Cultures Variation in Degree of Sensitivity to Topics / Dania Idlibi


Cultures Variation in Degree of Sensitivity to Topics

Dania Idlibi/  Al-Baath University

مقال نشر في  مجلة جيل الدراسات الأدبية والفكرية العدد 39 الصفحة 147.

 

   

Abstract:

This research discusses the discrepancies between the Arab and the Western societies concerning their sensitivity to certain topics; among which religious and social topics are the most prominent. First, Arab and Western societies have different attitudes towards religion. Criticism of religion and highly-esteemed religious figures is a taboo in the Arab world. References that give offence to God, messengers, holy figures or a highly-sensitive religious issue are probably omitted or rendered with some kind of euphemism that takes into consideration the anticipated reaction of the Arabic reader to such an offence. In addition to religious issues, concepts related to sexual intercourses, genitals, women’s breasts and gay relationships are still a taboo in the Arab world. Also, the impact of swear words that include sexual references varies among cultures. They are more a taboo in the Arab world than they are in the Western world. In this research, we shall see through the many given examples how the instances pertaining to all these cultural taboos—religious and social—are either euphemized or emitted when rendered into Arabic.

Keywords:

Culture, taboo, Arab world, Western world, translation, religion, sexual references, swear words, cultural sensitivity.

Cultures variation in degree of sensitivity to topics

Cultures differ in their attitudes and sensitivity to some issues; religious, political and some social issues, for example. First of all, a great discrepancy exists concerning the degree of sensitivity to religious issues across the Arab and Western worlds. Britain, as an example of the Western countries, has experienced the decline of religious conviction; only about 5 percent of the British population attend church on a normal Sunday and the attitude of the great majority of  population  in the West is that of indifference (Birch 5). In societies where freedoms of speech and religion are secured, religion and religious authorities are not taboos. They are open for criticism and discussion. The Arab world, on the other hand, with its Muslims and Christians, is explicitly conservative in its attitude to religion. Criticism of religion is a taboo. References that give offence to religion or religious figures are negatively perceived in the Arab societies. They are condemned. According to al-Sarrani, Arab writers are not encouraged to write any literary work that discusses any aspect of religion, and any attempt of literary translation should follow the same rules. Many Arab writers prefer not to discuss religion in their works because they know that the publishing houses will refuse to print them, or even if their works are printed, they will not be bought by the majority of the Muslim readers and the consequences of such a publishing could reach the extent of readers’ refusal to buy any of the writer’s previous and future works (38).

 Indeed, this has affected translation in two ways. First, it played a great role in determining which works are translated and which are not. Al-Sarrani mentions that Arab translators tend not to translate works that advocate or discuss certain issues that are presented differently in Islam as these works are assumed to be rejected, unless they are religious books related to other religions. For example, Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the important works in English literature that has never been translated into Arabic and which, al-Sarrani assumes, will never be translated because its presentation of the story of creation of Adam and Eve is different from the one found in the Islamic religion (ibid.). Indeed, such works may be translated for academic reading—for example, to be read by those studying world literature—but  not for reading by the public as they will not sell. Second, sensitivity to religious issues affects the way works are translated; more specifically how religious references are rendered. The word rendered is used here because when it comes to religious references, it becomes an act of rendering—or not rendering (omitting) maybe—rather than translating.

References that give offence to God, messengers, holy figures or a religiously-sensitive issue are probably omitted or rendered with some kind of modification that lessens or frees it of what will be regarded by the Arab audience to be an offense to their religion and consequently to them too. Dante’s Divine Comedy is regarded by many as the greatest work of Italian literature and as an epic poem of the highest order  in world literature (Ergang 103). It is a 14233-line poem that offers an imaginative vision of the afterlife, describing Dante’s travels through HellPurgatory and Paradise or Heaven. However, translating this great epic, translators have gone their ways in dealing with a canto that gives offence to Muhammad and his cousin Ali Ibn Abi-Talib, an essential, honored figure in Islam. In Canto VVIII of Divine Comedy– Inferno, Muhammad and Ali are depicted among the sinners perpetually tormented in the Ninth Pouch of Hell. This pouch of hell is said to be the place for the disseminators of discord and scandal and the creators of schism within the papacy.

