A pragmatic-pedagogic perspectiveConstraints on translatability of Arabic (Part III) [Archives:2003/695/Education]

December 18 2003

By Dr Ayid Sharyan
Department of English
Faculty of Education
Sana'a University

The use of address forms differs not only in its linguistic form but also in its conceptual perception. In an Arab educational situation, a teacher is called by his professional name, e.g. [ya austath= O teacher! a vocative sound plus the word 'teacher']. For an Arab, it is recommended to address a teacher with his professional title, e.g. teacher. But this is not common in English to address someone as 'teacher or student'. The problem arises when a foreign teacher comes to teach Arab students and finds those students address him with 'teacher' or austath.
The students think they respect the teacher with such a form of address. The teacher who does not understand the Arabic code of respect finds it hard to accept such a form of address. The word teacher also means [mu'alim= professionalist in something]. Mu'alim or alim and alama or ulma'a carries within it a traditional respect where there is an association between the one carries this title and the prophets. mu'alim is used as a form of address with other connotations too. It becomes difficult for non-Arabs to absorb the implied politeness in the use of mu'alim. This is due to the different conception of politeness. The translator, a non-Arab, of [zuqaq al midaq= Midaq Alley (1975: 65)1] avoids translating it due to its cultural. It is replaced by 'please' due to different linguistic systems of Arabic and English. And the translator states in the introduction that Arabic is rooted in its socio-cultural context that makes it difficult to translate. Another form of address that has no parallel in English is [shaikh]. It is a form of deference for someone who is old and religious. Thus forms of address in Arabic relate to kinship, profession social or religious status, e.g. Umm Hamida See, Umm Hussain, Shaikh Radwan, Mu'alim Kirsha, abu Ahmad, etc.
Another feature of Arabic politeness is the use of hedges. It is typical of Arabic to use less hedges. Arab speakers avoid the use of hedges as a sign of being straightforward and honest for hedges are used to weaken the force of statement. It is noticed that tag questions as hedges are not frequently used. In addition to straightforwardness, the infrequency of hedges and particles is probably due to the uncommonness of this linguistic phenomenon in Arabic.
These words and expressions, therefore, need to be explained for an outsider who wants to understand the text fully in footnotes, for instance. However, to overcome the cultural connotations of Arabic, translators tend to replace or ignore Arabic formulaic expressions that have no equivalence in English.

