As I began to think through how best to approach this forum about “translation as a central and multi-directional process in knowledge production,” as the editors put it in their original invitation, Palestinian artist Emily Jacir’s 2003 installation, “Translate Allah,” came to mind. The installation is a billboard emblazoned with those two words just outside the Queens Museum that became an aesthetic, political, and translational rallying cry. In that elegant, memorable work, Jacir prods the spectator to reflect on the meaning(s) of God in and beyond the Islamic tradition, at the interface of multiple spiritual life-worlds, on the highly charged work of translation as something as simple and as profound as the act of naming. Meanwhile, the piece also calls our attention to the private and public meanings of translation as recursive exercise, one with divergent and unpredictable consequences in various fields of knowledge production.
From there, I started to reflect on why it should be that such an extremely limited range of Arabic-language terms appear to resist translation (into English). A few examples sprang to mind: jihad, intifada, sharia . . . and, then, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, a seemingly unrelated word occurred to me: Baathism. What is Baathism? In Arabic, the term al-baʿth can mean many things: resurrection, revival, renaissance, rising, awakening, provoking, inciting, emanating, or delegating, as with a formal delegation, all of which, crucially, may have both material and spiritual connotations. My preferred translation has tended to be “resurrection,” and I have explored elsewhere the affinities between Baʿthism and the religious, the secular, and the sectarian in the intellectual history of modern Syria.1See also, Spenser R. Rapone, “Michel ʿAflaq and Political Metaphysics: The Integral Experience of the Baʿth,” MA Thesis, The New School for Social Research, 2020.
Here I do not wish to declare one definitive translation for Baʿthism but rather to reflect on the fact that most English-language speakers have no idea what the Baʿth in Baʿthism (or Baathism, more commonly rendered) means, and that this might matter in both linguistic and political terms. More to the point of this forum, one might ask: what does a non-Arabophone reader/listener/spectator understand/hear/see upon encountering this term? Does Baathism even mean the same thing in English as it does in Arabic? Is Baathism an Arabic word? Historically speaking, one would be more likely to find references to the Baʿth Party (Ḥizb al-baʿth) or to a Baʿthist individual or a group of Baʿthists (Baʿthi, pl. Baʿthiyyun) than al-Baʿthiyya in the abstract noun form.
While I recognize that this line of inquiry runs the risk of veering into linguistic pedantry or intellectual overreach, there are at least two levels at which I find this survival of “the Baath” and “Baathism” in English (distinguished here from al-Baʿth and al-Baʿthiyya in Arabic) relevant to this discussion about the relationship between translation theory and the Arabic-speaking world.
The first problem has had lethal consequences for a massive number of human beings. The ostensibly irredentist evil at the core of the Saddam Hussein (read: Baathist) regime fueled the ideological justification for the US imperialist project of destroying (Baathist) Iraq in 2003, part of a “grand strategy” to construct a New Middle East. At some point during the early twenty-first century, as the Project for a New American Century and its theories of “decapitating” the Iraqi regime and pursuing the “de-Baathification” of the Iraqi state gained traction in Washington, the conflation of Baathism with Nazism, Stalinism, and totalitarianism writ large was mainstreamed. After the institutions of rule in Iraq were decimated in 2003-2004, hawkish American ideologues found inspiration in the postwar program of “de-Nazification” in Germany, a wholesale bureaucratic, legal, and social refashioning of state and society in the aftermath of the Second World War, the revelations of the Holocaust, and the collapse of the Third Reich. The signature achievements of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and their entourage included the infrastructural devastation of a nation of 25 million people, the death of an estimated million and a half people, the greatest refugee catastrophe of that era, and the seeding of terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State. In the United States there has still not been any compelling explanation of how the “de-Baathification” of Iraq’s political system led to salubrious outcomes. Moreover, the institutional process of rewiring the Iraqi regime proceeded under the watchful eye of a quasi-colonial administration that had little interest in understanding the history and politics of Baʿthism itself.