Translating Divine Comedy by two different translators, this canto has been dealt with differently, but yet with them both considering the sensitivity of transferring this content. The first Arabic translation of  this work appeared in 1955 by Hasan Othman. Othman deletes the whole part of the canto containing the offending content towards these Islamic figures. However, in the endnotes of this canto, Othman mentions that he deleted lines related to the messenger of Islam Muhammad which he deemed “unworthy of translating”, stating that Dante made a great mistake writing them (Dante, trans. Othman 371). The second translation of Divine Comedy was by Kazem Jihad in 2002; i.e., 48 years after the first Arabic translation. Jihad translates these lines but without any mentioning of the names “Muhammad” or “Ali”. He replaces the name of “Muhammad” with dots, and replaces “Ali” with “cousin”. Here is the English text, to clarify the notion of cultural, religious sensitivity, followed by the Arabic translation Jihad renders of it:

A cask by losing centre-piece or cant

Was never shattered so, as I saw one

Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind.

Between his legs were hanging down his entrails;

His heart was visible, and the dismal sack

That maketh excrement of what is eaten.

While I was all absorbed in seeing him,

He looked at me, and opened with his hands

His bosom, saying: “See now how I rend me;

How mutilated, see, is Mahomet;

In front of me doth Ali weeping go,

Cleft in the face from forelock unto chin;

And all the others whom thou here beholdest,

Disseminators of scandal and of schism

While living were, and therefore are cleft thus.

A devil is behind here, who doth cleave us

Thus cruelly, unto the falchion’s edge

Putting again each one of all this ream,

When we have gone around the doleful road;

By reason that our wounds are closed again

Ere any one in front of him repass. (Dante 184)

لا برميل مكسور الغطاء أو الأضلاع

كان فاغراَ كالكائن الذي رأيتُ

مبقوراً من عنقه حتّى عجزه.

أحشاؤه تتدلى بين ساقيه,

وانكَ لترى رئتيه والكيس الكريه

الذي يصير فيه فضلات ٍ ما يبتلعه الإنسان.

وفيما أحدّق به مليّاً

فتح صدره بيديه

وقال لي: “-أنا (…), أنظر كيف أُتلفُ!

أنظر كيف بُترت أعضائي!

وابن عمّي يمضي باكياً أمامي,

مقلوع الرّأس من هامته حتّى ذقنه.

وجميع من ترى هنا بأم عينيك

كانوا قد عاشوا باذرين الفضائح والأحزاب:

ولذا تراهم مشقوقي الأجسام على هذا النّحو.

وورائنا شيطانٌ يهندمنا

بهذه الفظاظة ويمرّر على حدّ سيفه

جميع معذّبي هذا الطابور,

ما إن نكون أكملنا دورتنا الكئيبة:

ذلك أن جراحنا تندمل

قبل أن نمرّ أمامه ثانيةَ أمامه.

(Dante, trans. by Jihad 368-369)

However, in the first footnote at the beginning of the canto, the translator mentions that through this canto Dante describes the torment dedicated for the disseminators of scandal and schism and received by an essential Islamic figure, whose identity was disambiguated rather than deleting the whole lines the way Hasan Othman has done, though he honestly declares performing this deletion (Jihad 366). Indeed, two points are to be highlighted concerning Jihad’s technique of offence disambiguation. The first point is that Jihad says that he disambiguated the identity of an essential Islamic figures but he never mentions the name. The second point is that he says this through the footnote at the beginning of the canto; two pages before the quoted lines. These two points or procedures complete each other and make for a successful disambiguation.

On the other hand, two things are to be noted about Othman’s deletion of the offending lines and his comment on this in the endnotes of the canto. First, Othman names the offended Islamic figure whom the deleted lines are about. Second, saying that he deleted some unworthy of translating lines related to the Messenger of Islam serves disambiguating the nature of offence, to some extent, but his saying that Dante made a great mistake writing them and that, writing these lines, Dante was affected by the negative image prevailing at his time about Islam make the reader have an idea about the seriousness of this offence. So, part of the offence is transmitted here as a result of the naming act and the comment, in spite of the deletion of the lines.

