The translatability of some aspects

Posted by on September 28, 2017

Introduction The present monograph is an attempt to demonstrate the fact that Translation Studies is not a mere branch of linguistics but an extensive discipline with many branches and very significant results. In the next pages, there will be four main parts: the first part will focus on the development of translation studies from writings


The present monograph is an attempt to demonstrate the fact that Translation Studies is not a mere branch of linguistics but an extensive discipline with many branches and very significant results. In the next pages, there will be four main parts: the first part will focus on the development of translation studies from writings on translation to translation studies as an academic discipline. The second part will deal mainly with the Islamic culture and its principles, and will try to give an answer to the question “Is the Islamic culture translatable?” The third part will be an introduction to the different types of culture and will show their different levels of untranslatability. The same part will also focus on the translator’s skills introducing them as major factors leading to a better target text. As a final step, the fourth and last part will link translation to the Islamic culture, in an attempt to highlight the untranslatability of the Islamic culture in the Qur’anic discourse, especially the material side of it, and also to state the comments of Muslim scholars on the translations of the holy Qur’an.

Translation is a process based on the theory that it is possible to abstract the meaning of a text from its forms and reproduce that meaning with the very different forms of a second language.

“Translation, then, consists of studying the lexicon, grammatical structure, communication situation, and cultural context of the source language text, analyzing it in order to determine its meaning, and then reconstructing this same meaning using the lexicon and grammatical structure which are appropriate in the receptor language and its cultural context.” (Larson l998, p. 3)

In practice, there is considerable variation in the types of translations produced by translators. Some translators work only in two languages and are competent in both, while others work from their first language to their second language, and still others from their second language to their first language. Depending on these matters of language proficiency, the procedures used will vary from project to project.

On the development of translation studies

“I see translation as an attempt to produce a text so transparent that it does not seem to be translated. A good translation is like a pane of glass, you only notice that it’s there when there are little imperfections- scratches, bubbles. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any. It should never call attention to itself.”


First, it has to be clearly asserted that there exist many traditions concerning the first writings on translation, and as it is impossible to mention all of them, the focus will be about Europe and the Arab world. This chapter deals with the emergence of the earliest writings on translation and also the birth of the new discipline “translation studies” in the last few decades.

Writings on Translation

Among the first writings on translation were Cicero’s[1] Libellus de optimo genere oratorun, Horace’s[2] Ars poetica of circa and the translation of the Bible as a practical side. For this reason, Europeans believe that translation started with the Romans and the Greeks, but it is very important to bear in mind that translation might have started so long before. And there are proofs for that in many parts of the world. Hung and Pollard (1998:366) claim that there were government officials with responsibility for translation in China 9th century BC. But Cicero and Horace gave much importance to the problems of translation, produced different theories and highly influenced the next generation of translators. “It is they who initiated the distinction between ‘word to word’ and ‘sense for sense’ translation, which retains its significance till now”[3]. It is a fact today that India, china, Iraq and Spain have in many ways shaped the European culture. In the ninth and tenth century in Baghdad the scientific and philosophical works of ancient Greece were translated into Arabic, with the emergence of the famous library called “beitu al hikma” established by the Abbasside khalifa “Al Ma’moon”. Those translated into Arabic books which transmit the Greek Culture, including religions, mythology and philosophy, spread to Europe through Spain which was at that time under Muslim governance. Later on, with the school of Toledo, translations were made from Arabic to Latin and helped in the European Renaissance.

Another important tradition that was influential in Europe is Bible translation. It is believed that with the translation of Bible started the first thoughts about translation theory. It was very important, for Bible translators, at that time, to respect the sacred scripts, and at the same time to guarantee that the target text would be understandable after translation. The first translator to complete the translation of the Bible into English is John Wycliffite who believed that everyone in the world should have access to the word of God in one’s language. After that came the translation made by forty-seven scholars and translators, eight years after the accession of King James to the English throne[4], which is the principle version adopted in many Christian countries.

The “modern period” of Bible translation started by the revisions of the Bible, and new translations have been made. Nida (1998:27-28) says that Bible translators (in the modern period) often work in teams of three to five full time translators.

