Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 34 seconds

Shame: Arabic writing and presentation skills!

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 34 seconds

I am so ashamed. I am.

I can speak Arabic, read it and write it, but I am not good at using it academically. And it’s becoming a problem.

In most conferences that are bilingual (Arabic/English) I opt to speak mostly in English because the terminologies come more easily to me. I listen to the Arabic and usually understand 95% of it, but lots of it sounds awkward and stilted to me.

I write for Al-Fanar in English and can rarely (uh, never?) translate my own writing elegantly (though I can spot a bad translation when I see one). I tried it once, for one of my simpler pieces for them. They rejected it, they felt it was not written well enough ๐Ÿ™

I want to work on this, it is ridiculous to submit to the colonization of my education, the Anglicization of it. Growing up in my English school, we were not allowed to speak Arabic, so we only spoke it out of resistance, and so our teachers would not understand us. We did this in front of our American teachers when we were at college at the American University in Cairo as well – but later realized many of them speak Arabic, so it was not a great idea, in hindsight, because they actually heard stuff and understood it that we (rudely, of course) had not meant for them to u understand.

Anyway! I know part of the problem for me is that most of my Arabic reading is religious text, and though I am very fluent in it, it is not the same discourse as everyday Arabic we speak (colloquial) or the more difficult academic Arabic (dunno what that is called, even), all of which is different from the Arabic in the newspapers (Modern standard Arabic) which I can read but not write well…

The more urgent question for me is: I need to give a short talk (as part of a panel) in Arabic soon and I need to use the following concepts (can someone help me translate them into Arabic? I have posted my suggestions but they sound awkward to me, as do most translations, i think, when you are “thinking” in one language and translating to another!)

Lifelong learning. ุงู„ุชุนู„ู… ุงู„ู…ุณุชู…ุฑ ู…ุฏู‰ ุงู„ุญูŠุงุฉ
Communities of practice (no idea! ู…ุฌุชู…ุนุงุช ู…ู…ุงุฑุณุฉ)
Access to technology ุงู„ู…ู‚ุฏุฑุฉ ุนู„ู‰ ุงู„ูˆุตูˆู„ ู„ู„ุชูƒู†ูˆู„ูˆุฌูŠุง
Privilege ุงู…ุชูŠุงุฒ (this translation was used recently in the translation of my social media for the semi-privileged article on Al-Fanar but it sounded off so we changed it but had to keep it in other places, but kept it in the body of the article)
Social reproduction, this could be translated as re-cycling privilege, but i already don’t like the translation of privilege to being with). Am sure it already has an Arabic term for it!
Indoctrination (ู‡ูŠู…ู†ุฉ ุงู„ููƒุฑ) but that sounds like hegemony rather than indoctrination… Hmm…

On another note, it’s really becoming high time for me to go take some courses on improving my Arabic writing skills – have been calling for AUC to include such courses for undergrads… I’d take one in a heartbeat if it existed!

Any help is highly appreciated!


22 thoughts on “Shame: Arabic writing and presentation skills!

  1. I can see that your translations are more or less perfect, in fact, sometimes we just have this feeling that the readers will not understand our translations, especially for now terms, thus, we translate English terms by using more words in Arabic. Anyway,see these.

    Lifelong learning. ุงู„ุชุนู„ู… ุงู„ู…ุณุชู…ุฑ
    Communities of practice ุฌู…ุงุนุฉ ุงู„ู…ู…ุงุฑุณุฉ (Wikipedia said so)
    Access to technology ุญู‚ ุงู„ูˆุตูˆู„ ู„ู„ุชูƒู†ูˆู„ูˆุฌูŠุง
    Privileges ุฅู…ุชูŠุงุฒุงุช
    Indoctrination ุชู„ู‚ูŠู† ู…ูุฐู‡ุจ (Wikipedia said so too, awkward, huh?)

    1. Thanks ya Tarek, I actually felt most of them are awkward ๐Ÿ™‚ esp the translation for community of practice on wikipedia…

      1. What is a “Community of Practice” anyway? This term is impossible to understand in English without reference to its defining literature, and even then, there is some room for disagreement. These conceptual terms need to be separated from more mundane terminology that describes things that actually exist in the world – a kidney, a molecule, an odometer. For concrete things we can usually find “equivalents”… for concepts, this is exceedingly difficult.

