Thursday, September 12, 2013

Lost in Translation

I'm supposed to be studying for an econ test, but I came across this article just now and it was so disturbing that I couldn't really get back to my fiscal policy and monetary policy and Keynesian multipliers after that.

The main thrust of the article can be summarized in Zulkifli Noordin's words:
"A fundamental thing I got after reading the Al-Kitab, the Malay version of the Bible is that actually it is not the Injil as Muslims understand. It is actually the translation of the book called the Bible from the English version.
"This means the Malay-Indonesian language version of the Al-Kitab Bible does not deserve to be called the original holy book, instead it is only a translation."
Considering that the Allah issue has already been debated extensively over the past few years (and also taking into account that I'm not, by any means, a theological or etymological expert), I'll only venture as far as to give my personal take on the issue at hand.

I'm someone who loves languages, and I'm also someone who loves reading the Bible. So a few years back, I thought — since I've already read the entire Bible in English, why not try reading it in BM this time? Of course, a few questions arose as a result of this idea. Would there be differences between the two languages? Would I have a different experience reading the same passages in two different languages? How accurate would the translation be?

There was only one way to find out — so I put my English Bible away for half a year and picked up an Al-Kitab instead. During this period of time, I read a host of books both from the Old Testament and the New Testament: Mazmur (Psalms), Yesaya (Isaiah), Lukas (Luke), Yahya (John), 1&2 Korintus (1&2 Corinthians) and more. I even went as far to journal my reflections on these books in BM! And I ended up enjoying this journey so much that I extended it to other languages, namely French, Bahasa Indonesia and Penan.

So what did I get out of this experience?

Firstly, I found that yes, there were differences between various translations — but these differences were generally not critical to the meaning, understanding and interpretation of passages. For instance, the names of people and places were slightly different. There was Bathsheba in English, Batsyeba in BM, and Batchéba in French. Besides that, the English texts tended to be a lot more concise than their BM counterparts. What used to fit into four lines in my English journal sometimes ended up taking six to eight lines for BM! And there were some other minor differences too, but as a general rule, none of them subtracted from the Bible in any way.

Secondly, I did have slightly different experiences when I read the Bible in different languages. Much of this was probably due to the fact that various languages, to a certain extent, emphasize different linguistic elements — English is a pretty efficient language, French a more romantic one, BM a simpler one, and so on. So naturally, when I read various translations, different passages and verses seemed to stand out more, in line with the linguistic emphasis of the language concerned. Take Isaiah 2:5 as an example. 'Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD', beautifully phrased in French, made me see the verse afresh: 'En route, famille de Jacob! Marchons dans la lumière du SEIGNEUR!' I have other examples from Al-Kitab passages, but as I mentioned before, they aren't very concise, so I'll just pass on these this time. But you get my drift — and at the end of the day, although linguistic emphases may vary, they don't really play a role in influencing the accuracy of translations.

Which brings me to my third and final point — how accurate, really, are translations of the Bible? Zulkifli Noordin claimed that the Al-Kitab is inauthentic just because it was translated from English, and not from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. For starters, I don't even know if his claims about the Al-Kitab being translated from English are true. But assuming that they are true, then it would appear that Noordin insinuates that a case of 'Chinese Whispers' occurred during the translation of the Bible. (Essentially, in 'Chinese Whispers', people take turns to whisper and pass a message down a long line, and by the end of the game, the message is typically distorted to the point of hilarity.)
Did that happen with the Bible? From my five-language exploration of the Bible, I'm inclined to strongly disagree with his claim. The many passages and verses that I read accurately corresponded with each other; and while finer literary nuances may occasionally have been lost in translation, the very essence of the Bible was always very much there, solid and intact. Besides, there's also reason to believe that translators would translate the Bible with utmost care and scrutiny — it's highly unlikely that they'd treat the translation of a sacred book as flippantly as a game of Chinese Whispers.

At the end of the day, I think that what most of us want is freedom of religion, backed by a deep mutual respect between people of all faiths. I genuinely love my Muslim friends (we have our fair share of retarded bonding sessions haha) — and I think that they would conversely say the same of me. We can agree to disagree, and it's all very cordial.

So — Zulkifli Noordin, let's be friends too?

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