Reading matter

Barbara Cassin, a French philosopher working with a team of other Europeans, has just published VOCABULAIRE EUROPEEN DES PHILOSOPHIES ; DICTIONNAIRE DES INTRADUISIBLES. A somewhat hard to translate title – is it European Vocabulary of Philosophies: Dictionary of Untranslatable terms, or European Philosophical Vocabulary, or Vocabulary of European Philosophies, etc? Fifteen hundred pages on how to (sometimes fail to) translate such terms as German Dasein, English agency, Russian mir, Greek logos, Hebrew Torah, Italian virtù and even Portuguese saudade. Probably not for the commercial translator’s bookshelf, but a fascinating journey through the joys and sufferings of language.

Nervad Kermani, the German-Iranian writer, has published an interesting article in the October 1 issue of The Times Literary Supplement (probably need to be a subscriber) on ‘The language of Islam and how Osama bin Laden betrays it’. Sample:


Watching Osama bin Laden’s first video broadcast after the start of the American air offensive on Afghanistan, I was struck by the exquisite Arabic he spoke. Not once did he slip into dialect, as usually happens with the modern generation of Arabic leaders, nor did he confuse the complicated flexional endings, a mistake made even by intellectuals. He chose antiquated vocabulary, familiar to educated Arabs from religious literature and classical poetry, and avoided neologisms. It was indeed the stiff, puritanical, conformist, artificial Arabic as described above, but it was immaculate. And for the first time, watching bin Laden’s broadcast, I found myself falling under its spell.

It sounded like a traditional speech, but it represented a break with tradition. Arab theologians speak very differently – if they are rhetorically well educated – with an exquisitely varying enunciation of high Arabic consonants, precise modulation and length of vowels, the result of many years of learning rhetoric and Qur’anic recitation. Osama bin Laden, being a businessman by profession, lacks this training, and although he speaks antiquated Arabic, it sounds simple, clear and modest. In fact, his rhetoric works precisely because of the absence of rhetorical ornament, and a conscious modesty of expression.

This linguistic asceticism marks a rejection of the burden of tradition, a return to roots. In the video his prophetic aura was reinforced by his austere attire and location in a cave in Afghanistan, a clear reference to the cave in which the Prophet received his first revelation. Even the lack of accentuation in bin Laden’s rhetoric echoes the puritanical Wahabitic spirit, which is allegedly identical with the divine spirit of the Prophet. This break with prevailing tradition was most obvious when bin Laden cited phrases from the Qur’an: while other speakers grotesquely raise and lower their voices when they recite the Revelation, Osama bin Laden proceeded in the same solicitous tone, as if he wished to persuade his audience through the clarity of his message alone.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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