Pedagogical Implications
Educational implications that are sought after in this study need to incorporate the Arab's politeness strategies while teaching Arab learners a foreign language. The assumption is that if Arab learners are exposed to the cultural and pragmatic aspects of the target language, they will be better equipped in understanding and dealing with the native speaker of the target language. Cultural differences make it difficult to have effective communication without touching on some pragmatic attributes. A prevailing example is when Arab students mix with foreigners, they tend to discuss 'ages and wages' which is tactless in the context of the western culture (Sharyan, 2002) 2.
Bringing in politeness strategies to teaching English situations is likely to draw students' attention to veiled aspects of language that is part of the native speaker's competence. Without such inclusion learning English is wanting for the output lacks the native speaker's diplomatic and linguistic manoeuvres. Some practices in teaching may be offensive. If non-Arab teachers are made aware of the difference, they can be more susceptible to avoid culturally offensive material. For example, a reading passage that contains the process of making wine in an Arab educational setting is bound to be offensive due to the lack of cultural appropriateness. From the politeness perspective, this conflicts and clashes with the prevailing attitudes and value system of the target audience. Offering wine or pork to an Arab in a party is like offering cow meat to a Hindu or pork to a Jewish.
This is because every culture has its own set of commonly shared values, customs, habits, attitudes and views of life. Arabic is no exception. Considering such values positively paves the way to integrate the human society at large. Some untrained speakers of English, for example, come to teach in the Arab World with preconceived stereotyped ideas about the Arabs with no regard to the linguistic and social tactics of Arabic culture. This increases the social distance and creates barriers in the way of a congenial dialogue. Preconception involves overgeneralization, assumptions and a rigid set of prejudices against the local people. These misconceptions are numerous. Arabs, according to El-Araby (1983)3, 'do not mean what they say'. This is obvious when an Arab invites or promises something to adhere to the social obligations more than a real invitation or promise. Arabs, like Indians, would invite you or say they would visit later. This statement is to be taken as a social politeness, not a real invitation or a real promise. To take it on its face value is to misunderstand the cultural necessity of that community. Therefore, one finds the Westerners confused in such a situation. They do not know whether to take it as a genuine offer or a social obligation.
Foreigners also find that Arabs (like Indians) tend to refuse offers at first, only to accept them later. Thus an initial refusal of help food should not be taken literally. This refusal, in fact, is a politeness strategy to get it confirmed whether the invitation is just a formality, a social obligation or whether the person is genuinely, and warm-heartedly invited. They, unlike their western counterparts, would insist on insistence, so to speak.
Cultural traits and differences need to be considered when one is mixing up in a multi-cultural gathering where awareness of cultural prohibitions is a must. In an Arab context, for example, certain cultural codes have to be observed so as not to hurt one's host or interlocutor. Some of thtaboos and bans are: asking about female members of an Arab family in public; mentioning names of female members unless one is a relative or a close friend.
Raising awareness of politeness that is reflected through linguistic or social behaviour is likely to help gaining good command of English. This is because at first one responds to the situation on the basis of his own cultural upbringing. Training students on the pragmatics aspects of the target language prevents offending interlocutors from the other culture.
Arabs who are not trained on the western politics of expressions often do not use, or misuse, some politeness markers generally used by non-Arabs, e.g. sorry, thank you, you are welcome, and please. Speakers of Arabic tend to take it for granted that their addressee is to understand the intended politeness without putting emphasis on it. They believe that excessive use of such words may lead others to take one to be hypocritical more than polite. This contrasts with straightforwardness as a politeness strategy in Arabic. Non-Arabic speakers find it hard to understand the intention of an Arab who does not apologise or use a variety of compliments as it is used in other cultures.
The realisation of such behaviour, the paper upholds, helps readers to bridge up the gap. It is helpful in an age of globalisation where a need for social contact is a must. Everyone needs to come into contact with others in this age of information explosion. The fast growth and advancement of telecommunication and Internet make the world a small place. The net as an information superhighway breaks physical, geographical and cultural distances. The need to understand other's viewpoints, positions, beliefs and cultural biases is essential in the present era. Needless to say that interactional relationship is part and parcel of all walks of life: business, education, cultural interactions, national and international trade transactions, media, etc. In the net we chat, make friends, negotiate deals and correspond with people from different places and different cultural backgrounds. To be successful in all these transactions, one has to know about the cultural preferences and avoid inconveniences. It is only with such knowledge, we minimise the differences and face-threatening acts to our interlocutors. As a result we benefit in strengthening our understanding and our transactions become more pleasant and hence our education becomes effective and goal-oriented.
Translating expressions as the ones above is not easy due to the cultural values of Arabic. However, understanding this aspect (on the part of teachers and students) is likely to lead to a better understanding of the target language and culture.

The study has attempted to bring to focus the problems in translatability of Arabic from a pragmatic and pedagogical viewpoint. The assumption is that lack of understanding of this aspect of Arabic leads to misinterpretations of Arabs by non-Arabs. This is due to the difference in the cultural code of Arabic speakers and non-Arabs. The reason, the reason lies in the unearthed pragmatic aspect of Arabic. This is also a common problem in translating expressions deep-rooted in culture, formulaic and non-formulaic. The paper ends with a pedagogical slant to draw the attention of translators and educators so as to exploit this phenomenon in the educational context. This can be achieved through raising students' awareness to these distinctions. Implementing this uniqueness in pedagogical situations is likely to result in a better understanding of the 'otherness'. If this is made obvious for non-Arab speakers, they will be in a better position to avoid embarrassement while interacting with Arab speakers.