Monday

Rootology: Time to Cram

I came across an interesting word in الشرق الأوسط this morning. I was reading an article about a British study of migratory cuckoo birds (whose Arabic name is الوقواق or the waqwaq). The word is a3kafa عكف and appeared in the article's final paragraph:

يذكر أن طيور الوقواق تمضي قرابة سنة كاملة في هجرتها جنوبا ثم العودة شمالا إلى الجزر البريطانية، و سيعكف العلماء على إعداد دراسة حول الطيور المهاجرة لأفريقيا لمعرفة ما تواجهه في رحلتها من عقبات، و الأسباب التي تجعلها لا تعود في السنة التالية إلى أوروبا، و كذا الأسباب التي أدت إلى انخفاضها بنسبة 50 في المائة خلال السنوات ال25 الماضية.
From context, I could tell that the word had something to do with 'working' to prepare the kind of study the paragraph goes on to describe. And when I looked it up in the dictionary, I wasn't too far off. However a3kafa goes much deeper than mere work or study.



According to Lisan al-Arab عكف means to "engage with something studiously and to not turn away from it." Lane's Lexicon goes on to describe the verb's connection with idol worship and apparently was used to describe those who persisted in worshipping idols after the coming of Islam. Hans Wehr defines عكف when used with the preposition على to also mean "to be busily engaged in something".

So a3kafa عكف gives us the image of completely devoting yourself to some type of work. Like cramming for an exam, this also connotes a sense of isolation. By never turning away from your work, you ignore outside distractions and potential social obligations, potentially resulting in some kind of social isolation.

Think of someone writing a book or preparing a PhD dissertation. A project of that magnitude, like the scientists' study, can easily take over one's life and consume all of their free time.

We can see more of this isolation sense in the root's passive/reflexive form i'tikaf اعتكاف. Beyond its literal meanings, i'tikaf describes a special devotional practice performed by Muslims during the month of Ramadan. During i'tikaf Muslims who are willing and able spend at least three days and two nights secluded in a mosque. While doing so they must follow additional prohibitions than what is normal during the Ramadan fast.

This act of worship perfectly embodies the root's connotations: i'tikaf requires focus, patience and perseverance and as well as social isolation.

With all of this in mind, I think I would translate the sentence:

سيعكف العلماء على إعداد دراسة حول الطيور المهاجرة 

as "the scientists will dedicate themselves to preparing a study of migratory birds."

For the context and style I think "dedicate" is appropriate.  I feel the more literal definitions mentioned earlier are too awkward to work straight into the text, and something more figurative like, "to pour one's heart into", is inappropriate. While it expresses the intensity that seems to be associated with a3kafa عكف, I think it's a little too informal besides being cliche.

Unfortunately, the result is not completely satisfactory. While we conveyed a degree of the word's meaning, the depth that عكف brings to the Arabic text is certainly lost in this translation.



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