Considering Othman’s act of deletion, Ghalloum says that this deletion may have resulted out of respect for the feelings of the Muslims, and that even though deletion is a betrayal of the source text, “we cannot but accept this act of  betrayal”. On the other hand, in an article on literary translation and comparative literature, al-Sayyid believes that a translator is a cultural mediator who should accept the Other as he is and that a translator’s deletion of paragraphs from an ST may cause a deficit in text structure. Al-Sayyid says that Othman has deleted lines of Divine Comedy related to the Messenger Muhammad and Ali Ibn Abi-Talib for “religious reasons” and has thus deprived the Arabic reader from the chance of getting to know the cultural and mental environment that was overwhelming in Europe in the Middle Ages and that paved the way for the Crusades due to the negative image of Islam and Muslims there. This deletion has also deprived the reader from valuable information concerning the historical roots of tension in the relationship between the Arab and the Western worlds (67).

While al-Sayyid’s point of view seems right in theory, its applicability may be deemed questionable. Al-Sayyid himself, when defending his point of view, said that Othman deleted these lines “for religious reasons”, without any specification about the kind and degree of insult contained within. The answer to the question of the applicability of such a theory of honest translation is to be related to the target reader; whether the Arab reader will accept such an honest translation with all it entails. It is also related to other considerations, such as what is more important: honesty or less tension. In case the translator considers honesty and “truth” to be more important, he/she should also consider the consequences of such an honesty. Yet, before considering less tension to be the more important, one is to answer another question which is whether it is healthy to build this stability or less tension on false backgrounds of disambiguating truth or deleting it. Finally, can there be two editions of the book: one that is “honest” for academic reading and one that is directed to the public?

The sensitivity to religious issues in the Arab world and the consequences of not paying due attention to it through the course of translating can be clearly seen through examining the translation of the world-wide known, American, animated sitcom The Simpsons into Arabic. The Simpsons is a satirical depiction of the working-class life epitomized by the Simpson family. Parodying the American culturesociety, and the human condition, in general, with all its aspects, religion has been a main theme in many of its episodes (“The Simpsons”). Here are some instances from two episodes of The Simpsons where religion is concerned, accompanied by the way they are rendered:

  1. “Homer the Heretic”: The Simpsons 4th Season, 3rd Episode (Meyer, trans. by Crazy Music Centre): In this episode, Homer decides to forsake the church. His wife, Marge, gets horrified to hear this and tries to persuade him otherwise, but it is all in vain. Marge prays for her husband. Then, Homer has a dream in which Godpersonally appears to him. Homer argues he does not want to spend half his Sunday hearing about how he is going to hell. At the end of the dream, God agrees to let Homer worship in his own way. So, Homer starts following his own religion. The attempts of both Homer’s neighbor Ned Flanders and Reverend Lovejoy to bring Homer back to religion go also in vain. One Sunday morning, while skipping church, Homer sleeps while smoking, and the whole house is set on fire. Firefighters and neighbors, of different cultures and faiths, rush into the house, rescue Homer and set the fire out. While Homer thinks that God is delivering vengeance, Reverend Lovejoy disagrees saying that God is working through the hearts of Homer’s friends, despite their different faiths. At the end, Homer agrees to give church another try and is back to the church (“Homer the Heretic”). Here are some examples from this episode:
  • (God appearing personally to Homer in a dream):

Homer: God?                                                                                  أيها الرّب؟

God: Thou has forsaken my church.                          أنت الذي تخلفت عن الكنيسة

Homer, well, Kind of, but… نوعاً ما ، لكن –                                                   God: But what?                                                                           لكن ماذا؟ -

Homer: I am not a bad guy. I work hard and I love my kids. So, why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to hell?

أنا لست رجل سيء ، أعمل بجهد وأحب أطفالي لماذا أقضي نصف يوم الأحد أنصت لأسباب ذهابي للجحيم؟

God: Hmm, you’ve got a point there. You know, sometimes even I’d rather be watching football. Does St. Louis still have a team?

أنت محق بذلك. أتعلم, أحياناً حتى أنا أفضل مشاهدة كرة القدم. هل مازال لـ(ست لويس) فريق؟

Homer: No, they moved to Phoenix.                                 لا ، انتقلوا لـ(فينكس).

