Reading, Translating the vernacular

Youssef Yacoubi, Nottingham University, School of Critical Theory & Cultural Studies; Proctor Fellow, Department of Camparative Literature, Princeton University

Part 7 of the author's Interrogating Missionary Essentialism: The Muslim and "Evangelical" Nonsense

Mallouhi supports some of her claims by quoting some Arabic proverbs, most of which are used out of contexts and with the wrong meaning. For example, "Show me your friend and I will tell you who you are" is used to support her claim that having prestigious friends is a prerequisite for an evangelist. The proverb actually means that if you show me the moral conduct of your friend (be it positive or negative), I will be able to judge your moral calibre; in basic terms, if your friend displays decency, integrity and reliability, it is highly likely that you do the same: Your friend's conduct tells me about your own. This is a moral challenge usually cited in a context when people fall below the expected standards of conduct, and the speaker (a would be judge in the situation) rebukes his listener by a process of ironic insertion. The speaker wants to impact the listener by highlighting a logical notion: You are in a bad moral shape because your friend is the same. To get out of your moral mess change your friend. A native speaker of Moroccan is very likely to capture the irony and admonishing social function of the proverb. Instead, Mallouhi uses it as a rigid and negative concept that allows Moroccans to miss the meaning of human relationships. Being 'irrational' they only live by appearances alone.

Mallouhi translates another proverb on p, 13: "You know the book by its cover". In fact, as I argued earlier, this saying is exaggerated to serve her controlling argument; that Muslims lack the capacity of self-reflection and soul searching; that they only judge reality on the basis of outwardeness. Mallouhi gets both the meaning and the context of this proverb wrong. The proverb actually means that by looking at the cover of a book, figuratively speaking, the face of someone, it is possible to detect 'what happens behind their eyes'; whether they are happy, angry or outraged by something. The context of the proverb, is more often than not, one of conflict. It is used when the recipient of admonition is evasive; for some reason or the other, unwilling to externalise his/her discomfort, unhappiness or rebellion.

It is clear that Mallouhi's translations are inaccurate. "He still has not made any wisdom" is a misleading translation, and this is, perhaps, why Mallouhi's interpretations are distorted. The nearest translation to the original (Mazal Madar A'qlou) is: "he/ she has not formed his mind (intellect) as yet". Mind here (in a conceptual sense), it is true, refers to maturity, but not the maturity that the word 'wisdom' refers to in English. For a literal reference in the proverb to 'mind/intellect' designates the physical and biological growth of the mind/brain as a whole (the verb 'dar', means to do, to form/ to mould, 'ma' is an adverb expressing negation). New-born babies are born with two membrane-filled spaces called fontanelles. "They allow the skull to change shape during birth when the head is squeezed through the birth canal" (Advanced Human Biology, 1987). But most importantly, fontanelles gradually close as the cranial bones grow and disappear by about 12 months of age. If they failed to solidify (i.e. close completely), this usually indicates that normal growth of the brain (mind/intellect in accordance with the child's age) is hindered. Some older people even associate the meaning of the proverb to 'the wisdom tooth' being a marker of a significant transition in one's age. Whatever the physical associations are, it is clear that in both cases there is a strong reference to age. In English, wisdom means "the state of showing experience and knowledge together with the power of applying them critically and practically" (Oxford Dictionary). In Moroccan, the word A'qlou (as opposed to the word Hikma in Arabic, which has no physical associations attached to it, and is, indeed, close to the English meaning) means the state of reflecting experiential, critical and moral common sense of one's age. What does Mallouhi's translation communicate? Very little to those who understand it. What does it miss from the original? It misses everything for those who do not know the original language. This is a hallmark of bad translations. In a Moroccan context, the saying is used when a person behaves outside certain conventions but he/she is given a degree of allowance/ understanding for such behaviour because of age (hence the importance of as yet (baqi) syntagm, which is deleted from Mallouhi's translation). A rebellious teenager or child are, understandably enough, outside certain behavioural conventions because society and family understand the emotional implications of such stage in life, but their sedition is no way a permanent state of affairs.

Whenever a translation undertakes to serve the meaning wanted by the reader (for ideological purposes), it demonstrates inaccurate transmission and corruption of the essential content. If the reader has no access to the original, how could Mallouhi's translation be understood on the basis of her premise? Moreover, her relentless decontexualization of proverbs is, indeed, unjustifiable since it is an important appui that she has relied on to support her cultural assumptions. To translate a text, one must go back to the original, to the rules governing the translatability of the original. Mallouhi forgets that proverbs in most cultures are born out of specific cultural contexts, and to every proverb there is usually its antidote(s); because cultures, by definition, do not only breed negativity and moral shallowness. Moreover, cultures are historically mutable. What was once current may some day sound archaic. The essence of such changes has to do with the way cultural values undergo radical transformations over the centuries.

When one says "He has not formed his mind (intellect) as yet", one must also think of "Be a Man like your father" or in English when people say "What is done can not be undone", one must also think of "It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good". My point is clear: decontexualising proverbs, idioms, sayings, pearls of wisdom, ideolects, parables, or even facts of history (as Mallouhi does throughout the book) is an act of stereotyping. One of the most fundamental principles in the philosophy of language is the necessity to understand the concept of intention, between what is really meant and the way of meaning it. In the words 'A'qlou', and 'wisdom', what is meant is obliquely the same, but the way of meaning it is not. Hence, the word 'A'qlou' in Moroccan means something different to an Australian (or English) than what the word means to a Moroccan. By way of translation, these two words exclude each other. As to what is meant the two words may signify the same thing.


Mallouhi, Christine. Mini-Skirts Mothers and Muslims: Modelling Spiritual Values in Muslim Culture. Spear Publishers (1997), Revised Edition, 109 pages, ISBN 0-9904012-9-4

The right of Youssef Yacoubi to be identified as author of this Extended Book Review has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Please send your comments and views to:

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Last modified: 13 May 2001