Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The surprises of translation

It is always for me a great source of wonderment: how come, being the same books, and with them the same evidence and arguments I rely on in my thinking, available to everybody, others don't seem to take them into account, and, even if they do, they are drawn to very different conclusions?

This means that there is more involved in thinking than sheer inference from evidence, or simply conforming to a "method" qualified as "scientific".

After the Swiss referendum that turned down the building of minarets, I read an interview to a Jesuit father, expressing his disapproval. "Who is afraid of people praying?", he provocatively asked.

"Well, nobody", is the simple answer, "as long as what they do is simply praying."

What else can it be? I could be asked in return.

My readings about Islam give a clear answer: a way of marking a territory as one's own. They say that setting up a mosque, possibly with a minaret and a muezzin calling to prayer from it, is for self-conscious Muslims a way to reclaim that place as dar al Islam, territory of Islam.

Hence the wonderment a spoke about. Didn't that Jesuit read the same things I did? Yes, and probably more. So, why does he brand as fear of diversity the wariness before Muslim immigration and the consequent proliferation of mosques? Couldn't it be the expression by a people of a right concern for their future freedom?

And though, that Jesuit father doesn't think so. Why? I ask myself.

Because, he says, praying is a religious matter, and claiming a territory a political and diplomatic one. And, he claims, they are separate matters, not to be mingled, as it would be the case if we were to ask Islamic countries for reciprocity: to have them allow us to build our churches while we allow them to build their mosques, with or without minarets.

I can't enter into the motivations of his wanting to think so. But I can question his distinction of politics and religion, deep down in its ground.

I do it by asking him for an effort at reciprocity: in translation.

Before people to whom we want grant the right to pray because it is a religious matter, the first thing to do is to look in their language, whether there is in it a word that translates our religion: not the Latin word, but the word as it is currently used, meaning something that stands by itself.

If not, we should beware.

We should beware them, but not just them, also the saying that what they do is just praying.

The lack of translation word by word should work reciprocally, with a feedback on our conceptual distinctions, making us realize that what we call "religion" and "politics", or for that matter "culture" (with all that falls into it), variously overlap in one or more words of the languages in which we would have liked to translate them.

This means that they are abstract words, that don't name anything existing separately, but only aspects of the same thing: what we do when in action and/or speech we define our world.

In any case, we advance a claim to know (let's call it "science"), and that our knowledge is the right reading of how things human and divine are (let's call it "religion"), and that in this reading we should find the bond that ties us together (let's call it "politics"). In any case, I repeat, whatever the way (let's call it "culture") in which we do it.

To keep acritically these distinctions, is a way to hide the issues involved in the process of communication, at all levels, among people, moved, it might be, by the most sincere will to dialogue, with no other result, though, than exempting oneself from taking note of the dangers present in that process.

All said, my wonderment doesn't really go away. It stays, before what appears a self-inflicted blindness, due to a will to dialogue that doesn't want to notice how it runs against its desires. Addressing people on the basis of distinctions that they don't make – like when one qualifies as their "religion" what for them is just the way things are – means not to take them seriously. And to anger them more.



Maria said...

I'm going to be difficult again :-) No, just kidding, I have a question. How is a mosque's identity as a "territory of Islam" different from, say, the Catholic Church buying and owning property? Or is it?

Humbly Presumptuous said...

It is a good question. The difference is rooted in doctrine and history. Christianity maintains the difference of Church and State; Islam doesn't. Therefore, for the Church to own property belongs to civil law, and the thing ends there. "Territory of Islam" is instead a religious-political concept: like saying, now this land is subject to Allah.

Maria said...

Ok. And the Catholic Church exists both as a religion and as a political being, and Islam exists as a religious-political system, does that sound right?

Last thing: I think I understand what you are saying - can you explain how the Vatican and, say, Islamabad are different?

Lazy Disciple said...

Dear Maria,

I am not sure Islamabad is really the best example, though I think I understand the thrust of your question.

Islamabad is the capital of a constitutional republic - a "secular" government, if you will, the name of the city notwithstanding.

Even asking about the difference between, say, Riyadh and Vatican City, is only marginally more helpful.

After all, each city is the seat of an absolute theocracy.

The difference is that the Pope's supreme authority over Vatican City State is a temporal authority, from which he could, in theory, divest himself or be divested, without having the essence of his office, i.e. the supreme and universal pastoral ministry in the whole Church throughout all the world, diminished in the least.

The Faisal family rules over Saudi Arabia, which is (or contains) the dar al Islam par excellence, i.e. the Kaabah in the city of Mecca, by the favor and with the collusion of the Wahhabi clerics, the descenants and disciples of an 18th century religious fanatic who espoused an absolutely pure and unadulterated Islam based on and rooted entirely in the Qur'an and the most authoritative Had'ith - the sayings of the Prophet (and a big part of the larger problem with which we are wrestling in this conversation is that, frankly, the Wahhabi school of Islamic thought is the most developed, rigorous and internally coherent system of Islamic thought - and if you want to know how much more rigorous and coherent Wahhabism is than the vast majority of other alternatives, think of how classical Thomism measures against, say, liberation theology). These are the guys who really call the shots in Saudi Arabia.

I would put to you a third case, though: how would the civic life of Jerusalem be different under the rule of a constitution designed according to the classical Western intellectual and political tradition as mediated, carried and developed by Christianity?


Humbly Presumptuous said...

Dear Maria, what you want is a full course in theology and philosophy (with socio-political history as annex). Well, one post at the time, we'll try to give it to you.