The (im)possibility of Translation

The following is a concept article – providing an in-depth analysis of a single general issue, at a significantly greater length. Unlike the Critical Thinking articles, the style is a more technical, and transfers to the reader some of the responsibility for keeping up with terminology (google is a great resource, so is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).



What is it that translation tries to “get across?” Straightforward transference of facts, as in technical manuals, tends to be a fairly simple task, as does the summation of a text (e.g. Cliff Notes). However, a text which depends on judicious selection of terminology that carries heavy cultural connotations, certain literary devices, deep-seeded cultural terms and phrases, and particular authorial intent (where such may be discerned), are simply beyond translation, in the sense of capturing the original text in a new language as a unified whole.

The aim of this analysis is to demonstrate that ineffability in translation. The claim is not that all translation is impossible, or that translation is impossible to/from some particular language. It may be possible to translate fragments – i.e. particular aspects of a text – or even to translate every pertinent aspect of a text independently. Thus, the style may be captured in one translation, certain contextual parts in a second, referential nature of the text in the third, etc. Despite this ability to capture particular aspects in translation, it becomes impossible to combine them into a single cohesive whole. The original, in such cases, is like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, fitting together perfectly into a single entity. Particular translations function as a series of perspectives on the whole (the original) and reveal some parts, while concealing others. When every perspective is translated, one has a view of every side of the structure (i.e. front, back, sides, and bird’s eye). Despite their accurate portrayal of their subject matter, these perspectives are much like photographs in comparison to a 3-dimensional structure; their combination inevitably results in something other than the structure captured on the images. To be sure, the outcome may be a set of translations whose individual ideas correspond to the original. However, the difference is like having the sum total of all scientific formulas, as opposed to the unified field theory. From the latter, one can extract the former, but from the former, it is a long way to the latter.

The degree of such “ineffability” of the whole may vary depending on the recipient language. While certain notions may be almost socially universal, the social connotations can differ vastly. In the Western context, taking of human life represents a sever breach of law, and social norms. However, under certain circumstances it is permissible – e.g. the “stand your ground” laws. Murder to a Jain (religion), for any reason whatsoever, is the depth of human depravity; it is a Western equivalent of willful violation of the entirety of the Decalogue, with genocide, global warming, and rape thrown in for good measure – and even then, the scope of horror is not quite the same. In such cases, most any recipient context has no equivalent concept in terms of the force that the original carries.

Several arguments can be presented against this position, though only two will be noted. First is the idea that the ineffable does not exist, and that whatever can be said in one language can be said in another.[1] The second is that the style of translation, the attempt to translate the poetics of one language into another, is somewhat a matter of preference. Thus, the claim that style is lost is a personal and emotional claim – which is irrelevant for the translation as such.[2] These questions will be addressed in the conclusion.

For the purpose of this analysis, the problem of translation ineffability will be presented through a series of examples, rather than by philosophical argument. The examples will be drawn from the Arabic, Bosnian, and Chinese languages. This selection is based on my native fluency with English and Bosnian, extensive study of Arabic terminology, and two-year thesis focus on comparative Chinese and Arabic texts.


Arabic language is one of the more complex languages in its classical form. Given that the notion of classical Arabic is actually Qur’anic Arabic – i.e. arising out of the Islamic tradition and being inextricable from the Qur’an – the following examples will focus on that particular segment of the language. The Qur’an is used as the basis of Classical Arabic for several reasons, the most pertinent of these being the unorthodox and critically precise use of language. An additional feature o is its poetic form, which uses shifting rhyme schemes – allowing even those completely unfamiliar with the language to generally hear the change in topic. Finally, given the geographic position of its development, classical Arabic is a relatively pure language; having little outside influence, and almost none from non-Semitic languages. This has allowed it to develop a significant proprietary terminology, which is frequently used in the classical texts.

