This is a belated post in the Interfaith Ramadan 2016 series. Articles are written by contributors from diverse faiths and none and are published every day throughout the month of Ramadan.
The month of Ramadan has ended, and I’m thinking about the Qur’an, the holy book of the faith in which I was raised. There are copies of this book, in Arabic and English, on the shelf next to my other books. While I don’t consider myself a member of any organized religion, being raised in a religion with a holy text has influenced and continues to influence my life. I remember being a kid, learning to pronounce the Arabic words without knowing what they meant, and wanting very much to understand what they meant. I already loved to read, and it was important to me to know what I was reading. When I was a young child, I tried to read an English translation of the Qur’an that I still couldn’t understand, because it was an older translation. Years later, I was excited to find more recent translations and finally be able to read and understand this mysterious book that had been omnipresent in the background of my life. Partly due to this curiosity from a young age, I became fascinated with translations and their ability to improve communication.
Essential to my desire to read translations is the desire to interpret the text for myself. Even when a book was originally written in a person’s native language, there are still differences of opinion. Not being able to read the text of the Qur’an meant that I was expected to believe what it said on faith, based on the opinions of others. It was one thing to have faith in God or to have faith and hope for the future of humanity; it was quite another thing to have faith that the very human people around me (with whom I disagreed on various things) should be my only source of information about what is, after all, a very important book to a great many people and to human civilization. Having seen how much people’s views can be influenced by words, both the words within religious texts and the words in other writing, I thought it was important for these texts to be available to more people in languages we understand. I still eagerly seek out books that were originally written in other languages and have been subsequently translated.
From a secular perspective, regardless of one’s religious beliefs, there are many ways in which translation has affected society and our ability to communicate for the better. I’ve come to believe that translation is important for education and mutual understanding. There’s a lot of emphasis on what is different about us and demonization of the Other, but by hearing and reading the words of those whose languages may be different, maybe we can realize and remember how much we have in common. We learn about our fellow humans and learn new ideas, while also realizing that some ideas and feelings are so common that we will hear our own feeling repeated back in all the languages of the world. There are many people who’ve pointed out, for example, the similarities between different holy texts and analyzed various works of literature for common themes. We can read a book written by someone who lived hundreds or years ago or halfway around the world and realize that all of our experiences are part of the history of this Earth. Communication across language barriers and down the ages of humanity is what has allowed us to hear the voices of people with whom we are not able to communicate directly. It’s an amazing thing, to be able to understand words that were once indecipherable to us.
Translation and communication across language barriers is a vital skill in our small world. It allows greater access to information, as we can share vital resources and information, discoveries in various academic disciplines, and even our hobbies with people who speak different languages. Resources and information on healthcare, housing, and other social services provided in the same language that is spoken by the patient can make it easier for people to get the care that they need. In so many situations, from everyday tasks to emergencies, being able to communicate with others and being able to understand information can make a huge difference. No matter what language we may speak, we are all humans. Cooperation between people of different religious beliefs and backgrounds to improve the world can be made easier if we make the effort to understand each other.
No translation can ever be perfect, and that’s why multiple translations of classics line the shelves at libraries. Still, we gain the ability to understand, even partially, something which was once incomprehensible to us.
There is always something lost in translation, but it allows us to find at least some of what we would have lost to the dust of history without it.
E.A. Sofia is a writer and fangirl who loves to write about books, social justice, and secularism.
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