        1. Agreed, Mark. Thanks for your previous comment, too, though I think you forgot to explain the political dimension? ๐Ÿ™‚

          It’s so amazing, this power of language (and not only language as in English or Arabic, but also sub-discourses within a language) to influence power and knowledge. It’s not new to talk about it, but it never fails to fascinate me, and how in our everyday lives we are sort of forced to submit to it so that life can go on. It is always easier to learn the dominant language in order to participate in knowledge-production. Does it make sense to resist, to subvert? You just gave an example of medical knowledge being originally in Arabic then some group of people changing it to Latin and reclaiming it, so to speak. One of my biggest issues (which you allude to in one of your comments) is this whole change in the Arab world from knowledge production to knowledge consumption. Well, all kinds of consumption, really, not just knowledge: also culture and economic physical goods. Thinking more deeply about all this now, and how my personal pedagogy but also my overall advocacy should emphasize these aspects. I’ll email you something I wrote recently about cultural aspects of critical thinking…

          1. Hi Maha,

            Most people are blissfully unaware of language – and, by the way, consider themselves experts simply because they speak one. Language expresses power both overtly and covertly – in ways we are aware of and in ways we ignore.

            I did not forget to talk about the political dimension but just thought I’d written enough and so stopped. English speakers are often aware of the political force of their language and you even see this discussed in near-mainstream groups under the rubric of “language imperialism.” There is an inverse phenomenon of native speakers becoming outnumbered by second language learners and then overwhelmed and losing control of English. I think it will become more and more clear that this is indeed the case over the next 50 years. Already, most academic writing in English is by non-native speakers. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Native speakers are often the most obtuse and incomprehensible of writers.

            I agree with your point about Arabic having become a language of consumers rather than producers of knowledge. This has the affect of arresting its development and further fragmenting it into a plethora of local and regional dialects, creoles, and pidgin forms.

            This is a direct result of the political and economic containment of the Arab world. Even in areas of theology and law, where Arabic was historically productive, there has been a stasis since sometime in the 18th century with the adoption of strongly positivist views toward these subjects expressed in such ways as “the doors of ijtihad are closed.” This notion may have come from Western “science” of at era, or it may have been in response to political monopolization of authority on a local level. Whatever the reason, memory and application became more valued than inquiry and innovation.

            Today, the Arabs are more completely subjugated than they were under the French and British Empires. In those days, there was still some independent trade, science, law, and culture. It is difficult to see these things today. In the Arab world, elites are speaking English and elite universities are, by definition, English only institutions. Both you and I work in such institutions. Muslim societies have been polarized by a Western philosophical dichotomy of secular and religious, which is irrelevant to Muslim and Islamic civilization but which, nevertheless, paralyzes the Arabs and makes any kind of progress extremely difficult – you see this in Egypt very clearly today.

            We know that for every malady there is a remedy – li kulli daa` dawaa` – so the solution is self-evident, self-evident and unknown at least until someone recognizes it.

            In the mean time, work needs to be done to rehabilitate Arabic as a language of knowledge producers. The place for that is in primary and middle school public education in the Arabic world that focuses less on 19th century values of social control, obedience and more on knowledge production, innovation, problem solving, and the development of coherent social and political values.

  2. About improving one’s Arabic. I believe it comes by choosing to read into more diverse topics. I myself find it hard to speak in that so called, Modern Standard Arabic. I hate that term by the way, and find it a westernized one. I can write in it, but when speaking it is always easier to speak in colloquial Arabic. But, anyway, I can see that the problem for you, me, and most of us, is problem of terminologies rather than a lingual problem. We are taught in English and tend to know the terms in the English form, and find their Arabic translations odd or missing. Which is, imho, not a personal problem, but it is a problem that needs more work to put scientific dictionary and help build Arabic glossaries for scientific and technical terms.

