Readers weigh in on the challenges of learning Arabic

What follows are letters regarding Samar Farah's article, "So you want to learn Arabic? Got a decade or so?" which ran Jan. 17, 2002.

35 years, and finally at ease

I am a native-born American who started learning Arabic in the '60s, spent some time living there (Aleppo, Cairo, and Saudi Arabia), got a PhD from U. of Michigan in Arabic, and spent most of my career at the Defense Language Institute either teaching Arabic or working on Arabic-related course materials. I also have translated Arabic for the Foreign Broadcast Information Service for about 23 years.

We Americans are so poorly acquainted with foreign languages that we actually think that, after taking a course, we can then be translators, interpreters, etc. I have been studying, teaching, translating, reading, speaking, and otherwise working with Arabic since 1965, and it has only been during the past few years that I have truly felt at ease with the language. The fact that I knew fluent German, Russian, and Spanish, as well as some Turkish, before starting Arabic certainly helped me survive my experience with Arabic.

Howard Rowland Monterey, Calif.

Able to translate, but able to interpret?

The difficulties of this undertaking are in fact much more involved than the article would lead one to believe. For one thing, knowing two languages, even quite well, is no guarantee that one can translate between them.

Translation is a separate skill itself, taking years to master. Many US English speakers, for example, have learned to speak Spanish in recent years, but present them with an official document in Spanish to translate into English, and they'd be totally lost.

There is also a major difference between translating a text and interpreting it. A translator will simply render a nearly word-for-word translation of a given text into another language. Very often, especially in languages as different as English is from Arabic, the results will be unsatisfactory, if not totally meaningless.

A translation shows what a text says. An interpretation lets you know what the text actually means. Thus, a translation of the very common Arabic phrase (in sha' Allah) is usually given as "if God so wills it." But almost never does the phrase really "mean" that. In fact, the phrase has an almost unlimited range of possible meanings in English. It would depend specifically on the context.

For example, a teacher reminding a student to show up for a 3 p.m. appointment tomorrow might say, "Don't forget to come at exactly 3 p.m." And the student may respond with "In sha' Allah." What he's really saying is something like, "I'll try my best" or "Don't worry."

It was interesting to note the linguistic convulsions even native Arabic speakers of academic standing were having translating the Bin Laden tapes into English. This dichotomy between what is said and what is meant is not totally unknown in English, actually.

Of the 20,000 applicants for the FBI's 200 translator positions, I doubt more than a handful will fit the bill for what is really needed.

Tony Donovan Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

It's well worth studying

It can be done!

In the early 1980s, my husband, Mansour Ajami, then a language professor, brought the Arabic program at Princeton University from a rudimentary level to one with the highest number of applicants accepted into the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad program.

The Arabic language is indeed baffling if one does not know its grammatical basis; it is a language built on grammar. For instance, the words "broom" and "sweep" are different forms derived from the same three-letter root. Once one knows the forms it really is not so difficult - no more difficult than, say, algebra.

If a student has a teacher who knows all the arcane rules and their reasons, the language opens like a flower. One probably will not need higher-order grammar for telephone interception, but the student who has received a succinct explanation can go on to the necessary level without feeling discouraged.

We don't need more articles telling us how practically impossible is the study of Arabic. We need more teachers who know their stuff and willingly impart it.

From the media, we would like more enthusiasm for the rich literature in Arabic, for the generosity and hospitality that outsiders unfailingly find throughout the Arab world. Arabic is a language well worth studying, and its cultures are worth the effort to understand.

Barbara De Graff Ajami Princeton, N.J.


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