Example 1:

A particular passage of the Qur’an has given its orientalist translators a great deal of trouble: “for he who ascribes divinity to aught but God is like one who is hurtling down from the skies [falls from the skies] – whereupon the birds carry him off [tear him apart], or the wind blows him away to a far-off place.”[3] Speaking about the fate of non-believers, this passage from early 7th century Arabia seems rather nonsensical. The first issue is the notion of falling from the sky in an age where human flight was impossible (with perhaps the exception of Chinese TNT-based rockets, unknown to Arabs). How did one fall from the sky? Further, as German orientalist were left wondering, what kind of bird would be able to carry off or pick apart a body in flight, and just how strong was the wind, that the body made it across state lines so quickly – since the body had not hit the ground, according to a literal reading? The answer is to be found only in knowing the particular meaning behind the phrase, which seems incoherent on its own, yet holds a host of meaning in the particular context.

For the Arabs, the notion of martial prowess was of great importance. Even though they never experience large-scale warfare (wars against Muslims had the largest known Arab armies, and generally numbered less than five thousand), the physical martial ability was a point of pride and status. While losing a battle was shameful, losing where one had a clear advantage went beyond personal shame and reflected badly on the entire tribe. The tribe, on the other hand, was the primary source of personal identity, and disgrace meant that the tribe excommunicated the shame-bearer, whether dead or alive. The other source of identity was the land that the Arabs identified with, based on tribal lineage. In a sense, exile was as bad as excommunication.

To “fall from the sky” is a term of military loss and of greatest shame. It comes from the notion of holding the high ground at the start of a battle, and either being driven back uphill (by a lesser force) until one falls of the cliff behind them; or of suffering defeat so bad, that one flees heedlessly back uphill, and over the cliff. Such a loss embodies a sense of shame arising from cowardice and incompetence combined; a shame so strong that the context of the rest of the phrase will necessarily follow.[4]

The idea that birds “carry off” or “pick apart” the disgraced individual is, in this case, a literal one. In both phrasings, it is carrion birds that are feasting on a corpse. The idea of “carrying off,” has the additional benefit of implying that the birds – in some sense – perform the actions expected of people – namely to carry the body off for a funeral. The implied notion is that one has completed the fall, and now lies dead. In order for the carrion birds to do their job, however, the body must remain unburied – which has only one meaning in the context of the initial shame: one’s tribe has excommunicated the shamed individual, to the extent that even the most basic courtesy of burial (done for a stranger found dead by the wayside) has been neglected. Thus, not only has one become shamed by failing, the shame is so great that one’s own kith and kin attempt to blot out any mention of their existence – not even coming in secret to bury the individual.

Yet the extent of shame goes on, with the body- or more accurately the dust of rotting bones – being sent away. Even the right to remain on the land of one’s ancestors is taken away – with the final remains being blown away to distant lands. With this, the individual is stripped of absolutely every honor, all respect, and has all ties of kinship utterly obliterated – as if the shame of their actions has led to the complete annihilation of every record of their existence. All people, including their own parents, have denounced them, refusing even the most basic show of respect for a human being – a burial. This connection is made absolute as they are left for the animals – like another carcass in the desert. Finally, they are refused even the last bit of kinship through the ancestral land, when even the dishonored remains are forced into exile.

To translate this passage, and to convey the full weight of it, much more would need to be said, drawing from the pre-Islamic history and poetry of Arabs. A full explanation would need to carry the force of the meaning of belonging in 7th century Arabia, and what shame was attached to becoming ostracized. It would need to convey this sense through the use of examples, indicating just how rare such an event was, and what the long-term ramifications included – either for the survivor of such a shame, or for his tribe. Given that even this basic notion takes up over a page, and has barely touched on the role of honor in Arabian life, or the strength of ties of kinship which they inspire, any attempt to translate the passage faces numerous problems.

