In January 2020, the elite Indian engineering college IIT Kanpur set up a panel to investigate whether the Urdu poem Hum Dekhenge (“We shall see”), written in 1970 by the eminent South Asian poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, was “anti-Hindu.” Students had recited the poem on the college’s grounds to express support for those who were protesting against new discriminatory citizenship laws and heavy-handed police action targeted at India’s Muslims. The poem had been turned into a radical anthem during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests across the country. In this instance, the specific verse at the center of the controversy was this one:
Jab arz-e-khuda ke kaabe se
sab but uthwaaye jaayenge
Hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-haram masnad par baithaye jaayenge.
When from the abode of God
All idols shall be uprooted,
We, the pure people, barred from the sanctum, shall be seated on the throne.
Faiz, who penned the poem, was a member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, whose members had been regularly in trouble with orthodox parts of the Muslim community and the colonial, later post-colonial, regime ever since its formation. Hum Dekhenge was written specifically in protest against the atrocities of the military autocracy of General Zia ul Haq of Pakistan, and turned into a popular anthem of protest by the rendering of Iqbal Bano. But in 2020, in a literalist reading that has become increasingly popular among right-wing Hindus in India, the millenarian Islamic imagery of the defeat of false gods and victory of the marginalized but true people was accused of representing Islamic sectarianism, intolerance, and anti-secular rejection of India’s inclusive citizenship. It is testimony to the power of this deliberately obtuse literalism that such accusations could be made precisely against those protesting against the constriction of Indian citizenship.
A few months prior to this, a new Hindu temple opened in the part of west London that I live in. This part of London is a particularly rich mix of ethnicities and nationalities; it is also highly under resourced. The new Hindu temple, dedicated to a Gujarati saint, is situated close to the local library, until then the only public building of note in the area. The temple, funded by private donations, dwarfed the library with its ostentatious white marble architecture and flags. I, too, was excited at what I thought was a positive development for the local community and its civic life, and attended one of the inaugural gatherings with my family.
Yet my experience of the temple was horrifying, beginning with enforced gender segregated queuing that did not accord either with my knowledge of Hinduism or with the vision of civic space I had hoped to celebrate. Worse followed; the large and shifting body of visitors to the temple were treated to a katha performance, which involves a kathak (literally, teller) expounding upon specific parts of religious texts, somewhat in the nature of a sermon, but with much greater narrative and performative flexibility. That day, the kathak chose to discuss the story of the Hindu god Krishna, and his childhood “antics,” especially the episode of his stealing the clothes of women bathing in the village pond, and forcing them to expose themselves to him as a price for return of their clothes. The kathak insisted, to enthusiastic sounds of agreement from many members of the audience, that this was a metaphor for marital surrender: since deep in their minds, the women had taken the god-pest as their husband, there could be no humiliation in exposure. He ignored outright that no version of this story proposed that the women were anything other than neighbors; the sexual perversity of the deed is generally glossed over by referring to the voyeur god as a child. Our kathak had chosen instead to embrace the sexual tension of the episode and celebrate it, first by mistranslating the social parameters of the encounter, and then justifying marital rape. Everyone else seemed to be happy, so I left.
To me, these two incidents exemplify the possibilities of failure and success of translation, respectively, and also the ethical correlates of such communicative events. The failure of translation can be intentional, not just due to ignorance but also due to deliberate obtuseness toward intended referents of the original text. Conversely, as with the katha incident in the Hindu temple, mistranslation can be highly successful, as when the translator and the audience choose to ignore the direct referents of an original text and agree to imbue it with a meaning that accords with their own social values.
I will frame my response to the wonderfully diverse essays in this collection from within this framework of the failure and success of translation, and use that admittedly artificial framing to discuss the many analytical, technical, ethical issues raised by the authors.
Let us first consider what we may call the dangers of translation, beginning with the denial of authorship to the translator. In his contribution to this forum, Fadi A. Bardawil looks at the inescapable bind of modern Arab intellectuals: offered entry into the globally significant world of letters only when they are seen to be engaging with Western ideas, but consequently also relegated to derivative and secondary status. Predictably, and in a manner familiar to feminists in the global South, they have the constant accusation of cultural betrayal hanging over them. Can a translator ever be as good as, or even better than, the original author? Who, indeed, is the author of an idea and who is the translator? Did the slave-owning ancient Greeks really invent democracy, or was it the formerly enslaved Haitians who, in translating the word, re-baptized it with the meaning we attach to it today?
Then there is the danger of constriction and distortion. Max Weiss presents the case of the broad term al-baʿth, which in Arabic can mean “resurrection, revival, renaissance, rising, awakening, provoking, inciting, emanating, or delegating, as with a formal delegation,” and which Weiss himself prefers to translate as “resurrection.” This terms was taken by US policymakers to be the exclusive identifier for a murderous political ideology in Iraq—the Baathism of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The destructive US-led program of de-Baathification, and its lack of cultural or historical literacy, sounds uncoincidentally similar to the nineteenth-century British pursuit of phantom Wahhabis in a world conjured up by Islamophobic colonial fantasy.
If social movements can be mistranslated, so can institutions, with very similar consequences for paranoid state surveillance. Jeffrey A. Redding, in his essay on the dar ul qazas of India, shows how their translation as “Muslim courts” or “Shariat courts” has enabled detractors to legally accuse such nonstate institutions of fraud (posing as courts) and criminal trespass into exclusive functions of the state. The apparent concern for gullible and uneducated women, who may be defrauded by appearances, is transparently sexist and elitist, and even from this brief description appears to be a case of “saving brown women from brown men.” (Replace “brown” with the noun identifier of marginalized, minority communities anywhere.)
