Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What Words Mean

Last week I was representing the Middle East Studies Program at a dinner with one of our guest speakers and the UW professor who had invited him, and we briefly went into my own research. The two professors, both from the Arab world, asked about what sort of sources I used, and an example I gave was al-Baladhuri's Ansab al-Ashraf. The guest then asked curiously how I would translate that, and I said, "Genealogy of the Notables."

The immediate reaction was that it didn't mean that at all, though after a bit of talk, they had to admit it kind of did. The problem with "ashraf" as "notables" is predictable, in that you're describing a class of people in a social system completely different from that reflected in English, and the word conveys a sense of aboveness not found in any equivalent I can think of, unless you want to use "nobles" which conveys a sense of European aristocracy that seems even worse.

"Ansab" appears more straightforward, and in fact it's translated as "genealogy" all over the place, yet they were adamant there was more to it, a sense of the present more than the past. I was familiar with that idea from my readings in anthropology, especially William Lancaster's The Rwala Bedouin Today. In talking about the Bedouin genealogical system, he writes, "We see a genealogy as starting in the past and coming down to the present; the Rwala see it as starting in the present and receding into the past...For them the main point of a genealogy is to provide a framework for legitimising present political relationships...the relationship is active; the genealogy passive."

I was familiar with this, but yet struck by how immediate the differences between "genealogy" and its Arabic equivalent were to these two natives of the urban Levant, differences so profound that the similarity in terms of "examination of who is related to who" was not the first thing that came to mind. This is a cultural difference, and I suspect there's no way I could really "get it" in a personal sense unless I played anthropologist and went out to live for a year or so in a society where it was still immediate and important.

I've thought of these issues the past few days as I worked with a primary source by al-Mubarrad called Nasab 'Adnan wa Qahtan, which I might call "Lineage of 'Adnan and Qahtan". It is filled with terms like qabila and raht and batn, just like other works are filled with terms like ashira and qawm. I can look these up in the dictionary and see equivalents like "tribe" for several, while another might be "band" and another "people." But what does all that really tell me? Al-Mubarrad's raht does not mean "band" or "group" or anything else listed in the sense I might use it in English, except in the most generic sense of the word "group."

These terms represent the way in which the author perceived the relationships and interactions of his social world. They are as important to figuring out tribal society as the nuances of "friend," "acquaintance," "colleague," "associate," and "peer," not to mention the differences in how they are used by individuals, would be to someone studying types of social relationships in our society. Unravelling them can be difficult, however, not least because meanings change over time. Lancaster wrote that an ashira was considered something larger than a qabila, whereas I first learned it from medieval history as something smaller. I'm also not entirely sure if qawm is meant to designate something specific in the social structure, or if its just a general sense of "people," as in "his people."

I don't know how far I might get on that end of things before I finish my dissertation, though I'll obviously have to address the issue based on the sources I'm reading. But what all this does highlight is the importance of language to the study of history, something I'm not sure most people understand. Even accurate translations don't capture a lot of what we need to know. If I see "tribe" in a translated source, I need to know what term is used in Arabic, and more importantly, the cultural context of that term. Languages are not universal; they are mediums of communication in a specific culture. Our common humanity means we can understand each other, and plenty of words and concepts will work across a number of cultures. Some things, however, will always be misunderstood if expressed in a medium not meant for them - in other words, lost in translation.

UPDATE: On a related note, Greg Aldous has some observations on an Arabic production of Romeo and Juliet.


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