The first problem of Qur’anic translation (into languages that do not share the religio-historical context) is the style-content tension, as the original is taken as the highest form of Arabic poetry (only 14 words) while constantly relying on heavily contextual or proprietary terminology.[5]  Thus the translator is forced to constantly elevate one aspect over the other, since the embodiment of both is untenable in most cases. The second problem for languages that lack the highly specific context, is that even in cases of choosing content over style, extremely lengthy asides must be made for explanations of context (as above). Yet even in doing so, the recipient language must have a comparable contextual frame of reference, in order for the force of meaning to come across. For example, the aforementioned concept of shame has a much easier time getting across in Japanese, where the emphasis on personal honor and its effects on one’s family are the basis of social structure (at least classically). Finally, given the apparent necessity of providing more context than there is text, the content-based translations can become commentaries on the text, rather than translations, in that the translator is forced to translate an entire culture in order to make sense of the text. In this sense, the resulting work becomes an exercise in language acquisition, since the reader must appropriate an entirely new vocabulary in order to grasp the translation.

Example 2:

What becomes clear in the written form of the Qur’an, though it is difficult to detect in the spoken form, is the constant and consistent use of various rhyme and lexicographical schemes used within verses (rather than the poetic nature of grouped verses or chapters as a whole). This differs from the verse-to-verse rhyme, in that the style is contained within single verses, on its own. For example, the use of palindromes in phrases or in long verses is considered a particular poetic aspect of the Qur’an.

In terms of palindrome usage, which appears rather frequently, the use is not merely that of a stylistic device. In some cases, the palindrome is understood as simply drawing attention to the phrase – a sort of ‘backwards or forwards, the truth is what it is’ device. This is commonly seen in phrases such as “Declare the greatness only of your Lord,” [6] which consists of two words separated by a particle (رببك ف كببر). Clearly, even this brief phrase cannot be rendered as a palindrome in the English language (or realistically, most other languages). The real impossibility of capturing the style and the additional content it produces, comes about when particular elements of a verse are not only palindromes, but also include references to the way in which they convey meaning. In a particular passage, the sun, and the moon (and heavenly bodies in general) are said to be in orbits.[7] The style element comes from the fact that the part that reads as “they all orbit” is another palindrome (ك ل ف ي ف ل ك).[8] Given the availability of different word choice, or grammatical positioning of the same words, commentators have noted the instance as a visual implication of orbiting, by the “revolution” of the terms about the central letter (ي) – which is the first letter (two dots underneath) in the following word (يسبحون) to describe their passage in space.

In translation, such effects can be signaled via footnotes or other notation. However, the ability of the reader to see the stylistic construction for herself is beyond translation. The translation thus becomes a matter of description of something the reader cannot see, with whose features he may be vaguely familiar with, but which cannot in any real sense substitute for the sight of the object – in the same way that a description of the Sistine Chapel to a blind person is not equivalent to their seeing it.


Bosnian language is of particular interest in the translation process. This stems from the fact that the language has been heavily influenced by its many neighbors, conquerors, and politico-religious ties. Originating from Slavic roots, it has been modified by Latin, Greek, Ottoman-Turkish, Arabic, Persian, German, Hungarian, Italian, Russian, and other languages. Additionally, these influences belong to particular historical periods, and thus particular cultural, political, religious, and architectural periods – among others. As such, the use of specific terminology conveys not only the object-meaning but also the style, time-period, cultural connotations, and even ethnic-religious connotations. It is at this juncture that an original, with a judicious choice of specific terminology, encounters trouble.

Bosnian is also one of the more flexible languages – in terms of malleability of structure, phrasing, etc. The structure allows for a wide creative control, particularly in profanities, over every possible variable, even importing foreign terminology. In order to demonstrate that even the most simple and crude notions can escape translation, the first example is a mild form of profanity.

Example 3:

“Najebali smo zimus.” This short phrase, literally translated into “we got screwed last winter,” is a basic phrase, and understandable to every speaker of the language. However, the meaning is referent to the past or future events, depending on the context. The ability to use the past tense for the future comes from the Arabic influence, where the same shift is permissible, provided that the certainty of the future event is as absolute as that of the past – i.e. that there is nothing that can change the outcome. For reference, the use of such terminology in classical Arabic is restrained only to the Qur’anic use in dealing with the events on, or after, the Day of Judgment (i.e. only those events where human free will is, by definition, effectively absent, and where the flow of events does not have a logical way to deviate from the predetermined path).