God: Oh, yeah.                                                                                   صحيح.

Homer: You know what I really hate about church? Those boring sermons.                                     أتعرف ما أكرهه في الكنيسة؟ تلك المحاضرات المملّة

God: Oh, I couldn’t agree more. That Reverend Lovejoy really displeases me .I think I’ll give him a canker sore.

أوافقك بهذا ، الكاهن (لوفجوي) يضايقني بشدة. أعتقد أنني سأصيبه بقرحة الحنجرة.

Note: Personification of God is itself prohibited in Islam. In addition, the portraying of God this way—God’s asking a mortal about things and His saying that even He ‘d rather be watching football—may seem like lack of due respect to God. The conversation is yet translated without omission or change.

  • Bart: So, Homer, you saw the big cheese? So what ‘d he look like?

هومر, شاهدت الرّب؟ كيف يبدو؟

Homer: perfect teeth, nice smell, a class act all the way.

أسنان رائعة, رائحة طيبة, تصرفاته لطيفة طوال الوقت.

Note: “The big cheese” is a phrase used to refer to an important person in a company or an organization with a lot of influence, but it is used by Bart here to refer to God. The translator has rendered “the big cheese” as “God” “الرّب”. In a religiously conservative society, God should only be referred to with due respect and glorification.

  • (After Homer’s house is set on fire and firefighters and Homer’s friends rescue him and set the fire out):

Homer: You know, I have a feeling there’s a lesson there.

لديّ إحساس أن ما حدث هنا خلفه درس.

Marge: yes, the lesson is…                                                    نعم ، الدرس هو -

Homer: No, don’t tell me. I’ll get it. Oh, I know. The Lord is vengeful.

لا لا تخبريني. سأعرفه. عرفته. الرّب غاضب

Homer (addressing God): Spiteful One, show me who to smite, and they shall be smoten.                           أّيها الغاضب, دعني أعلم بمن أغضبوك وسأضربهم.

Note: “Spiteful One” and “vengeful” are both rendered in Arabic as “Angry One” “الغاضب”.

  1. The Computer Wore Menace Shoes“: The Simpsons, 12th Season, 6th Episode (Swartzwelder, trans. by Nassif Centre):
  • Homer (referring to an animation of “Jesus Christ” dancing, appearing on a website he visits) : Ooh, a dancing Jesus يسوع راقص Though this is considered an offence to Jesus Christ, the English sentence was rendered without any change.

Indeed when it comes to the Arab world, both Muslims and Christians are conservative in their attitude to religion, compared to the Western world. Religion and religious holy figures are above criticism and parody. Also, though these episodes from which these examples are taken deal with Christian themes, the translators have yet, to some extent, taken into consideration that the great majority of the target audience are Muslims and that, though the themes here are mainly Christian, they have relations to Islam and Muslims too. Belief in God is related to all Abrahamic religions. Offence of Jesus Christ or other messengers is prohibited by both Christians and Muslims. Requests for stopping the broadcasting of The Simpsons were reported due to complaints from audience in Saudi Arabia and some other Arab countries that the series includes offence towards God, messengers and Islam and tries to raise suspicions about them, although a good deal of the audience enjoyed the series and respected the critical and humorous sense of the series (“Rotana Cuts off Broadcast”).

A highly-ranked religious leader may also be a taboo in the Arab world.  House of Saddam is a BBC and HBO drama series that tells about the rise and fall of the 1979-2003 Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The first episode starts with telling about the tense relationship between Iraq and Iran. Saddam Hussein and his comrades see Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Khomeini as a great threat. After hearing a speech for al-Khomeini that urges people against Saddam, Saddam and his comrades use offensive words, expressing their hatred for al-Khomeini and great concern about this leader’s increasing influence. In the Arabic translation of this conversation, the offensive words are totally omitted:

Ali Hassan al-Majeed (talking about Khomeini): He is a thoughtless son of a bitch .Bark, bark, bark, all day long -every day.

تم التحفظ. الصراخ, الصراخ, الصراخ, طوال اليوم كل اليوم.

Tariq Aziz: He is a dog with teeth, Ali.                                          تم التحفظ.

