The Challenge of Translating Religious Concepts

Posted on: 13/01/2010

Cultural and religious concepts are the hardest to translate. Many words are culturally loaded and have evolved in the holy books and its teachings among the multilingual community of followers. They are often embellished and reinforced by their distinctive sociolinguistic environment and have acquired specialised contextual meanings.

In the lexicon of a language some words have a direct referential or denotative meaning – the most obvious being a name. “Ali” refers to or denotes the person of Ali. Others have a referential meaning as well as a connotative or implied meaning eg “pig” refers to the pig (animal) but it can be used to imply the pig’s characteristics such as “gluttony” as in “You are a real pig”. However this expression would be culturally offensive to a Muslim or Jew to whom the pig is taboo. Similarly the idiom “like a pigsty” should not be translated literally and would need a translation relevant to the particular language and culture.

“Allah” is a culturally loaded concept in Islam both in the language of the Quran and the language of its Malay Muslim adherents in Malaysia. It is imbued with many meanings including the 99 attributes of God familiar to the Muslims. To juxtapose “Allah” in the culturally distinct Christian milieu is to translate what is basically an untranslatable concept – both of the unity in the Muslim understanding of God and the Trinity in the Christian conception of God. These concepts are highly complex and abstract in themselves. Why confuse people further with a poor translation?

In translation theory there is the notion of “untranslatability” and when a concept is untranslatable the translator resorts to employing the generic term supported by notes or an explanation. In this case the generic Malay word for the concept of the universal God “Tuhan” can be used in the Bible translation with notes and an explanation about the Trinity.

Translators must demonstrate the highest linguistic sensitivity and exercise the greatest caution when they translate important texts and documents. Not only must they be specialists in the subject area but linguists in their own right. Ideally, the translator must be a native speaker of one of the two languages involved and have a mastery over the other.


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