    1. Agreed ya Tarek. Someone on facebook suggested we all start using wikipedia more, editing it until we have translations for terms that we like…having an influence there. But now reading your post I think I know what the problem is: the translations of those terms (Western constructs, not just terms, I guess) makes no sense to someone who does not know the English versions of the words!!! And they make little sense to those of us who DO know the English – i.e. to use the term, it is generally more understandable to more people to use English for the term. Some translations like for lifelong learning kind of makes sense to anyone, but also the connotations of what we mean by it are not familiar to someone who has never heard it before… And in Arabic, fewer people will have heard it before. Do you think trying to read more will solve my problem? I tried to read Arabic academic texts while working on my PhD but gave up because I found myself stopping to translate each term to English! Such a shame ๐Ÿ™

  3. Hi Maha,

    It isn’t clear to me whether the problem you identify is stylistic or terminological. Tarek dislikes MSA – and I agree. Hopefully, this will go the way of RP in English very soon.

    Terminological problems are also clear in English, particularly in the Social Sciences, as people fail to agree upon the meanings of things and groups congregate around certain concepts that they define in peculiar ways. Examples are “affordances” in educational technology and “paradigms” in broader discussions of the philosophy of science.

    With respect to Arabic, the problem has been recognized for a long time. Originally, it arose from the same mechanisms that drive English terminological chaos – diversity of dialects, diversity of worldviews and philosophical groundings. Later, as the Arabic speakers speaking Arabic stopped becoming producers of science and became – primarily consumers of it – this problem was complicated by literal translation of foreign terms and concepts into Arabic. You can see this in the items you and Tarek have provided above.

    One solution is to leave the terminological problem alone and re-focus style as the primary goal. To do this one could read good secular Arabic stylists – Taha Hussein, Al-Manfaluti, Nagib Mahfouz, are several modern ones and begin to develop a voice. Then, rather than reproduce dark English terms, explain concepts as best you can, as if you were explaining yourself to someone who is new to your field or to a non-academic who might be interested.

    English speakers, too, need to tone down the terminological BS, especially in the Social Sciences and Humanities. More often than not, this is used to obfuscate, dissimulate, and confuse the reader – or to “impress” – all of which do violence to our main purpose, which is to communicate something that is important to us and that we believe will be important to someone else.

    1. Thanks for this, Mark. Yes, I know the problem is not new, but maybe my shame in it has been getting stronger in the past 5 years or so, and my advocacy for changing education to try to improve it (particularly in the predominantly English-language, Western-knowledge-reproducing AUC where I have influence). But I agree with you. I do think, though, that agreement on terms helps make our discussions more succinct? You’ll see in my response to Tarek how I also feel the translated terminologies obfuscate and confuse someone not familiar with them – they sound more “jargony” than their English counterparts… I think a lay audience might understand “lifelong learning” better than the Arabic equivalent. Though in hindsight, I should do as you suggest: speak plainly about issues of social reproduction, access, indoctrination, explaining what I mean without using terminologies. In plain colloquial Arabic. It may not sound too “impressive”, but it will be understood. I was not going to be too impressive anyway, so I might as well be at least understood ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for this!

      1. Hi Maha,

        Congratulations on the your Reclaim hosted blog. The WordPress (TM) installation always kicked me off comments and insisted that I sign into my WP-Imperial account first.

        Back to terminology. I like Tarek’s suggestion to use Wikipedia as a kind of lens for achieving consensus on Arabic terminology. This has several advantages but it also assumes that people understand what the nature of Wiki as an “authority” – and this is a pretty large assumption. I don’t think anyone has much of an understanding of how this works yet.

        We can construct the terminology problem academically, politically or linguistically.

        As an academic problem it would refer to who is creating knowledge and how they construct it. An example of this is the development of medical terminology in the late Middle Ages. At this time, most medical terminology was in Arabic and anyone who wanted to study medicine normally had to learn Arabic first. Spain was the primary locus of medical scholarship then. Medical sources were often in Arabic but the main problem was the terminology which was also in Arabic. This made it very difficult to speak about medical topics in any language other than Arabic. Then, someone discovered a Latin medical dictionary that held the terms needed, and Europeans were able to shift their discussions of medicine into Latin. This was a windfall. Once they had the linguistic tools they needed, they could begin to create medical knowledge in Latin, and they began to take ownership of their own intellectual production, in a language that made sense to them.