One notices that Bible translators in the modern period made great efforts to make the target text as clear and understandable as possible, without neglecting the addition of the necessary background information using the footnote system and other techniques in order to respect the original text.

The Arab World

The early translations in the Arab world date back to the period of Syrians. They translated into Arabic a large heritage. Syrians were highly influenced by the Greek translations. Syrian’s translations were more literal and faithful to the original claims Ayad (1993:168, qtd by Addidaoui, 2000)[5]. According to Addidaoui, Jarjas was one of the best Syrian translators; his famous Syrian translation of Aristotle’s book In The World was very faithful and close to the original.

In addition to that, the coming of Islam was very significant to the development of translation in the Arab world; Prophet Mohammed peace be upon him tried to spread Islam through different means. One of those means was communication; he communicated with Jews, Romans and others, and that is what pushed him to encourage the learning of others’ languages and to look for translators to help in communication. At that period of time, Prophet Mohammed exchanged letters with kings of Persia, Syria, Jews and Rome, and Zaid Ibn Tabet was the Prophet’s translator.

The history of translation in the Arab world highlighted also the name of Al Jahid; one of the important theorists in translation. The theories of Al Jahid are still used today by many professional Arab translators. Al Jahid (1969:75) says: “the translator should know the structure of the speech, habits of the people and their ways of understanding each other.”[6] In addition to the structure and the habits, Al Jahid talked also about the significance of re-translating and put a wide range of theories in his two books Al-Hayawan (1969) and Al-Bayan WA Attabyyin (1968).

In short, the history of translation in the Arab world knew many changes, and became very rich in theories. New theorists appeared in each era with new perceptions and new ways of analyzing. Translation in the Arab world, today, started to develop, and new fields of research in translation appear each year, especially with the efforts of the Arabic Academia in Translation studies.

Translation Studies: An academic Discipline

“Translation studies” is an academic discipline which concerns itself with the study of translation[7]; the term today is understood to refer to the study of the academic discipline at large, including non literary translation, interpretation, pedagogy and other issues.

As an academic discipline, ‘translation studies’ is just a few decades old. Starting from 1950, scholars and experts were interested in forming coherent theories and conducting research on translation, but it is also true that not so much had been done within the framework of this new discipline, and there are still issues to be analyzed and discussed. That is because scholars went deeply in relating “translation studies” to other disciplines such as psychology, anthropology and, very recently, cultural studies.

One has now to acknowledge the fact that translation studies as a discipline found its place among other academic disciplines and has become independent.

Thanks to the Dutch scholar James S. Holmes, translation studies is defined as a discipline being concerned with “the complex problems clustered round the phenomenon of translating and translations” (Holmes 1988b/2000: 173)

Mona baker, in 1997, stated that the new discipline is very rich and it brings together scholars from a variety of more traditional disciplines.[8]

The Islamic culture

“If everybody is looking for it, then nobody is finding it. If we were cultured, we would not be conscious of lacking culture. We would regard it as something natural and would not make so much fuss about it. And if we knew the real value of this word we would be cultured enough not to give it so much importance.”


In the present chapter, several points are to be accentuated. First, the notion of culture; what is meant by the word ‘culture’ from different points of view. Second, I will try to relate culture to Islam; I will define the Islamic culture and discuss its levels and I will mention some principles of the Islamic culture and hopefully clarify them. The last point to be dealt with is the translatability of the Islamic culture; to what extent is the Islamic culture translatable?

The notion of culture

Culture is the customs, ideas, civilization, etc. of a particular society or a group of people[9]. It is a set of ideas, beliefs and ways of behaving of an organization or a group of people[10].

The notion of culture is quite very hard to define. The two meanings stated above are the most widespread; they define culture as “a summary of human gaining in its interaction with its physical and social environment and religious sources”[11].

It is extremely necessary to keep in mind that there are some dominant cultures, may be for the reason that they are powerful, and as a result influential.

Translation, involving the transposition of thoughts expressed in one language by one social group into the appropriate expression of another group, entails a process of cultural de-coding, re-coding and en-coding. As cultures are increasingly brought into greater contact with one another, multicultural considerations are brought to bear to an ever-increasing degree. One is not just dealing with words written in a certain time, space and sociopolitical situation; most importantly it is the “cultural” aspect of the text that should be taken into account. The process of transfer, i.e., re-coding across cultures, should consequently allocate corresponding attributes vis-à-vis the target culture to ensure credibility in the eyes of the target reader.