Clearly, translating this phrase into Arabic would be a simple matter – if a bit sacrilegious. In order to translate it into English, however, the translator is forced to contend with either placing the translation into future tense, or retaining the past tense. In the former, what is lost is the sense of absolute certainty that accompanies such a sentiment. While amending the translation is possible with terms like “certainly, absolutely, without a doubt, even should the heavens and the earth seek otherwise,” etc., the sense of absolute certainty is not translatable into English – at least not without breaking either the style or the fluidity by the use of footnotes or additional text. In terms of footnotes, their use becomes problematic in certain literary styles – such as novels – and on every such occasion a footnote would be needed. In terms of additional text, particularly of the requisite strength to translate the force of the original, the simplicity of style is damaged, and the result is an uncharacteristically verbose prose assigned to the low-brow character-type that uses profanities.

Should the translation be left in the past tense, it would either convey the wrong meaning (that the events have already occurred), or would suffer the same problem of repetitive footnotes, along with confusing the reader. Finally, though the phrase is a profanity, it also carries important content. Thus, it problematizes an attempt to replace it with a functional profanity in the new language – which is a relatively simple task for profanity qua profanity. Consequently, if the linguistic concepts of the two languages cannot find common ground, even something as crude as a profanity can elude attempts at translation. This issue is also apparent in the Qur’anic translations, where the standard translations use the future tense, leaving the reader ignorant about the additional and fairly noteworthy meaning encapsulated in the phrases.

Example 4:

The second example from the Bosnian language is the contextual meaning of judicious word choice in original texts. Case in point, the book “Izbrisana Tabla” (Wiped Blackboard)[15] is a series of short stories about events, life, and times experienced by the author – spanning some 80 years. While the case of authorial intent is subject to debate, my knowledge of the author allows me quite a bit of insight into the particularities of style – owing to the fact that the author is my grandmother. According to her, the use of particular culturally-laden terminology was a carefully judicious choice, designed to covey particularities of time, place, socio-cultural mindset, and emphasize the differences through the use of various synonyms. Thus, the choice in the selection of terminology, particularly where synonyms reflect a progression of historical term usage, is intended to convey a very particular meaning, which is lost with the use of the synonym. While a number of such examples are strewn about the book, I will focus on the terms “window.”

In the original language, the term window comes in one of two general varieties: penđer and prozor.[9] Penđer is an old word, generally out of common use, other than historically-specific description. While the term was in common use (pre-1945 Communist era), it was used to describe a window belonging to a house. The houses, at the time, were clay-brick constructions, with small and generally infrequent windows. The panes themselves were small, and fitted into a broad wood frame, leaving the house dimly lit by natural light. Their prevalence was in the north-eastern areas of Bosnia, owing to its harsh winters, and the need for conserving heat in the winters, and keeping cool in the summers. The term prozor is a more modern, post-1945 term, and is used for any type of window (besides a full-wall sheet of glass).

This house has two penđer facing left.

Throughout the book, the author shifts between the two terms, according to the type of building being described. Thus, a school has prozor while the village hut where the student comes from has a penđer. In fact, even without the description of the house, the use of penđer indicates the style of the house, its size, confined and dim interior, etc. While the use of the term prozor would have accurately described the window on both the school and the house, the judicious distinction between the two serves to reinforce the cultural context and date both the structures, and reveals something about the student who comes from the house with a penđer, rather than one with a prozor. In a very real sense, both linguistically and historically, one had a penđe; but after renovating the house – or moving into the communist provided housing in the concrete slab high-rises – they upgraded to a prozor. Should the same word have been used, the translation would be a simple matter. However, where the recipient language (English) does not have the same or similar culturally dated term, the translator is forced to introduce additional information to help convey a similar sense as the original.

