I joined the Army in large part for free training in Arabic. As a Bahá’í, I wanted to be able to read at least some of the Scriptures of my faith in their original language. (There are also many Bahá’í Writings in Persian.) In part this was because I wanted some scholarly footing on which to address skeptics and critics of the Faith with more academic credentials than I am ever likely to have. There is enormous power, for someone attempting to discredit a religion, in being able to say, “Well, in the original Arabic…” — and I wanted to be able to blunt that power.
But I was also curious about things that affected my own day-to-day understanding of my faith. A few years ago, while chatting with a friend about the Long Obligatory Prayer, one of the three possible daily prayers for Bahá’ís, I discovered that we performed the prayer differently.
The prayer is written with certain instructions, including the instruction to wash one’s face and hands before beginning and some regarding various postures and movements that accompany the recitation of the prayer. In the middle of the English translation, one encounters the following sentence:
Let him then raise his hands, and repeat three times the Greatest Name (“Alláh-u-Abhá”).
And sometime later there’s this instruction:
Let him then raise his hands thrice, and say:
Greater is God than every great one!
Not having picked up on the parallelism in these two sets of instructions, I had always, in the first case, raised my hands only once and spoken three times, and in the second case, raised my hands three times but spoken only once. But my friend, who was Persian and also read Arabic, was quite firm that in both cases one should raise one’s hands three times and speak each time — i.e., [Raise] “Alláh-u-Abhá” [Raise] “Alláh-u-Abhá” [Raise] “Alláh-u-Abhá.”
I pointed out to my friend that this was, at most, ambiguous in the English, but he said that it was obvious in the Arabic. Since he read Persian and Arabic and I didn’t, I took his word for it and changed the way I prayed.
But since then, by the grace of God and a considerable investment by the Army, I’ve learned Arabic myself tolerably well. And although the verses of the prayer are written in quite lofty language, the instructions are remarkably straightforward:
ثمّ يرفع يديه ويكبّر ثلاث مرّات
ثمّ يرفع يديه ثلاث مرّات ويقول
اللّه أعظم من كلّ عظيم
[My apologies for not including diacriticals — I haven’t figured them out yet on Mac’s QWERTY-Arabic keyboard layout.]
The first Arabic sentence above can be literally translated:
Then he raises his hands and gives praise three times.
يكبّر [yukabbiru] here means “he praises” — but it also has the implication of reciting a specific formula of the name of God: in Islam, this formula is the familiar “Alláh’u’Akbar,” but in the Bahá’í Faith it has been changed to “Alláh-u-Abhá.” This change was a small but momentous signal to the early believers that they were not merely following a variant of Islamic teaching, but had actually accepted a new religion from God — similar to Muhammad’s changing of the “Qiblah” (“Point of Adoration”) from Jerusalem to Mecca.
The second sentence literally reads thus:
Then he raises his hands three times, saying “God is greater than every great one.”
In other words, what I had assumed to be an ambiguous phrase in Arabic, rendered ambiguously in English, turns out to be, word-for-word in the Arabic, exactly as it was originally translated.
What does this mean for me as a believer? I realized after reading the prayer in Arabic that I had been relying on my friend to know what was “right” regarding the Holy Text, simply because he was Persian and therefore somehow linguistically “closer” to the source. I had fallen prey to the kind of linguistic chauvinism that makes some Muslims (especially Arab Muslims) think that the Holy Quran ceases to be the Word of God when you translate it into other languages. But to believe that is to become a victim of the idea that what is said or thought in one language can never really be understood in another language — in essence, to deny the fundamental commonality of human thought and expression. And we engage in this denial even though it’s pretty well established in the scientific community that language is built deep into the brain and, despite its manifold surface varieties, communicates fundmentally the same concepts. (At least syntactically.) It is, of course, never explained, if the Quran is truly untranslatable, how a convert would go about learning Arabic well enough to read the Quran, since as an adult one would presumably learn it by reference to another language, which by definition would never be able to express the concepts presented in the Arabic.
But the Quran itself, as far as I know, makes no mention of translation. And meanwhile the Bahá’í Writings are rapidly being translated into other languages all around the world, both by individuals and under the supervision of the Bahá’í World Centre, the administrative head of the Faith.
The danger in priveleging too much the ideas of those who are linguistically “closer” to the original Writings is that they, too, may fail to understand what they’re reading.
In the same Arabic and Persian prayer book in which I’ve been reading the Long Obligatory Prayer, there’s also the Arabic text of one of Bahá’u’lláh’s most well-known and well-loved prayers, the Tablet of Ahmad. I know the English text so well it’s remarkably easy to read, but I was puzzled by the phrasing of the first sentence. In English, it begins:
Lo, the Nightingale of Paradise singeth upon the twigs of the Tree of Eternity, with holy and sweet melodies, proclaiming to the sincere ones the glad tidings of the nearness of God….