Indeed, correct translation is not word for word substitution from one language into another, but it requires some understanding of the way people live and think. The meaning of a word in a language is derived from its culture and represents the main connection between language and culture.

Religion and culture

It is universally acknowledged that religion represents the very first element in a group of people’s culture which noticeably influences their way of living. For this reason, peoples’ cultures differ as the religions differ.

It is a fact that most of the expressions used, by a group of people, in the language of everyday life is generally based on religious vocabulary. One may discover the culture of the others only through their speeches, especially those people who keep on being faithful to the religious language. Muslims, for instance represent the most noticeable case for there are many Qur’anic expressions in Muslims’ daily life; in Moroccan Arabic it is common to say: “?? ?? ??? ?????”. This expression is derived from the Qur’an “they said “pray to your Lord for us, that He may make clear to us what kind it should be.”” “They said “pray to your Lord for us, that He may make clear to us what its color should be.”[12] This expression is used in the Moroccan Arabic to express how difficult it is to do or possess something.

The principles of Islamic culture

One of the dominant cultures today in the whole world is the Islamic culture. This culture has two main aspects: the first is stable (Sacred Sources) and the second is changing (the interaction with environment).[13]

The Islamic culture, as all other cultures, has principles most of which are shared with other human communities:

  • Respect of the other.
  • Co-operation with others.
  • Reliance on science and knowledge.
  • Mutual help and support.
  • Disapproval of wrong deeds.

These are considered the most important principles of the Islamic culture.

The Islamic culture: Translatable?

The question that can be raised, in this part, is: to what extent is the Islamic Culture Translatable?

It is a fact that the Islamic culture shares a lot in common with other cultures with different religions. E.g. the word “????” exists in some other languages, the speakers of which also believe that there is one «God». As a result, the word “Allah” is translatable. But there are words and senses which are specific to the Islamic culture, and which will be dealt with in the last part of this paper.

This highlights the fact that the terms dealing with the religious aspects of a culture are the most difficult, both in understanding the SLT and providing the best equivalence in the TLT, Larson (1984:180). The second point which is important as well is that “sameness cannot exist between two languages”, Bassnett (1991:30), for the reason that the TL reader is not aware of the different aspects of meaning involved.

Cultural untranslatability
“A translation is no translation, he said, unless it will give you the music of a poem along with the words of it.”

Modern linguistic studies showed that language is not a mere physiological, but also a cultural phenomenon, and translation is by nature a very important aspect in cross-cultural communication. The role of translation, therefore, is to introduce one culture to another by means of translating. But very often cultural factors become the barrier in translation and result in untranslatability.

Types of cultural untranslatability

According to some translation scholars, such as Nida, there exist five distinct types of culture: historical culture, geographical and psychological culture, material culture, customs and traditions as well as religious culture.

Historical Culture

It refers to the culture settled and formed during a nation’s development. The historical culture differs from one society to another because the historical development differs as well. This kind of difference impedes intercultural communication. To best illustrate this impediment, “Adam’s apple”, which refers to the lump on the front of a man’s throat, can never be translated into Chinese except by its literal meaning because this term is originated from a Biblical story.

Geographical and psychological culture

Different nations’ geographical and psychological culture is also a main barrier in translation. Because of the different geographical environments and different nations’ mentalities, the same word will have totally different meanings in two different cultures. “East wind” in Japan and English is a vivid example. Japanese people favor the east wind, for it is always a symbol of “spring” and “warmness” while people in Britain dislike the east wind, because the east wind is from the northern part of the European continent, so it always symbolizes “coldness” and “sadness”. In Britain the favorite wind is the west wind. That is the reason why word for word translation never works.

Also meanings of some “colors” are different. In English, “green” is always connected with “envy” and “blue” with “moon”, so there are such expressions “green with envy” and “once in a blue moon”. Those expressions cannot be translated into Arabic using the words “green” and “blue”. Thus, they are translated as ????- ??? ?? ????? instead.