Saddam: Sharp teeth. We can offer a hand of friendship but he will bite it off.                                                             نستطيع عرض يد الصداقة لكنه سيعضّها.

Back translation of the Arabic translation:

Ali Hassan al-Majeed: It is reserved. Shout, shout, shout, all day long -every day.

Tariq Aziz: It is reserved.

Saddam: We can offer a hand of friendship but he will bite it off.

(Holmes and Butchard, trans. by GEGE)

The literal translation of the Arabic translation shows how offensive words about al-Khomeini have been held back. It is even unclear what is being reserved. The “It” in “It is reserved” is somehow vague. The translator has omitted offense though it is of significance for showing the escalating tension in the Iraqi-Iranian relationship prior to the initiation of war between the two countries. Respect of a highly-ranked religious figure is deemed a priority over any other significance in the Arab world.

Religion is absolutely not the only taboo in the Arab world, though it can be seen as the triggering reason behind many other taboos in the various aspects of life. Just as religion impacts social life and religious concepts make for so many of the terms used in quotidian social life conversation, similarly, religious taboos show in the taboos seen in the social life of the conservative Arab world. Concepts related to sexual intercourses or gay relationships are still a taboo in the Arab world.

For example, according to Aqel, when translating movies, translators try to omit, disambiguate or alleviate the meaning of terms like sex or gay. Most Arabs think of homosexuality, adultery, lesbians and sex out of marriage as wrong conditions that go against culture and religion (52). In his Constraints on Translating Taboo Language in English Movies into Arabic, Aqel complains that though “gay” has a formal equivalent in Arabic, it is typically translated in a misleading, confusing, weird way, if translated at all. For example, in Now I pronounce you Jack and Henry on the Arabic channel Dubai One, “gays” is translated as “المضطربون” (“the confused”), when the whole film talks about two male friends who pretend to be homosexuals and sign a paper announcing that they are a gay couple so that they get to benefit from the Gays Rights Union; to get money and find a place of residence since they are both broke. Translating “gays” as “المضطربون” in this film makes no sense and confuses the audience (Aqel 52). On the other hand, in an episode of The Crazy Ones on the same channel, Sydney goes to date Dyln where all of her friends know that Dyln is gay but none of them tells her that. When one of her friends decides to tell her the truth, saying “Sydney, I want to tell you that Dyln is gay!”, Dubai One allows Sydney’s friend to only say “”Sydney, I want to tell you that Dyln is” and cuts the whole scene out, jumping into another scene where Sydney is crying and her friend is trying to comfort her. The deletion of the word “gay” and thus of its translation confuses the audience who are unable to figure out what the problem is (ibid. 57).

Also, in his Euphemism and (Self-) Censorship: Strategies for translating taboos into Arabic, Abbas lists sexual activity, naming genitals or breasts, alcoholic drinks and swearwords among the  cultural taboos within the Arab culture, stating that passages pertaining to these cultural taboos are either euphemized or censored (29). For example, in the Arabic translation of Dan Brown’s Inferno, the direct mention of the word “sex” or any related word, such as “sexual” and “sexuality”, is almost nonexistent.

So. Though sex and sex-related words are mentioned 10 times in the original text, they are mentioned only once in the Arabic translation to express the Arabic equivalent of sexually-transmitted diseases (35-36).

“That being said, it is important to note that the TT does not completely shield the reader from the sex-related meanings found in the ST. In most cases, the idea of the ST is conveyed in TT by means of euphemism” (ibid. 36).

The following is one of the examples Abbas gives of the euphemism of taboo words:

Source text: Inferno p.200 Target text p. 139
Back translation of TTBring to more than a dozen the total number of exposed penises that greet visitors to the palazzo.يصبح مجموع التماثيل للشخصيات العارية التي تستقبل زوار القصر أكثر من عشرة.The total number of naked statues that greet the palace’s visitors is more than ten.  

         (34)

Another instance of what could neither be called deletion nor euphemism can be seen in this example from The Simpsons, the 12th Season, the 19th Episode, where “make out” is translated into Arabic as “kiss”:

  • An astronaut woman talking to a man called Jeffrey Albertson: You saved the captain’s life. I want to make out with you. And so do Catwoman and Agent 99.