This follows almost exactly the Arabic:
هذه ورقة الفردوس تغنّي على افنان سدرة البقاء بالحان قدس مليح وتبشّر المخلصين الى جوار اللّه
Technically, the word مليح (malih) — translated above as “sweet” — means “salty.” Yet, in one of those peculiarities of culture, it has a metaphorical implication very similar to “sweet” in English — i.e., “beautiful” or “pleasant.” But otherwise the above translation is word-for-word from the Arabic.
Now, this prayer, like many of Bahá’u’lláh’s most important works, was translated by His great-grandson, Shoghi Effendi, who was educated at the American University in Beirut and Oxford, and his renderings are considered the gold standard in translation of Bahá’í Scriptures, even among those who argue that the Writings should be periodically re-translated into more contemporary English.
(I do not agree, incidentally, with Mr. Lewis’s assessment — his assertion that “early 20th century English may seem as opaque to readers 400 years from now as Shakespeare’s English seems to young American readers today, or as Chaucer’s English seemed in Shakespeare’s time, or as the English of Beowulf seemed in Chaucer’s day” fails to take into account that English was, in the period from Beowulf to Shakespeare, undergoing radical but unique changes due to the French invasion, or that the fixing of a canon of religious literature can actually work to unify and stablize a language, as The King James Bible did for English. I won’t deny that many passages in the King James are now puzzling to modern readers, but I would argue that this has more to do with the fact that we are very far removed from the agrarian society of old than with the evolution of English itself — not to mention a certain inscrutability in some parts of the source which no translation seems to have been able to unravel.)
So when I encountered the word ورقة (warqah) in the Arabic text, although I was puzzled, I was willing to trust Shoghi Effendi’s masterful translation, especially after my experience with the instructions for prayer. The word bothered me because it came in a phrase — ورقة الفردوس (warqat al-fardaws) — that I expected to read as “the Nightingale of Paradise.” “Fardaws” is pretty clearly “paradise,” but “warqah”…. “Warqah” at first glance looks exactly like “waraqah,” meaning “leaf.” And, indeed, when I showed this prayer to an Arab teacher at our schoolhouse, he read it as “leaf” — which is not out of the question in context, although it leads to the startling image of a singing leaf. I thought this was peculiar, and I asked him if it could be “nightingale,” but I don’t think he understood, and then we ran out of time and he had to go back to class.
I consulted both my English-to-Arabic and Arabic-to-English dictionaries; neither was helpful. The usually impeccable Hans Wehr A-to-E didn’t have an entry for “warqah,” only for “waraqah,” while the less reliable but still sturdy Oxford E-to-A gave four different words for “nightingale”, including the one familiar to me, بلبل (“bulbul”), but not including “warqah.” My Persian dictionaries, by S. Haim, gave similar results.
On the other hand, many Bahá’ís are named “Varqa,” which is the Persian pronunciation of the same word, and I find it more likely that they are named “nightingale” than “leaf.” And Juan Cole, who does his own translations of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings from collections published in Persian, translated the title of the poem“Al-Qasidah Al-Warqa’iyyah” as “The Ode of the Dove.” In Arabic, “dove” or “pigeon” is usually حمامة “hamamah,” but anyway this gets us at least in the bird family.
Later I asked another Arab friend, who initially also read it as “waraqah,” “leaf.” I pointed out (and here I really wish I were able to include diacriticals in the Arabic for you!) that there was a “sukkun” or pause between the “r” and the “q,” making it “warqah,” and asked her if she knew of any bird-related meaning for that word, she shrugged and said it was possible, but she didn’t know.
We later consulted with yet another friend, a Bahá’í who had grown up in Israel and gone to an Arab school. And despite the fact that she was a lifelong Bahá’í, intimately familiar with the prayer and entirely conversant in both English and Arabic, she also initially read it as “leaf”! After some conversation, the my two friends eventually decided that ورقة could mean “leaf” or a kind of bird or “paper” (in exactly the way that “leaf” can mean “paper” or “page” in English).
All of which only goes to show that people may miss the meanings of words — and, by extension, whole sentences — even in their native tongue. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in poetic works and religious works, and the Tablet of Ahmad qualifies as both. It is entirely possible, after all, that Bahá’u’lláh is operating on a couple of levels here — perhaps even in a kind of visual pun using Arabic script, giving us the singing bird (or leaf), but also saying that “this page” — the page which you are reading — is singing with holy and sweet melodies, is calling you to the court of the presence of the Generous One, is informing you of the message which has been revealed by God. On the other hand, the use of the sukkun to distinguish between “warqah” and “waraqah” seems to indicate that He had a very singular meaning in mind, and it is this, admittedly obscure, meaning which Shoghi Effendi rendered into the English.
In a case like this, as it turns out, a thorough and meticulous translator, with a complete knowledge of specialized poetic terminology, may illuminate the correct understanding, while a native’s own knowledge may end up failing him, because he is so used to seeing a word one way that he never considers the other meaning.