Material culture

One should pay much more attention when translating words which reflect the material culture. For example, the word “cricket” is an important word in the English language, for it is a popular outdoor game in Britain, and plays an important role in people’s daily life. The following saying “It is as significant as a game of cricket.” best illustrates this point. If we want to translate this sentence, we should add some background information for the TL reader considering that playing cricket is not widely spread in other countries.

Another example is the term “meat technologist”. Moroccan readers may feel confused if the term is translated as “???? ????”. While according to its cultural background, this term simply means the “butcher”, because “meat technologist” is a euphemism for the “butcher” in western countries. By using this term, butchers may think highly of their profession.

“Food is for many the most sensitive and important expression of national culture; food terms are subject to the widest variety of translation procedures” (Newmark, 1988:97). The terms coming under this category are further complicated due to the “foreign” elements present. One such case is the reference to the brightly colored pâtisseries tunisiennes. Translating according to the French idea of pâtisseries would imply using the English “cakes” or “pastries” yet in the context of Tunisian culture this hardly seems appropriate, bearing in mind the difference in form of the TL reference. This illustrates the theory developed by Mounin (1963) who underlines the importance of the signification of a lexical item claiming that only if this notion is considered will the translated item fulfill its function correctly. In this case the translation as “sweets” seems to correspond to the idea of the original signification, even if it is a more abstract translation of the French original, and is therefore more appropriate concerning its function in the TT than a translation of formal equivalence.

Another example of material culture includes an eponym, namely bouteilles de Sidi Brahim. In France this low-quality, Algerian wine is widely known and is the traditional drink with North African dishes, therefore widely sold in supermarkets as well as this type of small shop. This example can be seen as corresponding to the new ideal reader as described by Coulthard, having different cultural knowledge (Coulthard, 1992:12) as an English-speaking reader would not necessarily know the name of this wine and even less its associations. By using strictly formal equivalence, all meaning would be lost. It would however be possible to neutralize the original term Sidi Brahim by translating as “wine” or else to introduce a form of componential analysis, translating as “cheap, Algerian wine.” Sidi Brahim being the area where the wine is produced, it seems appropriate to keep the original term in the TT but it is necessary to add a qualifier, here “wine.” In this way, although the cultural implications are not as strong as for an “initiated” French reader, the information is passed on and elucidated by a qualifier. The cultural implications automatically understood by the ST reader, namely the notion of cheap, low-quality wine, are not however conveyed, the emphasis in this context being on the exotic nature of the product as conveyed by Sidi Brahim and not on the low cost.

Customs and traditions

The different customs and traditions in the daily activities around the world reflect the different cultural mentalities. For instance, In China, when people meet each other in the street, they always greet like this “where will you go” or “what will you do”. In fact, this kind of greetings is very rude and impolite in western countries, for it is an interference with privacy. Instead, they are translated as “hello” “good morning” or “how are you”.

Religious culture

Religious culture means the culture formed by a nation’s religious beliefs and common sense. This type of culture usually impedes the transfer of meaning to a TL since different peoples have different religions. The phrase (?? ??? ????) is an Arabic term “God willing” or “If it is God’s will” is a good example. It derives from Islamic scripture, Surat Al Kahf (18):24:

“But only If God wills!’ And remember your Lord when you forget”

This phrase is now used excessively in Moroccan Arabic. Unfortunately, it is often used to delay events or to avoid giving a definite answer.

Levels of Cultural untranslatability

Catford states that Cultural untranslatability takes place when a relevant situational feature in the SL is absent in the TL. This cultural untranslatability has different levels. The level changes for the reason that some words are completely untranslatable whereas other words are very hard to find equivalence to in the TL. For this specific reason, the translator has to be skillful and experienced. The translator has to be bilingual as well as bicultural in order to have a better TLT.

The translator’s skills: an important factor

It is now a common belief that the translator’s skills play a major role in delivering a good translation. A good translation is one that carries all the ideas of the original as well as its structural and cultural features. Massoud (1988)[14] sets criteria for a good translation as follows:

  • A good translation is easily understood.
  • A good translation is fluent and smooth.
  • A good translation is idiomatic.
  • A good translation conveys, to some extent, the literary subtleties of the original.
  • A good translation distinguishes between the metaphorical and the literal.
  • A good translation reconstructs the cultural/historical context of the original.
  • A good translation makes explicit what is implicit in abbreviations, and in allusions to sayings, songs, and nursery rhymes.
  • A good translation will convey, as much as possible, the meaning of the original text.

