to Allah – their hindu gods. SO its not just the Malay muslims who dont want the confusion but also people of other faiths who dont want their children to grow up praying to Allah. We have to think out of the box and not look at it just from our perspectives but from the perspectives of others of different faith.

    Today at 7:47pm · Abu Bakar Mustafa Fadzil Thank you for explaining this in a way that others can consider. I have always supported your articles!

    I myself am confused in what to support on the Allah’s issue back home. To agree that it is sensitive to Malay muslims are a little too inconsiderate for others. I have also read on both Dr. M and Dr. Asri’s article, which are slightly similar to yours.

    However, issues that may rise racial infliction, has not been easy and must be tackled strategically that til now, still amidst…. See More

    Let’s hope that another 13th May will not be repeated. 🙂

    Today at 8:07pm · Ira Zain If Allah is equalized to Trinity, then itz not right.. coz’ we only have ONE Allah.. The One & Only God, Omniscient, Omnipotent.. Tuhan itu Esa (satu)

    8 hours ago · Shariman Yusuf 1) “Allah” in Arabic is not exclusive to Islam; this has been well established even before the Prophet’s time, so Muslims in Malaysia need to be educated on this.

    2) What is the real issue: TRANSLATION INTO BAHASA MALAYSIA and the word for God is “Tuhan” but nothing is hard and fast in this world and there are exceptions. Due to historical reasons dating more than 100 years when the Christian missionaries came into Sabah and Sarawak and used the Indonesion Bible to spread the “Gospel”, the locals were introduced to “Allah” as God since this was how it was translated into Bahasa Indonesia. We can speculate on the motives of the translators then but the net effect is that today, “Allah” is used in Christianity in East Malaysia. We should RESPECT that and it is very much localized.

    3) However, this is not the case in West Malaysia. The right Malay word is “Tuhan” and we see and even sing that (all of us – 1 Malaysia!) in our beloved national anthem “Negara Ku”. So, I don’t understand why the Herald is insisting on “Allah” at the risk of bringing about conflict and disrupting harmony, although I can speculate on their motives again…. See More

    4) In summary. Let’s focus on the main issue which is the correct translation of “God” in Malay and keep everything else out. So what is the basic rule of thumb? It is “Tuhan” in Malay and where is the exception to this rule? Only in Sabah and Sarawak.

    That should be the position of the Government and the recent announcement is a step in the right direction.

    If the Herald wants a permit to print in Arabic, by all means they can use “Allah”.

    8 hours ago · Gina Shaik Daud Aunty Halimah, I find this piece by blogger SatD very factually interesting & entertaining. If u haven’t read it, it explains the origins of Allah in Malay bibles.

    Hi Shariman, totally in agreement. Well said! I just don’t understand the Herald’s insistence on using Allah. Tuhan is more than sufficient. It’s about respect at the end of the day.

    6 hours ago · James Selvaraj Sundram Dear Halimah,
    What a waste of time and effort on a non issue. I find people on both sides of the divides on this isuue wasting time energy and resources on an an issue that has only split Malaysians and has given politicians another issue to get people on their side.
    I like what the Dalai Lama said”My religion is to work for the happiness of other” This issue has only offended Malaysians and further devided our devided nation.
    I agree with Marina Mahathir in her interview on Radio that that Islam is percieved as a religion of negatives. There is more empahisis on telling one what not to do then telling one the good that they should do. I am sure Mohamad will be most dissapointed with the way Islam is percieved by may within and outside the religion
    Let us concentrate of cultivationg good, avoiding evil, and devloping our minds so that we can build a nation of dynamic, cohesive nation that all of us can be proud to belong to…. See More



    2 hours ago · Halimah Mohd Said James – let’s leave politics out of this thread although there are political undertones in this issue as with every issue in Malaysia.

    I would like to know how you see the translation of God as Allah in the Bible as a practising Christian!

    Shariman is clear and his conclusions lucid as always!

    34 minutes ago · Halimah Mohd Said Gina – I’ve been referred to SatD’s writings and a summary is posted by one of my regular commenters harum manis.

    32 minutes ago · Halimah Mohd Said And James – there are bigoted Muslims as there are bigoted Christians. We should not generalise.

    31 minutes ago · Kassim Ahmad having read all views satd, din merican, marina mahathir etc. i think the one expressed by prof shad saleem faruqi (the star 13 Jan) ‘finding the middle ground’ about sums up my feeling n the matter.
    it is interesting though, the roman catholics themselves have been rather quiet in the debate.

    6 minutes ago · Halimah Mohd Said Kassim- can you please summarise the essence of Shad’s argument here?

    Yes the Roman Catholics and Christians are silent on a matter instigated by them!

    4 minutes ago · Halimah Mohd Said Well said Farida!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

January 2010
« Dec   Feb »



%d bloggers like this: