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Translating Arabic 2: Gaddafi and the Libyan dialect

As Linton Weeks observed on NPR recently, different English interpretations of Mubarak’s ‘resignation’ speech gave very different ideas of what he was saying. Numerous other commentators have made similar observations regarding the slew of defiant or grovelling speeches given by various Middle Eastern dictators in the past months.

The first was Zine el Abedine ben Ali, who, in what was to be his final speech, eschewed Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the lingua franca of the Arabic world, in favour of the Tunisian ‘dialect’. This was no doubt an attempt to establish himself as a man of the people, but it served only to emphasise the ignominy of his exit.

Chastened by this spectacle, Hosni Mubarak stuck to a formal and somewhat elegiac MSA for his last speeches as president, and thus preserved a minimum of dignity.

By contrast, Saif Qaddafi, the Colonel’s second and most progressively-minded son, appeared not to have learnt from the desperate crawling of Ben Ali, and opened a recent speech as follows:

‘Today I will speak with you… without a written paper, or a written speech. (N)or even speak to you in the Classical Arabic language. Today I will speak with you in Libyan dialect, and address you directly, as an individual member of this Libyan people…Because this is a speech from the heart and the mind.’

Linguist Lameen Souag notes that the speech is not actually in Libyan at all: it is really just MSA with various words and structures drawn from the dialect thrown in (although it does become progressively more Libyan as the speech progresses.)

Johnson at The Economist takes this to be indicative of a certain incoherence or inability on the part of Saif Qaddafi, particularly considering that his father has always addressed the Libyan people in Libyan. Whilst it may be odd that Saif Qaddafi chose MSA, the actual text of the speech is less odd than Johnson makes out.

One of the commenters on Souag’s original post also assumed that Qaddafi’s speech was incoherent rubbish, and ventured this translation:

‘Today I’ll speak with y’all… without a written document or a written text. I ain’t even verbalizing to y’all in the Classical Arabic language. Instead today I will make my oration to you in Libyan colloquial dialect, and address you unmediatedly as an individual member of this Libyan populace…Because this is a presentation directly from the emotional side of me.’

But, as later commenters were quick to point out, whilst Qaddafi’s speech was not in Libyan, it was by no means incoherent or incorrect. It was simply that he was speaking MSA with a characteristic Libyan twist.

Part of the problem is that English is not diglossic; as we discussed in a previous post, there are sections of the English speaking world which are definitively diglossic, but there is nothing remotely comparable to the way that the different varieties of Arabic co-exist. It is thus extremely difficult to render a speech like Qaddafi’s into English. An option might be to mix regional variations of English, but this inevitably produces a humourous effect, and in any case would not be true to the resonance of the original. Alternatively we might translate it by the book, and gloss over any irruption of the dialectic into Qaddafi’s polished MSA. But, again, this would diminish hugely the effect and impact of his words.

A tentative parallel could be drawn with the way that Shakespeare’s characters famously speak a different ‘version’ of English depending on their background: roughly, common people speak a Germanic English, full of monosyllables, whilst the aristocracy speak a flowing, elegant, latinate dialect. Today, however, there is no obvious way to render this diglossic effect.

Whatever solution we hit on, this example serves to emphasise yet again how important it is for a translator to work into his native language. As Johnson’s misreading shows, an erroneous or inaccurate translation can give the wrong impression even to people who have some knowledge of the source language. ‘Accuracy’ in translations of this sort is about much more than grammatical precision, or finding the mot juste – above all, it is about striking the right note, and recreating the effect of the original.

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