The late Egyptian jurist and constitutional scholar Tariq al-Bishri, in The Islamic-Secular Dialogue [Al-Hiwar al-Islami al-‘Almani], wrote: “When we look at the closing years of the nineteenth century and the opening years of the twentieth, we are struck by names applied to what they do not mean.”1 Whereas “reform” (al-islah) and “renewal” (tajdidan wa ‘ibda’an) connoted codifications and substitutions with Western law, “imitation” (taqlid) referred to tradition-bound reliance on “the old” (al-qadim). Calling this process “names applied to what they do not mean,” al-Bishri read Egyptian legal transformations as involving inversions of language, whereby old and new, Western and Islamic, and Egyptian and European came to evoke each other. This historiographical move requires that we remember what words used to mean, and consider the struggles involved in their transmogrification.

A similar effort runs through the approaches to translation offered here. This forum draws together scholars of religion, state, and society to initiate a conversation around translation and its place within the academic enterprise. Rather than a concern with either fidelity of meaning or its reconstruction, between spaces and times, we consider translation in three linked dimensions: as labor and collaboration, as textual and institutional, and as circulatory and comparative. The essays gathered in this forum take the ubiquity of translation as a provocation to ask a range of questions: about the tensions inherent in transformations of language and text; about texts and institutions that do translative work across multiple registers for diverse audiences; about scholarly practices of comparison and conflation; about material archives and the work of memorialization and preservation; and about the circulation of translation in networks of knowledge, migration, pilgrimage, labor, exile, and empire.

Key to this collective and interdisciplinary undertaking is querying the meaning of translation itself. What practices constitute translation? Who participates in such practices? What purposes does translation serve? How do scholars today account for the range of meanings that articulate in the term “translation” as they theorize the contemporary and the historical? Each featured scholar addresses these questions within their area of expertise. In some sense, translation has always entailed compounded meanings; as the contributors to this forum show, these accretions necessarily inform social theory in the present. The particular work of the scholar engaged in questions of translation includes locating herself in the meanings she examines and generates.

This forum makes visible not just meanings at their origin, but at their destination; not just binaries of departure and arrival, but the manner in which the material and semantic logics of translation contain, and are themselves altered, by mobility; not just the work of translation in time and space, but the people whose work it was, their mobility, strategies, and struggle.2 Translations in the context of struggle not only contain risk, they shift and perpetuate hazard: between majorities and minorities, public and private, institutions and individuals, past and future. Situating the forum within the material and historical contexts of the global South, we seek to move beyond a focus on the application of Anglophone theoretical frames to non-Western experience, and instead consider translation as a central and multidirectional process in knowledge production.

Each of the contributors to this forum provides a way to consider comparison, networks, and materiality. Our invitation prompted Fadi Bardawil to explore translation between the global North and South, “troubling three sets of binaries: North/South; Origin/Destination; Authentic/Copy.” Max Weiss, Mona El-Ghobashy, and Jeffrey A. Redding each address the risks, both inherent and produced, in the translative enterprise through readings of critical concepts in their work: “Baʿthism,” “revolution,” and “courts.” Nada Moumtaz, working in a similar vein on “waqf,” further traces translation and non-translation as “strategic tools in the rendering of a certain context.” Common to all the essays is a focus on the multidirectional and layered work of translation. Seema Alavi, for example, describes translative politics as a way of renegotiating sovereignty in nineteenth-century Zanzibar, while Mahmood Kooria reads Indian Ocean translational practices across the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries when translation, vernacularization, commentary, and interpretation circulated together. Ussama Makdisi, and Gaétan du Roy and Mina Ibrahim, consider the juxtapositional dynamics of translation. Du Roy and Ibrahim do so from the vantage of ethnographic fieldwork, the critical re-examination of insider/outsider, Western theory/Egyptian field site, and fieldwork/publishing. Makdisi offers a purposive juxtaposition of “trajectories of discrimination and political community in the United States and the Middle East,” in order to reconsider how sectarianism and racism interrelate and yet remain distinct phenomena.

Forum contributors were invited to explore questions of academic collaboration and production, and the ways in which scholarly work relies on the availability of archives, at the same time as it contends with their limitations and losses. Amidst the destruction of institutions that sustain semantic maps and ongoing military conflicts that force scholars into diaspora and exile, the ubiquity of translation requires closer attention to questions of power, precarity, and loss. How might we read translation differently, if we sought out, alongside its semantic connections, its efforts at making legibility across power differentials, its potential for imperial conflations, and its multiple and sometimes fugitive audiences and appeals?

  1. Tariq al-Bishri, Al-Hiwar al-Islami al-‘Almani [The Islamic-Secular Dialogue] (Cairo: Dar al- Sharuq, 1996), 9. Quoted and translated by Talal Asad, 2003, 213.

  2. Iza Hussin, “Circulations of Law: Cosmopolitan Elites, Global Repertoires, Local Vernaculars,” Law and History Review 32:4 (2014), 773-795.