Redding ponders over the researcher’s responsibility in such a context; as does Nada Moumtaz, who adds to this the specific dilemmas of a researcher who is also a native speaker of the source language. Moumtaz clarifies, together with Redding, that the issue for the scholar and observer is not just the selection of the most suitable word in the target language, but the fact that a word for an institution such as dar ul qaza or waqf signals an entire lifeworld. Just as qaza can be much more than court (and reach out towards justice), waqf is much more than an endowment of property—it is a pious effort to reach a higher level of spirituality.
In reflecting upon these mistranslations, or translation misadventures, I am reminded of an endless debate in the history of Mughal India, which is my own area of work. Scholars have continued to wonder what the emperor Akbar (reigned 1556-1605 CE) was up to when he started a new trend at court, called the Din-i Ilahi. Literally the religion of God, participation in it was limited to favored courtiers, and entailed rituals such as donning medallions bearing a likeness of the emperor. Had the emperor abandoned Islam and created a new religion? Such was the conclusion of orthodox Muslim courtiers at his own court, as well as many colonial scholars who translated the Persian texts that reported on the career of Din-i Ilahi. My experience shows that many scholars who are not South Asianists continue to believe in the theory of the Akbarian heresy, whereas specialists generally see it as an effort to claim sacred kingship within Islam, but with reference to subjects both Muslim and not. It all comes down to translating the words and gestures; was it a new religion, or was it not? And by extension, can toleration exist within Islam, or only beyond?
From here, we can start turning toward the possibilities for success—both epistemic and ethical—in translation. Following Talal Asad, Moumtaz proposes expanding translation so that it consists not just of transporting facts but receiving thought capacities—of learning something fundamentally new that transforms the receiver. Mina Ibrahim and Gaétan du Roy demonstrate how to do so through a model of collaborative research, in which they juxtapose their researcher positionalities of outsider- and insider-hood, in order to understand the polyphony of voices in Shubra, a working-class neighborhood in Cairo known for its large Coptic Christian population. They carefully avoid flattening the range of perspectives among the people they encounter, recognizing both cosmopolitanism and ethnocentrism, and mapping these views on to their specific relational contexts. Above all, they reject the research model whereby the global South serves as a source of data that is then removed to the West for analysis, publication, and circulation, and suggest strategies for continued collaboration, which include dissemination of results in the language of fieldwork—reverse translation, if we will. In my own work drawing on records maintained by families, I have tried to incorporate the dialogic in the process of interpretation of these materials, making space for different visions of the past.
A different kind of reversal is signaled by Mahmood Kooria’s description of the Islamic exegetical tradition of the Indian Ocean littoral. Pointing to the genre of commentaries on legal texts, Kooria demonstrates how medieval and early modern Islamic jurists saw it as not just permissible but necessary to vernacularize concepts within the local “cultural mental scape” of the readers. Without such expansion, translation would not simply convey distorted meanings, it might communicate no meaning at all. Modern translations aspire to completely replace the source text, conveying its substance perfectly while erasing its sounds and shapes (words, grammatical structures, and scripts). In contrast, the texts Kooria discusses are bilingual (Arabic-Malay), in which the source and target language co-reside on the page interlineally or intermittently—signaling a world where movement between languages may have been deemed necessary to comprehend a message fully. This is fully recognizable to me from my work on everyday legal documents from the Mughal empire, where bilingual (Persian and vernacular Indic) documents often offer slightly different information in the different language sections, signaling a field of plurilingualism where readers move with variable facility across co-situated languages.
It is not just texts that might perform and present such heteroglossia. As Seema Alavi shows, there could also be radical bricolage, of symbols of power and modernity, as undertaken for example by the Sultan of Zanzibar. A scion of an Omani royal line ruling over an island economy powered by Black African slaves and fending off British imperial abolitionists, he negotiated his legitimacy by dancing the fine line between conservative Ibadi ulama and imperialist Europeans, repurposing symbols of modernity—printing press, grandiose architecture—sourced from Bombay to Paris. Successful translation indeed, but a cosmopolitanism fueled by and glossing over racist exploitation. One wonders how the Black plantation workers, whose enslavement he so ardently defended, received his messages. Did they translate well?
In some cases, as with Faiz’s poem, which we started with, translation is not just contested, but outright political. Mona El-Ghobashy’s discussion of a number of keywords related to the 2011 Arab uprisings in Egypt shows a world of protests and policing and semantic battles. When pro-democracy protestors used the word thawra (revolution) to signal democratization through regime change, members of the military regime interpreted their actions as disorder, a betrayal of “true” revolution. Recognizing the many contests over its meaning in prior Euro-American contexts, El-Ghobashy suggests that the extreme disagreements over the meaning of revolution in Egypt is characteristic of a sociopolitical state that can be called a “revolutionary situation.”
Perhaps epochal moments particularly call for the stretching of meaning. Ussama Makdisi, discussing W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1919 declaration of the “sympathy of Black America” with the “struggles of the colored of India and the colored of Egypt,” points to a very different historic effort to relate disparate experiences of discrimination in order to build “secular solidarity.” This was an effort to translate suffering, to communicate support and understanding, to work together while recognizing historic specificities. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, preeminent Dalit political leader of colonial India, recognized the connection when he wrote to Du Bois in 1946, saying: “There is so much similarity in the position of the Untouchables of India and of the position of the Negroes of America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.” Recognizing similarity without reducing it to sameness; learning from another’s experience to improve one’s own; recognizing and respecting the multiple worlds one inhabits—isn’t this what translation is about?