Enani (1994:5)[15] defines the translator as “a writer who formulates ideas in words addressed to readers. The only difference between him and the original writer is that these ideas are the latter’s”. Another difference is that the work of the translator is even more difficult than that of the artist. The artist is supposed to produce directly his/her ideas and emotions in his/her own language however intricate and complicated his/her thoughts are. The translator’s responsibility is much greater, for s/he has to relive the experiences of a different person, states Antar S. Abdullah[16].

To conclude, the above analysis shows that “translating is an activity which inevitably involves at least two languages and two cultural traditions” (Toury, 1978: 200)[17]. As this statement implies, translators are permanently faced with the problems of how to treat the cultural aspects in a source text (ST) and of finding the most appropriate technique to successfully convey these aspects in the target language.

Translation and the Islamic culture

“Indeed, there has come to you light and a clear book from Allah; with it (the Qur’an) Allah guide him who seeks His pleasure into the ways of safety and brings them out of utter darkness into light by his will and guides them to the right path.”

(Almaidah V: 15-16)


The Qur’an, for the Muslim, comprehends the complete code for all human beings to live a good, chaste, abundant and rewarding life in obedience to the commandments of Allah. It is the “chart of life” for every human being, and it is the “constitution” of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. The Qur’an was an oral text throughout the lifetime of Muhammad. It was also a fluid text. The complete text resided only in the memories of Muhammad and his followers. As he added verses and reorganized the text, his followers would rememorize the text in the light of the additions or edits. This means that the Qur’an was a living text during the lifetime of Muhammad. Certain verses revealed to Muhammad were later repudiated by him as “satanic” verses revealed not by Gabriel but by Satan. These verses were expunged from the text that so many had memorized.

The untranslatability of the Qur’an

Because the Qur’an is for every human being, it transcends the boundaries of the Arab world and goes beyond it. The Qur’an is addressed to all peoples without exception. It carries a universal message to all human beings regardless of their race or color.

It is true in our days that the translation of the Qur’an represents one of the most important elements in the Qur’anic studies, mainly, because it is the first book non-Muslims encounter when attempting to well understand Islam.

The Qur’an exists in its original language, i.e., Arabic. Some Muslim scholars agree that the true Qur’an is in Arabic, in its original wording as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him); therefore, it should only be recited in the Arabic language. The translations however are the work of humans. And since these translations subtly change the meaning, they are often called “interpretations.” For instance, Pickthall (1930) called his translation The Meaning of the Glorious Koran rather than simply The Koran.

Part of the miracles of the Qur’an is said to be based on I’jaz ????? , or Inimitability. Even for native Arabic speakers, the Qur’an is a difficult document. Its archaic language and verse structure are difficult hurdles to cross. People always admitted their inability to produce something similar to the Qur’an. And the translations of the Qur’an are considered, by some scholars, to be one form of trying to produce a similar Book.

Translators of the Qur’an, it is important to note, encounter many difficulties in the process of translation. Those difficulties encountered are due to different reasons.

First, some verses in the Qur’an complement each other, for that reason the translator of the Qur’an has to go back to the related verses in order to translate one verse; this stresses the idea that word for word translation is not to be used, especially in this context. The verse ???? ???? ????? ???? ????? best illustrates this difficulty. This verse has two meanings: an internal meaning which is, trading is licit while usury is illicit, and it has also an external meaning: the two terms are different; they are not the same. This second meaning is not included in the text, but understood when one goes back to the previous verse:

The external meaning, it has to be clear, is necessary in order to understand and translate a verse of the Qur’an. And that is the reason why some of the early translators of the Qur’an fell in ambiguities.

The second problem that impedes the translation of the Qur’an is that some verses may be general; the form used in those verses includes everything, but the meaning of the verse is related to another verse which is specific. The verse: ??? ???? is considered a vivid example in this case. The reader cannot know the religion of the slave to free. But, if the translator goes back to the verse 92 of Surat Anissâ’:

The question of whether or not one should attempt to translate the Qur’an should be seen, mainly, in the context of translatability in general, instead of always relating it to the Arabic language.