        As a linguistic problem, this comes down to saying what we mean. My first training was as a translator so I’ve thought about this kind of thing for a long time now. A technical term is a tight little package that contains a kernel of meaning that is understood because it has a social history and a context. I agree with George Lakoff who claims that virtually everything is a metaphor (see The Metaphors We Live By). This position places terminology in a particularly interesting light. In the social sciences at least, a technical term cannot often be translated because, as Tarek points out, to understand it really, we need to participate in its culture. Your example of “community of practice” is a case in point. What is a “community” for instance. What does this word mean to people. How is it used? How is it misused? To my mind, “community” describes almost any loosely bound group of people who share one or more characteristic in common. The “community” then focuses on that community, so we can have a “buck toothed, red-haired, Tomboy Nebraskan community” and an infinite variety of others. In the car this morning, I thought of almost a dozen different Arabic words to describe groups of people – a lot of these are metaphors too. fakhad, hizb, firqa, fir3a… they describe groups that are tightly or loosely bound. We could probably place them on a continuum following how tight or loose they are. The word /jamaa3a/ is probably fairly loose – this is from “Classical Arabic” and is used in the Quran referring both to people /ins/ and Genies /jin/ – the two sentient beings in the Islamic universe. Insects also have /jamaa3a/ I think. /ma3aashar/ is another that I feel is pretty loose – though also very big. If we were to construct a native Arabic term, we might use one of these words… but, as Tarek points out, we still need to tell people what it means, and this is the really difficult part. The terminology does not exist in a vacuum. It must emerge from a body of knowledge and scholarship that is also expressed in Arabic.

        1. Hi Mark, your hint about the Europeans using Latin in medical (and other) sciences made me wonder now. Sometimes in Arabic, when people try to come up with terms for scientific terminologies, those Arabic terms happen to be already used in the day to day life to describe other things. This kind of collision is a source of confusion. Some lexiconists (not sure if this is the correct term) try to go for old unused Arabic terms to minimize such confusion, but don’t you think Arabic needs its own Latin too. Find another language that has genealogical relation to Arab, and borrow terms for it for the new scientific terminologies we encounter? But on the other hand, this may look like re-inventing the wheel, and someone may think, why don’t we just arabize the existing English terms, by just using them as they are in the Arabic context, or just make minimal phonetic changes to make them suitable for Arabic text? I am a bit confused between the two options, or maybe I just need some coffee now ๐Ÿ™‚

          1. In order to talk about something, you need a common language. This is why professional jargons arise in the first place. Without a way of naming things and concepts, clear communication is impossible. The Europeans solved their initial problem by speaking Latin among themselves. They used Latin because it was usually the ONLY other language they knew, so it was a choice of convenience. It did not, however, provide them with any terminological apparatus.

            This arose from their common scholarship in Latin. That scholarship was mostly native and did not involve much direct translation from foreign sources, or if there was translation, one scholar would take the ideas he found in some foreign source and describe them himself, inventing or transposing terms in a process we know today as plagiarism. That scholar then became the “origin” of the idea or concept – borrowing and reference to outside sources had a very small impact on the power of naming.

            Arabic retains this power today n Islamic theology and related sciences alone and in this field, foreign scholars do write and discuss in Arabic. Anyone who wants to participate in this are of knowledge curation and creation will have to do so in Arabic.

            In other fields, there would need to be a compelling reason for Arabic speaking scholars to shift to Arabic as the preferred medium of their professional communication. While English speaking appears to favor native speakers, I believe this would be a difficult thing to prove.

            Academic language is a specialized dialect that all scholars and researchers need to learn. Mastering this dialect often requires mastery of underlying concepts and modes of thought which are not created by the native English speaking community so much as they are the product of academic discourse across international boundaries.