A second problem is consistent with the first but operates at a different scale of analysis and impact and is where I will stay for the remainder of this discussion. The ideological legerdemain in the political and military realms that justified the escalation of US adventurism in the Middle East was predicated, however circuitously, on the widely shared denial—in political, scholarly, and academic circles—of intellectual or social coherence to Baʿthism itself. The casual mistranslation and ignorance of the premises and genealogies of Baʿthism in modern Arab/ic intellectual history are deeply entwined with the disinformation campaigns that forwarded an interventionist US foreign policy in the Middle East. Conceptual, cultural, and technical translation were essential to the circulation of multiple, often contradictory or even false, meanings of Baʿthism in English.
To be sure, Baʿthism—which I distinguish here, mainly as a heuristic exercise, from Baathism—has been the subject of critique and even vitriolic condemnation in the Arabic-speaking world, not only by comprador intellectuals such as Ahmad Chalabi but also by scholars and public intellectuals. Some has been criticism on moral or intellectual grounds, as with Lebanese writer Hazem Saghieh. There have also been religious (primarily Islamist) rejections of Baʿthism, found, for example, in the writings of Sulayman al-Khatib, who argues that Baʿthism must be analyzed through its “sayings” because there is no “thought” associated with the movement or its cadres.2Hazem Saghieh, al-Baʿth al-suri: tarikh mujaz (The Syrian Baʿth: A Short History) (Beirut: Dar al-Saqi, 2012); Sulayman al-Khatib, Hizb al-Baʿth: Qiraʾa islamiyya fi al-masadir al-fikriyya (The Baʿth Party: An Islamic Reading in the Intellectual Sources (Cairo: Dar al-Sahwa, 1990); al-Khatib, ʿAqidat al-Baʿth: al-halak wa-l-damar (The Creed of the Baʿth: Perdition and Destruction (Cairo: Dar al-Sahwa, 1991).
Scholarly aversion to taking Baʿthism seriously has something to do with this broader reimagining of the phenomenon, which was unmoored from its specific intellectual, political, and institutional history in the twentieth-century Middle East. Indeed, for intellectual historians of the modern Arab world, inattention to the complexities of Baʿthism, Baʿthist thought, Baʿthist aesthetics and the life-worlds made possible by the failures (and some successes) of the Baʿthist “revolutions” and coups of the mid-twentieth century prevented a sober reckoning with the origins and genealogies of Baʿthism, in Syria and Iraq, to be sure, but also elsewhere in the Arab world where there was a significant—if fleeting—Baʿthist presence, from Yemen and Saudi Arabia to Sudan and Algeria.3I discuss Baʿthist aesthetics in literature and film more extensively in Revolutions Aesthetic: A Cultural History of Baʿthist Syria (Stanford University Press, forthcoming).
The collapse of the Iraqi state and the wholesale confiscation of state institutions and archival materials from Baghdad and elsewhere to Palo Alto, Washington, and the web has enabled analysts and scholars to construct a library that anatomizes the Iraqi Baathist regime. In the Syrian case, by contrast, the regime remains intact and national archives that deal with sensitive matters have rarely been made accessible to foreign or Syrian researchers, although the Israeli military captured a wide array of published and unpublished material from Syria that is now available in university libraries and research institutions. On the intellectual-historical front, other rich historical materials—speeches, publications, political writings—remain understudied and underappreciated.
A brief mention of the defining intellectual figure in the history of the Baʿth Party (ḥizb al-baʿth), Michel ʿAflaq, provides a concrete example of the translational dilemma I have in mind here. Born in 1910 into an Orthodox Christian family in Damascus, ʿAflaq was educated in French, from missionary schools in Mandate-era Syria to the Sorbonne in Paris during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Upon returning to Syria in the mid-1930s he joined forces with activist circles that eventually gave rise to the Arab Socialist Baʿth Party (Hizb al-Baʿth al-ʿarabi al-ishtiraki).
Scholars of modern Arab/ic intellectual history have missed an opportunity to elucidate the contours of Baʿthist ideas and ideology—in the oeuvre of ʿAflaq himself but also his contemporaries Salah al-Din al-Bitar, Zaki al-Arsuzi, and Akram al-Hawrani, among others. As I have argued elsewhere, ʿAflaq’s conception of Arab/ic nationalism (al-qawmiyya) as well as his conception of revolutionary transformation (al-inqilāb) may both be understood as reflections of ʿAflaq’s moral commitments to the sanctity and dignity of “the person.” Indeed, ʿAflaq was influenced by the vitalism of Henri Bergson and the personalism of Emmanuel Mounier as much as he was by Herder, Nietzsche, or ideologues associated with European Romantic (blood-and-soil) nationalism. Intellectual historians must pay closer attention to the genealogies of what I call ʿAflaqism and Baʿthism rather than conflating the two or sloppily reducing all of these ideas to fascism, national socialism, and the like.