لقد أنقذت حياة القبطان. أودّ أن أقبلك بصحبة (كات ومن) و(أيجنت 99).

Back translation of the Arabic translation: You saved the captain’s life. I want to kiss you with the company of Catwoman and Agent 99.

 (Thacker, trans. by Nassif Centre)

In addition, swear words that are used to manifest fury and anger are generally a taboo in all cultures. However, their popularity, their impact and the degree of offense they connotate may widely vary among cultures and that is why they should not be translated literally or replaced with their most natural equivalent in the target culture (Abbas 50). They had better be replaced with swear words that may have the same impact on the target reader as the one had by the source word on the source reader. The two scales of equivalence used by the translator here are the scales of popularity or typicality and the scale of impact.

The two scales are obviously interrelated. Aqel believes that the translators should think of taboo language according to the standards of a certain culture and its ideology. For example, though the term “mother fucker” is a taboo in both Arabic and English, its impact is considerably different in these cultures due to ideological reasons. For example, this taboo term may be used by groups, teens or gangs in some parts of the West as a matter of joke. For example, some may greet one another saying “Wus up, mother fuckers” or “Hey, mother fuckers”, while in the east, one would get into a serious physical fight if ever joking or greeting this way. This term has an aggressive insulting  impact on the addressee (ibid. 42).

Another aspect of cultural sensitivity in translation is the sensitivity to some national issues of the target readers. For example, in “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes” episode, Mr. Burns sells uranium to terrorists who may be suspected by the audience to be middle-eastern because of the way they are dressed, though not directly said. However, since it has been a point of tension and sensitivity to the Arab reader that Arabs and Islam are generally related to terrorism in the western media, the translator has decided to translate the following short dialogue as follows:

  • Burns: I will supply you terrorists with deadly uranium. إذن  اتفقنا, سأمدكم باليورانيوم المميت.

Terrorists: You are a credit to the great Satan.                    أنت شرير أفضل من الشيطان.

Back translation of the Arabic translation: Mr. Burns: So, it is a deal. I will supply you with deadly uranium.

Terrorists: You are evil, better than Satan.

(Swartzwelder, trans. by Nassif Centre)

The translator has deleted the word “terrorists” from the words of Mr. Burns and has even changed the meaning of the sentence said by the terrorists.

Finally, while in some cases, issues that are not sensitive in the SC are sensitive in the TC, the opposite may be the case in some other instances. Some issues that are sensitive in the SC may not be so in the TC. Figures who are honored and issues which are sensitive to the Arab audience may not be so to the Western audience.

 For example, the extra-glorification of the names of presidents or holy religious figures may not work in the Western culture. For instance, the Arabic sentence “اليوم أثنى الرئيس صدام حسين حفظه الله ورعاه على الجهود الجبارة لقواتنا في الدفاع عن مدينة المحمرة” said by an Iraqi reporter and literally meaning “Today, President Saddam Hussein, may God protect and preserve him, praised the valiant efforts of our troops to defend the city of Al-Muhammarah” was indeed translated into English in House of Saddam as “Today, President Saddam Hussein praised the valiant efforts of our troops to defend the city of Al-Muhammarah” (Holmes and Butchard, trans. by GEGE). The Western audience are only interested in information here and an extra-honoring of presidents is not part of their culture.

So, cultural sensitivity to the wide range of topics of the various aspects of life—whether religious, social, political, national or universal, etc.—may vary considerably among cultures and this results in a considerable impact on the course of translating and a huge pressure on the translator who may, especially in the case of translation from English into Arabic, turn to have two functions rather than one; a cultural observers and a linguistic translator; with the translator being obliged to seek a state of balance between the two functions, if it is possible, or to decide which one to give priority to, if they cannot be achieved simultaneously.

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—. Al-Koomedya al-Ilahiya (Divine Comedy). Trans. Kazem Jihad. Beirut: Arab Institution for Studies and Publishing, 2002. Print.

—. Divine Comedy-Inferno. Trans. Henry Longfellow. USA: RDMc, 2008. Paskvil. Web. 5 Apr. 2017.

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Updated: 2018-03-28 — 18:24

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