While an extended description can work fairly well, a problem arises with the style of the work. In this particular case, the short stories are written almost as abbreviations – nouns, adjectives, and verbs compressed together in such a sparse way as to allow paragraphs to be extracted. According to the author, this too was an intentional goal: to strip the stories down to their essence and leave no extraneous word or letter. This process was, according to her, aided precisely by the use of the culturally-laden terms in the various descriptions. Thus, a house is described as ‘gate, window (penđer”), window grate (“mušebeci” rather than “rešetke”), stairs (“basamaci” [wooden stairs] rather than “stepenice” [can also include steel or concrete models]), etc.,’ precisely because the old terms convey a sense of old-style architecture, and speak to the culturally-associated mentality of its inhabitants.

In translating the work, one can either translate the style or the meaning – not both. That is to say, either the dense phrasing is translated at the expense of clarity, or the particularity of the meaning is translated at the expense of the dense phrasing. The third option is the use of footnotes, which would take up more space than the text itself, and would constantly need to be referenced, since the linguistic distinction of the culturally-laden language is absent from the English language.


Chinese language has given Western translators an endless task of attempting to provide coherent meaning both of the Chinese texts, as well as coherent translations of Western texts into Chinese. This problem has plagued not only Western Europe, but also the Islamic world – since Muslims first came to China in the 7-8th centuries.[10] The problem stems from such a radical difference in cultural and social contexts, that certain terms – sometimes of the apparently most basic variety – simply resist all attempts at rendering them either out of their Chinese context, or into it.

Example 5:

Chinese language contains a pair of terms commonly rendered as “good/evil” in English and other Western languages. Whereas, for the Western Judeo-Christian context, these terms carry a moral connotation premised on either divine command or later humanism, in the Chinese context they carry a dual connotation of contextually-particular utilization of potential, and of consequentialist moral attitudes towards such utilization (or lack thereof). In fact, to understand this notion, it helps to understand evil before the good.[11]

While the common translations of “è” indicate that the meaning is “evil,” it is a much closer approximation of ‘contextually wasteful action.’ Thus a burnt dinner is evil, since all the ingredients to make a nourishing meal were available, yet their misuse prevented that outcome; a broken family is evil, because all the elements of a structure that ought to have provided support were present, yet the result was a destructive one; a tyrannical government is evil, because it had all the tools to create a harmonious state that benefited every citizen and the ruler alike, yet took the path that leads to death, chaos, and self-destruction – as surely as night follows day.

The notion of the “good” (shan) stands as polar opposite of “è,” thus connoting the full actualization of potential. However, these terms are not absolute – in the sense of immutable principles of maximizing potential for any given situation. Rather, they are sensitive to every particularity of the situation, of every agent involved, the knowledge and limitations of each agent, etc. Thus, the actualization of potential is understood as the ability to do the best one can with what one has, in the situation they find themselves in.

Contrary to the amoral sense in which Western thought seems to deal with ideas like potential maximization (more properly belonging to industry), Chinese terms also carry an inherent attitude of moral values and judgment. This concept is best seen in the Chinese notion of rightful governance, or rather its failure. The concept used for this purpose is “tianming,” (Mandate of Heaven) which, despite the name, shares nothing with the Western notions of the divine. Instead, the idea of the mandate posits that “good” behavior (shan) confers this mandate upon a “good” (shan) ruler, in the form of the continuation of their rule. But should a government become “evil” (è), the mandate is lost – not by the deus ex machina of some divine being, but by the fact that destructive policies must result in a destructive end – in the same way that an unsupported heavy object must fall to the ground. Consequently, the good is good because it establishes harmony between human beings as it is in nature, while evil is evil because it turns harmony into chaos.

