Sunday

Anatomy of a Translation: Morocco's Failing Universities

As I've done in the past, I wanted to spend some time discussing the challenges I faced in a recent translation.

My latest translation of Mohammad Al-Khemlichi's op-ed about Morocco's failing universities raised some problems typical of Arabic/English translation.

Word Repetition

Word repetition is a common stylistic feature of Arabic writing. Unlike English, it is not poor form for an Arab writer to repeat the same words in the sentence or paragraph.

This is exacerbated by Arabic's root system. We'll address this in more detail in the future, but for our purposes today it's important to know that in Arabic words are based on three or four letter roots.

These roots are modified by additional letters to create different forms and meanings, such as passive and active participles. As a result, different forms of the same root are often repeated. Though they perform different functions (i.e. one is an adjective the other a verb), they often carry nearly identical meaning.



Here is an excerpt from Mr. Khemlichi's third paragraph that illustrates these word repetition issues:

مجال [البحث] العلمي يحتاج إلى سياسة حكومية جريئة، كأن تبادر (مؤسسات) تابعة للدولة بإبرام {عقود} [بحث] مع (المؤسسات) الجامعية و تشجيع، ربما إلزام، (المؤسسات) شبة العمومية الكبرى ..{ بالتعاقد} مع الجامعات المغربية لإنجاز دراسات و [أبحاث] ...
In this 37 word excerpt we have three uses of the word بحث , in [brackets], which means "research." There are also three uses of the word مؤسسات , in (parentheses), which means "institutions."

We can also see the problem of root relationships. The phrase إبرام عقود , in {braces}, means "to conclude contracts." Later, we meet the term التعاقد , also in {braces}, which means "to make a contract." In fact, التعاقد comes from the same root as عقود , which means "contract." The former's form implies a sense of reciprocity and mutuality, and necessitates more than one 'actor.' So, even though the author employs different Arabic terminology, the meanings in English are essentially the same.

Sometimes, this word repetition is acceptable, such as with إبرام عقود and التعاقد which I preserved in my translation. Others, like the use of مؤسسات three times within 26 words, have to be corrected by the translator.

Synonyms

Synonyms can pose a similar challenge. Sometimes an Arabic text includes many different terms that, in a particular context, have similar or identical meanings in English. This leads to the same challenges posed by general word repetition.

Synonym use often touches on issues of tone. One of the responsibilities of a translator is to convey the identical or similar tone in the translation as expressed in the source text. As an op-ed, Mr. Khemlichi's article possessed an formal, academic-esque tone. In Arabic, there are several terms used to convey 'education', but not many tone appropriate terms in English. Though words like 'schooling' and 'enlightenment' convey 'education', is it appropriate to use them in such a piece?

Translators also encounter synonym use issues in a particular Arabic rhetorical device, which we can see in the following title:

وزارة التربية و التعليم

This is an example of synonym repetition particular to Arabic. The word وزارة means 'ministry' in the political sense. The words التعليم and التربية are nearly identical in their contemporary meaning, though التعليم refers to the process of acquiring knowledge, or علم , and التربية refers to the growth and development of an individual, usually a young person. التربية is a newer term that refers more directly to what we could call 'modern', K-12 education. 

Synonym repetition can have several effects. The redundancy can intensify the meaning of the clause, such as saying a war which brings 'death and destruction.' The redundancy also expands the clause's meaning, such as in the above example. Using التعليم and التربية in this case signifies that the ministry is responsible for all levels of education, not just higher education or primary and secondary education.

However, in this case we eliminate the repetition and say 'Ministry of Education.' We do this because as English speaker we understand, generally, that a 'Ministry of Education' would be responsible for all levels of education in a country.


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