Thursday, May 13, 2010

Politics; or the Translators' Dilemma

No, don't worry--this is not (and never will be) a political blog. I just don't have the heart for it.

But the recently-held municipal elections (and a well-timed Arabic lesson) got me thinking about something.

First, a little background. One of the things that makes Arabic such an elegant, poetic language (and one of its redeeming qualities in terms of ease of acquisition) is that the entire language is based on three letter roots: the most oft-used example is the root KTB. Kitab means book. Maktab means office (a place where writing happens). Kitabat means writing. Kitabut means discourse in written form. Are you starting to see a pattern here? But wait--kutbah means beads. Huh? Every root has a base meaning. According to one website I saw, the KTB root primarily communicates the concept of writing. But KTB doesn't just mean the idea of writing, it communicates the idea of binding together or joining, like stitches or beads on a string. And so writing is a way of binding letters into words and words into concepts. It is also a way of binding writer and reader together. Pretty cool, huh? And like I said, very, very elegant.

I like root words. A lot. This is something that I inherited from my family, although more often than not, the meticulously detailed word history that my father or grandfather would explain to me would turn out to be an example of fiction rather than actual etymological fact. Just ask my uncle Ned about kiosks.

Family quirks aside, sometime word roots can give you surprising insights into a culture. Most of you probably know already that the English word "politics" comes from the Greek root "polis", meaning "city". Politics is about how groups of people live together and govern their lives. The Arabic word that we translate as "politics" is "siyehsiyeh"--which has an SYS root. The base meaning of that particular root? "Control." In this sense, politics is less about how we live together and govern our lives, but how we control (ourselves and others).

Now, I don't want for this to sound patronizing at all--look at us Westerners, with our 'sivilization' and such. How evolved are we! We should really let the Arab world bask in the glow of our superior governing principles. Clearly, the practice of politics in the west (and present-day America in particular) doesn't always compare to the ideals set out by the root of our words. But it still is an interesting thought--the area of my brain that lights up when I hear the word politics is different from the area of a brain that lights up when it hears the word "siyehsiyeh," even if they are considered to be translations for each other.

I shall leave it up to more qualified minds than mine to decide how much language influences culture and vice versa.


  1. Sigh. I like the way you think, Sarah Gulley.

  2. hi sarah! i don't know you and you don't know me, but i very very randomly came across your blog and i am fascinated! it's wonderful reading about your experiences in lebanon. i wondered if you might be gracious enough to let me know how you managed to get there to work. i have family there and am trying to figure out a teaching gig, but so far no luck. i know this sounds totally dicey and weird - a stranger asking this on your blog. but i thought i'd take a chance. if you have a moment to email me, it's ecory at ucsd dot edu


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