THE TRANSLATION OF GOD
I REFER to the letter on the Allah impasse published in theSun on Oct 18 which did not go down well with some readers who were unhappy with the compromise suggested. I was privately taken to task on email and publicly chided on Facebook for supporting the court decision.
Having been accused of insincerity and pandering to the powers that be, may I say that my comments are consistent with what I wrote more than three years ago, that is the issue is caused primarily by a poor cross-lingual translation of “God”. The following letter was published in a couple of mainstream newspapers in 2010.
“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. Many words 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 eg “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 is basically an untranslatable concept – 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 people further with a poor translation?
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 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.”
In different versions of the English Bible, the terms “Lord”, “Father”, “God” are used as appellations for the Christian God, to refer to him as well as to call out to him. The same terms are used in Christian prayers chanted by the individual alone or with the rest of the congregation in a chapel or church.
Attending primary and secondary school in the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Seremban , I grew up knowing the English version of the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary by heart and even mouthed them silently at school assemblies and other events where the Roman Catholic nuns offered these prayers. It would be interesting to know how these prayers are translated into Malay for a Malay-speaking Christian congregation.
Datin Halimah Mohd Said
What The Sun did not publish
Below, I offer my own translation of the Hail Mary:
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God
Pray for us sinners
Now and at the hour of our death.
Ya Mariam, penuh dengan limpah kurniamu
Allah di sisimu
Kamu dirahmati di kalangan hawa
Dan kerahmatan tunas rahim mu, Isa
Mariam yang suci, Ibu kepada Allah
Doa’kan kami yang berdosa,
Kini dan pada saat kematian kami.
I leave the readers to read into the greater implications of this translation as well as other translations of Christian texts where God in English is rendered into Allah in Malay.