The Material Culture of the Qur’an

Material culture includes all of the physical objects that people create and give meaning to. Clothing, architectural elements, and handmade carpets would be examples. An object only becomes part of culture after meaning has been given to it. Human beings perceive and understand the material things around them as they have learned to from their culture.

In Arabic, there exist many terms that, even if they have their equivalence in other languages, they cannot be easily translated because they have a particular connotative meaning. Larson (1984: 132) warns the translator of the problems of the SL connotative meaning. In some verses of the Qur’an, there is reference to the donkey and the dog. Those two words have a negative connotation in Arabic, but they are neutral when translated into English for instance.

The two words, in English, have a different connotative meaning. For example, the word “dog” is a symbol of loyalty (the dog is the man’s best friend), whereas the donkey is considered, in the Islamic culture, a symbol of utter stupidity.

Translation of the Qur’an and the Muslim scholars

Because the Qur’an stresses its Arabic nature, some Muslim scholars believe that any translation cannot be more than an approximate interpretation, intended only as a tool for the study and understanding of the original Arabic text. They argue that the Qur’anic text cannot be reproduced in another language or form. Furthermore, an Arabic word may have a range of meanings depending on the context, making an accurate translation even more difficult. This factor is made more complex by the fact that the usage of words has changed a great deal between classical and modern Arabic. They argue also that the task of translation is not an easy one; some native Arab-speakers will confirm that some Qur’anic passages are difficult to understand even in the original Arabic. As a result, even Qur’anic verses which seem perfectly clear to native speakers accustomed to modern vocabulary and usage may not represent the original meaning of the verse.

The original meaning of a Qur’anic passage will also be dependent on the historical circumstances of the Prophet Muhammad’s life and early community in which it originated. For this reason, one finds a detailed historical background in the introduction of any interpretation of the Qur’an.


The four parts discussed in this research project are not to be viewed as complete products, but they need to be polished and enriched further with other examples.

The four main parts of this monograph seem to be very distinct, but, at near scrutiny, these parts are so closely linked because they share the same aim which is to highlight the fact that translation, as a field of knowledge, is very rich, and may be related to many other fields.

As an interdisciplinary discipline, translation studies borrows much from the different fields of study that support translation. These include comparative literature, computer science, history, linguistics, philology, philosophy, semiotics, terminology, and so forth.

The present monograph, being an attempt to relate translation to other fields, tries to bring together translation and Islam in an attempt to show the untranslatable side of the Islamic culture, starting with a definition and a historical background of translation, and defining the term culture. The monograph finishes with a general conclusion asserting that the Qur’an is untranslatable because of many reasons:

  • The Qur’an exists in its original language.
  • The relationship between verses: verses complement each other.
  • Problems of the external meaning.
  • The generality of some verses in the Qur’an.

These problems, among many others, impede the translation of the Qur’an, and make the task harder for the translator to convey the exact meaning in the TLT.

In addition to that, Culture plays a very important role in translation as translation requires the transfer of meaning from one culture to another.

To conclude, translation studies is neither an isolated field of study nor a mere branch of linguistics. It is an independent field of knowledge able to communicate with all other fields and branches.


  • Addidaoui, M., 2000, Attarjama wa Attawasoul [Translation and communication], Casablanca/Beirut, Al Markaz Attaqafi Alarabi.
  • Al-Jahid. A, 1969 Alhayawan [The Animal]. Realized by Abdessalam Aharoun. Beirut: Dar Al-kitab Al-Arabi [The house of the Arabic book].
  • Antar S. Abdullah what every novice translator should know, Translation Journal Online.
  • Jushua, S., 2002, Studies in translation, United Kingdom, Atlantic.
  • Kirsten, M., 2006, Linguistics and the language of translation, United Kingdom, Edinburgh.
  • Larson, Mildred L., 1998, Meaning-based translation: a guide to cross-language equivalence, 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: University Press of America and Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Massoud, M., 1988. Translate to Communicate, A Guide for Translators. New York: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.
  • Pym A. and Turk H., 2000, Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, London and New York, Routledge.
  • Venuti, L. and Baker, M., 2004, the translation studies reader, London, Routledge.

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