With this definition in mind, a definition which is lengthy and has no direct equivalent in the English language, many notions of the Chinese philosophical classics are problematized – in terms of translation. Thus, when the Daodejing notes that: “Fine weapons are instruments of evil (è),”[12] it is not enough to only grasp the aforementioned two-pronged definition of the final term, but to understand the full unfurling of that term. That is to say, it is not enough to simply say that fine weapons are suboptimal, and thus morally corrupt. Instead, one must understand that the presence of fine weapons indicates an investment of resources, which could have been applied to any number of other uses, into work on and perfection of tools which have a single purpose of ending human life. It must also be understood that both the need for these weapons and their use indicates a failure on the part of the state, which had diplomatic and harmonious options available, but failed to use them in their optimal way, thus forcing the necessity for the creation of such weapons. It is also an evil (è) insofar as people will be killed, fields despoiled, villages and towns attacked, damaged, sacked, and destroyed; all these resources which have a far more harmony-creating potential will be wasted on a single activity where even success is a tragic loss. It is only in light of this full scope of understanding of the first term, that the conclusion of the chapter can be comprehended: “For a victory, let us observe the occasion with funeral ceremonies.[13]” The implications of the moral terminology, if it is to actually relate the meaning of the passage, must not come from the Judeo-Christian moral realm. The importation of that divine commandment meaning is a failure to understand the entire precept of the text, of that passage, of the basis on which the claim is being made. In fact, the degree to which such a decontextualized translation destroys the original is comparable to describing “fine weapons” as turnips.

All this is needed to understand a single passage from the Daodejing, and even then, the full scope of the ramifications of such a text remains obscured to the reader of the translation. The same principle applies for most any of the classical texts of Chinese philosophy, including those of the most direct and least philosophically esoteric Legalism (aka Chinese Machiavellianism/fascism). Where such a detailed knowledge of linguistic usage becomes required in order to grasp  even the most rudimentary elements of a text, the result is not a translation so much as language acquisition – even if one does not come away with any ability to read the original or speak the language. Finally, even this graduate-level seminar-like approach works only with such simple terms like shan and è. If a concept like Dao is introduced, the level of contextual information required for even the most basic understanding and use of the term, requires volumes.

Example 6:

The classical Chinese context is utterly devoid of Abrahamic monotheistic notions; whether God, Heaven, Hell, etc. This has resulted in some rather problematic attempts to introduce the Abrahamic religions into China, experienced equally by Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

With the arrival of Muslim traders in the 7-8th centuries, Islam was introduced into China. Initially, the traders who relocated to China were non-Chinese of Arab/Persian descent, well-versed in Islam and aware of other Abrahamic faiths. However, they sought to fully integrate themselves into the Chinese society, and married the locals. Of the 10 recognized Muslim minority groups, 9 are ethnically non-Chinese (e.g. Tatars, Uyghurs, etc.); the 10th one is ethnically Chinese (the Hui). While the non-Chinese groups have either retained the Arabic language as their own in some form, or had the pertinent concepts in their own languages, the Hui (insofar as they were Chinese) did not have such terminology, and have been struggling to find it for some 1200 years.

Contributing to this problem is not their ignorance of the Arabic language, but their desire to integrate into the Chinese society, and thus a need to be able to define and present the notion of a monotheistic God. Of the many terms that are simply absent in Chinese, the concept of a monotheistic God is perhaps the most problematic in this sense. In response to this problem, many attempts have been made to translate the concept – yet none have proven to be satisfactory in the long run. Importing a foreignism of “Allah” did not work, since the term is nonsensical in Chinese spoken and written language. For a while, ‘the study of the Dao of Muhammad’ was used, but term had the opposite problem – namely being too culture-contextually laden. Even following the great educational reform of the 16-18th centuries – whereby a number of Chinese Muslim scholars studied abroad in the Muslim lands in order to bring back new knowledge – Chinese scholars who became experts in both Arabic and Persian were still unable to render this particular notion into the Chinese language. The notion was simply beyond translation into Chinese, though translation into any number of contextually-similar languages of the Christian West and Zoroastrian East were easily completed.

Similar problems were faced by the Christian missionaries trying to make inroads into China. The result is groups of Chinese Christians, with different terms for God (including “King of Heaven”, and “King Above”) who see the teachings as belonging to entirely different religions. In the Christian missionary work, several attempts similar to the Islamic ones were made, but to same effects. Thus, it is not some peculiarity of the Islamic or Christian notion that is the obstacle to translation, but rather the very notion of monotheism that refuses to be translated. The fact that these notions were quickly and easily spread out in much of the world, and that such problems did not arise, lends strength to the argument that translations that must take both content and style into account, are generally not possible in a unified form – if at all.


