On Translation and Meaning

“Monday Musings” for Monday July 21, 2014

Volume IV. No. 28/178


Averroes                                               Dante                                   Omar Khayyam

Moral and Ethical Responsibility of Translating

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

(Editor’s Note:   Below was brought about by an e-mail exchange with a reader) 

Thank you for your kind if not extravagant words. I am humbled. Unfortunately I do not know much about Japanese and Chinese philosophy and cannot offer a scholarly opinion. I only superficially know the work of Buddha and Confucius to the point that there is much Buddha in Sufism, and much Sufism in Freemasonry (1717)…  And Mozart knew about both. His famous operas including his last 1791, The Magic Flute, K620, librettist Emanuel Schikaneder are full of Sufi parables and Freemasonry symbolism. However, I know of several things; I do know that the Chinese as a human brand of DNA is superior. When everyone was locked up in the prison of superstition and ignorance, China had a religion, and believed in a supreme being and they engaged in worship and adoration of that supreme being. The last time I went to China, poverty was overwhelming. In less than half a century, China has become the second largest economy in the world. Many US financiers including a succession of Federal Reserve Chairs admit that China owns America. US economy would be in shambles if China decides to cash in all US Treasury bonds it owns.

Re: Translation and polyglossia, I have been involved with the art and craft of polyglossia, translation and interpretation. There are vast ethical and moral implications and responsibilities in the profession/craft of translating. I used to work for the CIA while in medical school (usually after midnight, translating documents in a basement at the CIA Langley office), and UN during the summers of my college pre-med years (as a simultaneous translator). I have seen consequential errors and inaccurate translations that endangered the fate of an important ongoing discussion. I also know that quite a bit of the Bible translated from the original Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, and the language the Synoptic Gospels were written and later translated into Greek, Latin, German, and finally English, contain errors.  We do know that King James Bible was translated in 1611. It is composed by the Hebrew Bible or the 39 books of the Old Testament with 593,493 words; and the 27 books of the New Testament, 181,253; total 884,647 words. These translations while elegant and scholarly written in elevated Elizabethan style, carry many inaccuracies. They errors are most likely unintentional. But just the same, in some instances they radically and universally change(d) the meaning of the message. Innumerable other Bibles such as Vulgate, Wycliffe, etc., also, are not error free. Faithful readers of this space recall my review of the book Secretaries of God by Adam Nicolson in which many examples of these errors were listed. As a small example, there are no fewer than 20 interpretations/translations of Psalm 137:5 “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.” Translation is a heavy responsibility. Readers remember the near disastrous episode in 1977 when a speech was given by the former President Jimmie Carter at a formal government reception in Poland, expressing America’s love for the people of Poland. Well, President Carter’s words were mistranslated into American People’s lust and carnal desire for the Polish people….

In history, we encounter many of these linguistics mishaps. Martin Luther (1483-1550), the formidable scholar, writer, reformist and hymnologist who first translated the Bible from Latin into German in 1522 recognized his errors of translation and readily acknowledged and corrected the errors the best he could. Modern German scholars and theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich continued to correct Luther’s errors during their lifetime. Even the most exact and impeccable philologist, linguist, and translator of all time, Ibn Rushd Averroes, the celebrated 12th century (1126-1198) commentator, who translated the collected work of Aristotle into Arabic, made errors and recanted them. I fully sympathize with those who assert that folks should read any work in the original language, and not depend on the mercy of the translator’s intellectual competence and skills, or lack thereof.

Personally, I maintain that if one really loves the western opera, it is almost imperative to learn Italian and ignore the inadequate and “artificial” subtitles. Even though he was a blatant amoral psychopath, I’d rather Listen to the words of genius Lorenzo da Ponti, Mozart’s famous librettist, as they were minted in his fascinating brain in the original Italian (he wrote in Latin also), and not to some accommodating Joe Blow who commercially created the subtitles.

There is a group of morally bankrupt thieves who commercially exploit and “translate” famous poets like Rumi (1207-1273), Saadi (1210-1290), Shams Tabrizi (1185-1248), and Hafez (1337-1406), posing as authorities without knowing the Persian language (Farsi), much less about Persian history, culture and protocol. You probably have read my contentious pieces about these self-appointed Sufi aficionados and pseudo-authorities who are mere imposters. These charlatans use the sheer force of marketing to gain the reputation of being a “source”. A good example of this atrocity is one of the popular translators of the Rubaiyat (quatrains) of Omar Khayyam (1098-1135) who knew very little about Persia and Islam.  He trans-literated one of the most mystic and holy poems of Khayyam referring to Prophet Mohammad pbuh, as “two years vintage wine and a fourteen years old beloved” making the prophet to come across as a drunken pedophile. What the poem really means is that the beloved, the Prophet, was four times ten of forty (not fourteen) years of age when he was called upon to declare his faith; and the wine was his book, the Holy Qur’an, which took two years to complete. The poem has absolutely nothing to do with drinking wine and abusing a 14 year old child. This type of abuse of literature and ignorance of languages has caused historical consternation.  As early as 1286 the genius of the Italian language, Dante Alighieri (1265-1320), took the same poem of Khayyam and wrote a bruising account of “Mohammad in Hell”, a part of Dante’s famous Inferno. I regret that Dante did not know any better because he did not bother to learn Persian or Arabic before he wrote that ignoble story about the Prophet. Readers beware!

Finally, let me invite you to learn a new language. Learning a new language at any age or stage of life is intellectually fulfilling and personally enjoyable. There is no joy higher than learning.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.



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