I’m doing a large boxful of bite-sized translations. It’s reminding me a great deal of a great many things, most of which shall doubtless find their way here soon. But for now, I’m stuck with a particular sentence. It is this quote from the Quran
“…Allah will not change the condition of a people, unless they change that which is within themselves”
[Surat Ar Ra’d (13:11)]
It is rather an excellent paradigm for self-regulation, you must admit. Reassuring and threatening, depending on whether you’ve been nice or naughty. The well-behaved, law-abiding folks can rest assured that their state of blessedness will continue, and the ones who are aware of their transgressions can be equally certain that their lot will not change for the better unless they themselves do. What better way to encourage peace and the rule of law amongst the faithful, eh?
Of course, the gaping hole in the fence is how people — or their spiritual guides — choose to define goodness or moral behaviour, but that’s a discussion for another day.
What’s tripping me right now is the word ‘Allah’. Should I leave it as I found it, changing merely the Bengali script for the Roman, or should I translate the entire text precisely, and replace ‘Allah’ with ‘God’? One the one hand, there is accuracy: ‘Allah’ does in fact translate exactly as ‘god’. On the other, however, there could be possible charges of identity-suppression. A too-literal translation could veil the line’s Islamic roots and this, I have been advised, might be a less-than-desirable — even a potentially offensive — end.
Personally, I like the sound of ‘Allah’ being pronounced more than I like ‘god’ (although this could be the numbing effect of familiarity, since I say ‘god’ several times a day, but very seldom do I say ‘allah’), but the ‘offence’ angle I find rather hard to entertain. If people reject a sensible edict merely because it is Islamic in origin, or conversely, accept it only because the Quran advises it, and not on its own merit, then I find I don’t particularly care about the affront my (otherwise harmless) word-choice inflicts on their shallow communalism.
Then again, holding snap offence-taking in contempt does not automatically make their tools superfluous. Word choices and contexts of origin — when not used for inflamatory ends — are enormously significant. Especially in a plural society like ours, where religious and linguistic affiliations do not map neatly onto ethnic or regional boundaries. The text I am translating, for example, is written by a Bengali Muslim gentleman. Another text from the same box is written in Hindi by a Buddhist woman living in North Bengal, who refers to her creator as ‘bhagwan’. On the other hand, an upper-caste Bengali Hindu woman working in an impoverished village near the Sunderban writes, “Thakur eder bhalo korun” (approximately, “May ‘thakur’ do well by these people”).
It’s true that literally, each of the words used can be translated as ‘god’. But ‘god’ is not a tabula rasa upon which we can project our own constructs of divinity minus cultural interference. Thanks to the colonial Christian association of the English language, ‘god’ has come to denote — for most of us, at least — the divine entity worshipped (by white people) in churches. Which is why ‘god willing’ has the same feel, but a distinctly different flavour from ‘inshallah’, and ‘ma Kaalir dibbi!’ has no effective English equivalent. On the other hand, ‘bNeche thaak/jeete raho (literally, ‘carry on being alive’) has no similarities with ‘the lord bless and keep you’ at all, but eventually, both phrases can be deconstructed into the same hope.
So I suppose, in deference to our diversity, I will romanise ‘Allah’, and not translate it. But I will be bothered by the fact that in India, as in all mosaic multiethnic cultures, the acknowledgement of pluralism is also simultaneously a reductive sign-post for identity-politics.
But I suppose that is one of the prices you pay for living in a rich, heterogeneous democracy. Oh well.