In the foregoing examples, it is clear that, generally speaking, it is possible to offer some sort of translation of any particular text. However, what should have also emerged is that a translation of a text that presents both style and content as an integral part of the message (relying on cultural, historical, religious and other contexts, and going beyond relaying of facts in a mechanical way), is possible only as a translation of a particular aspect of the original, while a unified holistic translation remains beyond reach.

The most common tension of translating such texts is in the translation of style in opposition to its content. This tension is exacerbated when the two languages do not share a similar structure or historico-cultural contexts. Such a disparity genuinely provides concepts that become truly ineffable in translation – like the name of monotheistic God in Chinese (rare), or those whose translation requires an extensive exposition and description, thus ensuring incompatibility with any modicum of style preservation in translation.

Two issues were raised in the introduction, which can now be addressed with reference to the examples given. The first was the claim that there are no ineffable ideas – i.e. ones that cannot be translated by some means. The answer to this objection is twofold. First, as in the case of the Chinese name of God, it seems that there is a class of terms that resist translation to and from particular languages. Their ineffability is related to the relative isolation of a language from others, in a way that has made its contextual background entirely alien in some respect crucial for the term in question. Such instances, however, are exceedingly rare. Additionally, it may be true that the apparent ineffability would be dissolved over time, as the speakers of the disparate languages became more familiar with the contextual implications of both, and thus the issue would be resolved.

Second, languages can have a wide gap in context and worldview, such that the translation of specific ideas loses the force it had in the original. While some of the content-force can be regained through extensive exposition (examples 1, 3, and 4), the loss tends to shift over to style. In effect, what the exposition gains in precision, it loses in length. This does not make the concepts ineffable, but does support the idea that translations of complex texts function only as translations of particular aspects.

The second objection was that the style of a text is a matter of subjective emotional standards, which are irrelevant to the translation. In response, the case of example 2 is clearly an objective issue of style – and one that is unlikely to be replicated in translation. Other stylistic effects could be substituted for instances where attention is generally drawn to the passage. On the other hand, the use of style in conjunction with the content (so that the two reinforce and depend on each other) becomes more problematic. This is not to say that either translation is impossible, but it does speak to the possibility of objective value of style. Similarly, in examples 3 and 4, the style itself connotes particular and objective meaning, while the contextual disparity between Bosnian and English forces either style or content out of the translation. In this sense, the claim that style is irrelevant to translation is negated by the presence of objective value of style – where such a value indicates context-based content, with significant language disparity between the original and translation languages.[14]

What should be evident from all three language examples, is that the attempts at translating context end up functioning not as translations, but as commentaries. In the Arabic literary history (particularly where concerned with theological sources), this led to a rise of an entire new genera of literature; namely the tafseer. In such works, the original text and its direct translations are given first – usually in brief passages of closely related ides. Then the authors draw on the variety of pertinent contextual concepts to explain the broader and deeper meaning of each statement – often citing dozens of other sources (including related parts of the original text that preceded or follow the passage in question) for each statement. The result is a commentary that commonly exceeds the original by hundreds or thousands of pages. Case in point, a common reference commentary on the Qur’an is the tafseer of Ibn Kethir, which exceeds the original text of the Qur’an by about a 7:1 ratio. At this point, the tafseer can hardly be considered as a translation. Instead, it is a separate genus whose purpose is the education on the various contextual influences and meanings of a text. The same issue arises in translating the Chinese classics into Western languages – as per example 5. In both cases, the educational aspect essentially engages in language-learning by the reader in order to grasp the content, to the extent that the result is not so much a translation as a dumbed-down original for the novice reader.

Ultimately, translation is possible and only the rarest of culturally ingrained ideas can evade translation attempts. However, a unified translation of all pertinent elements of the original remains problematic, in that the translated pieces do not fit into a coherent whole. It is in this sense that the claim of this analysis argues for the ineffability of translation, and then only insofar as the original incorporates culturally-laden context into the style and content of the work.