            Native speakers, with their confusing array of Anglophone cultural baggage, may actually find this dialect more difficult to master than non-natives who can more easily separate what comes to them from their national cultures from what comes to them through “Academic English” discourse structures which emerge from a global process of meaning making that is not bound to any one national culture.

            The desire for a national scholarly discourse may be motivated by nationalism more than it is by science. Eventually, English will probably recede as a global lingua franca.

  4. A fascinating post, Maha… with some excellently chewy feedback to follow! I am well aware (and am constantly reminded!) of how lucky I am to have English as my first language… for academic work, for fiction, for technical work, etc. Most European conferences that I have been to have been conducted in English.

    The downside of such a privilege, of course, is that it makes me lazy to need to learn a second language!

    1. Well, David, another downside is that learning a second language makes you smarter, which means that monoglot English speakers may become an endangered species in a couple of hundred years.

  5. You’re probably right, Mark! One of my academic regrets is that I gave up French and German at GCSE. I might never have been fluent, but at least I would have had a basic understanding (which I suppose I must have, come to that; I managed okay in Vienna at New Year). I gave up French and German to concentrate on Maths and Chemistry… which have served me no practical purpose whatsoever!

    1. Hi David…

      “Academics from Newcastle and York universities say that Education Secretary Michael Goveโ€™s statement that learning languages makes people smarter has a sound scientific basis.”

      also, “in older people, bilingualism can postpone the onset of dementia.โ€

      Active second language learning should be required of all publicly elected officials… Many did not trust John Kerry once it was revealed that he speaks French. Quelle horreur!

      1. hey Mark, did you notice this weird part in the article about time being from left-to-write?
        “Just minimal exposure to another language can change the way people think, even about time. In the 1970s, researchers discovered that for English-speaking children, time goes from left to right. By contrast, Arab children think in the opposite way, and those just learning English represented time in both directions.”

        What are they on about??? Time, not text, going from right to left? How’s that??? Am I missing something obvious?

        1. Yes. I saw that too.

          I’m not sure what he’s talking about. It may be a typo. He may have meant to say that Arab children read *numbers* from left to right – and this is true. I’m not sure why this is, although it could be due to number symbols and decimal notation were both adopted from India and all Indian languages are written from left to right.

          Whatever the origin, Arab children learning to read need to parse symbols in both directions. Something else he does not mention is that even Arabic letters flow right to left since they connect or do not connect differently to adjacent letters, whether on the left of the right.

          This means that the letter itself contains information about it’s correct direction. This is not the case with Latin based alphabets, Greek, Hebrew, or or any other Semitic language other than Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic with it’s own writing system). It is probably an innovation of Syriac, which appears to be the origin of the Arabic writing system.

  6. hi Mark and David, what an interesting exchange this has been! David, did you not learn any Arabic at all? I am sure you know some ๐Ÿ˜‰
    And if bilingualism or plurilingualism had such an incredible effect, I’d expect continental Europeans to be much more advanced than their English and American counterparts
    I’m not disputing the advantages of bilingualism, just suggesting avenues for research (maybe it’s been done, according to Mark’s link above)
    BUT note for example that a bilingual person in Egypt is merely someone who is more educated, higher socioeconomic class – so is it the bilingualism that’s creating better health,etc., or his better social conditions?

  7. Wow, what a long thread. I wonder how much of your concern is about the translation and how much about how knowledge is ‘generated’ or shared. One of the challenges many of our international students face is not simply that of language, but also in understanding western thought (the way we structure arguments and ideas). Does that lead to what you feel as ‘awkward’ Arabic? Because it is an idea that was formed using English, the way in which the ideas are formed and communicated may not align well with knowledge in Arabic? As an English speaker I feel that I miss out on really appreciating the different ways people think and form knowledge.

    1. That’s a good point Rebecca… There is a lot of literature about the relationship between thought (though you said “knowledge”) and language, and it’s (as far as I have read) a contested notion as to the relationships between culture,thought and language. I think it’s a bit of both? I think *most* notions *could* make some sense in various cultural/linguistic contexts, but they do more readily fit the language in which they were initially developed because of all that other background about how knowledge is built in that context. Hmmmm thinking about this some more… Might go back and read some of that stuff…

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