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The Lie of Translation
How our words have soul
Ishq عشق , Pyaar پیار , Mohabbat موحبّت
Paste any of the Urdu words above into the translation engines of our age – Google Translate, GPT, and their friends. They’ll give you the same answer: “love.”
They’re lying, because they fail to capture the details that matter.
Mohabbat (موحبّت) - often used to describe a deep, emotional attachment or a strong bond between two individuals. It has a Persian root.
Pyaar (پیار) - a more general love that carries a sense of fondness and caring.
Ishq (عشق) - an Arabic word used regularly in Urdu/Hindi, it means "to love intensely" or "to be enamored with someone or something." It’s often used for passionate love.
There is so much depth, nuance, and soul in these three words. When you hear them, they’ll dance in your ears to the rhythm of your heartbeat. There’s much more to these words than a stale translation of "love" can cover.
The mystery of language
At a few years old, I would sit on my grandfather’s lap and he would sing to me as I bounced on his knee. I didn’t know it then, but he knew at least five languages fluently, and dozens of others conversationally. As one of the first Indian professors at Oxford, he published books and wrote papers on history, philosophy, and comparative religion. His bookshelves were stacked with tomes written in their native languages.
I often wonder if my penchant for history, language, and writing was inspired by those early days with him. If he were here now, he would chuckle at my small knowledge, my innocent realizations. Fully suited, elegant cane beside him, he would likely pat me on the back and he would tell me to keep reading, to keep seeking.
While I haven’t studied languages with much rigor, I’ve felt how language can open entirely new avenues of perspective.
Besides my poor-but-conversational understanding of Urdu/Hindi, I’ve been learning Chinese. I initially learned elementary Mandarin in High School, and after a trip to Taiwan with my fiancee, I’ve started studying it again.
Chinese characters are beautiful and mysterious – yet they are practical, terse, and precise. At my best learning self, I try to examine every edge of a new character I encounter. Like a carefully picked flower, I spin it around and wonder. How does the character look? What does it feel like? How does it sound?
In playful exploration, the mysteries around the English, Urdu, and Hindi words I speak are also revealed. The phrases I toss lightly in my daily life – they have beauty and mystery too.
Words - the vehicles of soul
The names we give to things carry meaning, intention, and emotion. These names, aka, "words," are vehicles of ideas and concepts, of things we sometimes struggle to grasp and fully comprehend. Things like love.
Beyond the inherent meaning of words, our understanding can shift and dance with the context in which the words are spoken or written. Can the beauty of this dance happen in a work's non-original language? Perhaps it can get close... but I don't think it would be original.
One of the most read books in the world is the Islamic Holy Book, the Quran. Believed to be the words of God revealed to Prophet Muhammad, the poetic Arabic in which it was originally revealed puts every translation to shame.
Words in every text, from holy scriptures to Tweets, have soul.
They contain an essence of the speaker or the writer within them.
If translations were perfect, they could capture nuances. No footnotes would be needed, and a single translation for a book would suffice.
When we paste a word into our translation tools and they spit something indifferently back at us, we accept the result at face value. In an age of instant gratification, we forget that every syllable we speak or write has been forged in the irons of culture and history.
Don’t get me wrong. I still love translations. They’re a necessity, a practical reality that we can’t live without in our globalized world. I'm grateful for Google Translate and ChatGPT. I’m grateful for the translated books I’ve read. I'm grateful that I can read Haruki Murakami, Paulo Coelho, and the Quran. Translations make these texts approachable. But they’re not completely true. They’re approximations, mere shadows of the spirit that imbued the original pages.
Realizing this, words feel deeper, more important, full of meaning.
When I read or listen to anything in its native language, even if I don’t fully understand it, I've come to savor every word. I'm sinking into the fullness of inflection, character, and intention that I know could be lost in translation.
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