[1] Bellos, David. Is that a Fish in your Ear? New York; Faber & Faber, 2011. Pg. 45.

[2] Ibid. Pg. 55

[3] Qur’an. 22:31. Bracketed phrases added for additional translation possibilities.

[4] Khan, Nouman Ali. Divine Speech Prologue. Part 1 and Part 2.

[5] Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-religious Concepts in the Qurʹān. Montreal: McGill University, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University Press, 1966.

[6] Qur’an. 74:3.

[7] Qur’an. 36:40.

[8] I have chosen to separates the letters in this palindrome, to provide a clearer visual.

[9] This distinction is present particularly in the regions under Ottoman rule in Bosnia, while not being a part of the linguistic landscape of the adjoining regions – including Herzegovina.

[10] Frankel, James D. Rectifying God’s Name: Liu Zhi’s Confucian Translation of Monotheism and Islamic Law. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2011. Pg. 22.

[11] Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont. Introduction. In The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 1-70. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.

[12] Lao, Tzu. “Tao-Te-Ching.” 1963. Translated by Wing-tsit Chan. In Masters of Chinese Political Thought; from the Beginnings to the Han Dynasty., edited by Sebastian De Grazia. New York: Viking Press, 1973. Pp. 261-2.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Translations from Bosnian to Serbian or Croatian would fare far better, as would translations from Arabic to Farsi – given the shared context between those languages.

[15] Šehbajraktareviċ, Šefika. Izbrisana Tabla. Sarajevo; Connectum, 2010.



  1. Ames, Roger T. Preface. “Sun-tzu: The Art of Warfare.” In The Book of War, edited by Caleb Carr, 9-69. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
  2. Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont. Introduction. In The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 1-70. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.
  3. Ames, Roger T., and Tzu Huai-nan. The Art of Rulership: A Study in Ancient Chinese Political Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.
  4. Ames, Roger T., and Lau D.C. Introduction. In Sun Bin: The Art of Warfare : A Translation of the Classic Chinese Work of Philosophy and Strategy. 1-85. Ames. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.
  5. Asad, Muhammad, and Ahmed Moustafa. The Message of the Qurʼan: The Full Account of the Revealed Arabic Text Accompanied by Parallel Transliteration. Bitton: Book Foundation, 2003.
  6. Bellos, David. Is That a Fish in Your Ear? New York; Faber & Faber, 2011.
  7. Hall, David L., and Roger T. Ames. Anticipating China: Thinking through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
  8. Ibn ‘Abbas, ‘Abdullah. Tefsir Ibn ‘Abbas. Translated by Derviš Tači, Amir Mehić, Said Mujakić, and Rijad Šestan. Sarajevo: Libris, 2007.
  9. Ibn-Kesir. Tefsir Ibn-Kesir, Skraćena Verzija. Edited by Muhammed Nesir Er-Rifa’i. Translated by Group. 2nd ed. Sarajevo: Visoki Saudijski Komitet Za Pomoc BiH, 2002.
  10. Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-religious Concepts in the Qurʹān. Montreal: McGill University, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University Press, 1966.
  11. Khan, Nouman Ali. Divine Speech: Prologue. Pt. 1-2.
  12. Lane, Edward William. Manuscript Continuation of E. W. Lane’s “An Arabic-English Lexicon”, with Supplementary Material. Beirut: Librarie du Liban, 1968.
  13. Lao, Tzu. “Tao-Te-Ching.” 1963. Translated by Wing-tsit Chan. In Masters of Chinese Political Thought; from the Beginnings to the Han Dynasty., edited by Sebastian De Grazia. New York: Viking Press, 1973.
  14. Malik, Muhammad Farooq-i-Azam. English Translation of the Meaning of Al-Qurʼan: The Guidance for Mankind. Houston, TX: Institute of Islamic Knowledge, 2002.
  15. Šehbajraktareviċ, Šefika. Izbrisana Tabla. Sarajevo; Connectum, 2010.

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