This rather messy intellectual historical puzzle—determining what ʿAflaq meant, explaining what Baʿthism was in theory and how that led to or differed from Baʿthism in practice in Syria and Iraq—demands close reading of confusing and sometimes contradictory texts, returning us to the problem of translation. One aspect of this complex translational problem concerns ʿAflaq’s eclectic usage of concepts drawn from multiple philosophical traditions. For example, ʿAflaq remains an Idealist, expressing discomfort with the dogmatic materialism of his Marxist, Existentialist, and Communist contemporaries. In one of his best-known essays, “On Arab/ic Nationalism” (1940) (“Fi al-Qawmiyya al-ʿarabiyya”), ʿAflaq warns that the danger of supplanting an Arab “personality” with European modes of thought “dispossesses us of our vital reality, offering us instead meaningless words and abstract symbols (rumuz mujarrada).
ʿAflaq’s rejection of abstract symbols drawn from “abroad,” as he puts it, raises an epistemological risk: the acceptance of al-tafkīr al-mujarrad. The most neutral way to translate the term is “just thinking” or “mere thought,” which might lead one to conclude that ʿAflaq is pushing back against Idealism itself, calling instead for a more materialist kind of thinking and, consequently, pragmatic political action. However, subtle translational choices can make a meaningful difference. By translating the phrase as “pure reason,” one could put a Kantian spin on things (although the more common Arabic version would be al-ʿaql al-mujarrad). A better choice, therefore, is “abstract reasoning,” with its Hegelian provenance, which more accurately locates ʿAflaq within a different intellectual tradition than that of (most) Fascists and National Socialists. Indeed, ʿAflaq’s adherence to the Idealist philosophical tradition—however inconsistent or opaque— distinguishes him from his rivals, particularly Communists.
There are other terms in the ʿAflaqist and Baʿthist lexicons that could benefit from similar close reading: heroism, sacrifice, temporality, historic mission. Although there is no direct connection between this vocabulary—and even an iron-clad historical reconstruction of ʿAflaq’s thought—and the institution of Baʿthist rule in Syria or Iraq, there is value in paying attention to these thinkers and their ideas. Translation is not only an exercise with aesthetic, stylistic, and etymological significance. Without a properly defined theoretical approach, one that may transcend the limits of empiricist Orientalist and historical scholarship, translating ʿAflaq—translating Baʿthism—into English runs the risk of not only obscuring or missing key contributions to modern Arab/ic intellectual history, but also (however unwittingly) lays the foundation for dangerous ideological manipulation of these vital sources, individuals, and intellectual currents.
In an essay on the translatability of Arabic into English, Robyn Creswell calls for “eloquent” or “lucid and legible” translations as an antidote to the “essentially meaningless, or at least highly contingent” problematic of domestication versus foreignization that has vexed theorists of translation.4See, too, Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London: Routledge, 1995). So long as the concept-history of an ideological, social, and political formation as influential but misunderstood as Baathism/Baʿthism remains either untranslatable or inexplicable in the Anglophone world, however, I would argue that this problematic remains relevant as ever, not only for the translator theirself but for ordinary citizens and the culture at large. Casual foreignization of the term (i.e., leaving Baʿthism untranslated) or domesticating Baʿthism to Baathism without properly explicating the genealogy of the term (in both Arabic and English) is an untenable posture for a professional translator of Arabic and scholar of modern Arab/ic intellectual history.
Translate Baʿthism, then, to adapt Emily Jacir; or don’t, just go with the flow. Unfortunately, if Baʿthism is ever to be conceptually and literally translatable (into English), it will likely require a level of engagement with the intellectual history of Baʿthism, the Baʿth and the Baath (however either is understood or remembered), and the history of the modern Middle East that does not seem particularly likely in the twenty-first century United States.