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Mistranslating Mana’

Here at Waq al-waq I like to point out how important it is to know Arabic, partly because I have spent so long studying the language but also because if you don’t know it you tend to miss things. For instance, yesterday I linked to this interview with Hasan Mana’ from al-Sharq al-Awsat. It included a hadith:

«لا يلدغ المؤمن من جحر واحد مرتين

Today, al-Sharq al-Aswat translated the same interview and posted it to its English-language site (h/t: The Majlis). The only problem was that it translated the above hadith:

“A believer is not harmed by the same stone twice.”

Leaving aside the issue with the definite article, this is not the same hadith. The Arabic has: “
The Believer is not stung from the same hole twice.”

A similar idea maybe, but an entirely different hadith. My point in detailing this mix-up is A.) one always has to be wary of translations even if it is an official translation and B.) these mix-ups are not always so insignificant.

Now, my Arabic is far from perfect – my speaking resembles an illiterate Bedouin (mostly because these are the people I first learned to speak with), my transliteration needs loads of work as does my work on vowelling and editing texts – and it is something that I will be studying for the rest of my life.

One never really stops being an Arabic student. But I take comfort in a quote a good friend, who has the type of linguistic skills that inspire dark and jealous thoughts among fellow academics, often recited at qat chews: “The first ten years of Arabic are the hardest.” His source, of course, was none other than A.J. Arberry.

Still, I don’t see how one can be considered an “expert” on the region or a particular country if one does not speak the language(s) of the region or country. It is baffling. And it seems to be a particular problem with the Middle East and now with Yemen.


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