Problems of translating meanings
Stabroek News
October 20, 2001

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Dear Editor,

I refer to Mr. R.J. Eleazar's letter (SN 10/18), regarding the Webster's definition for an oxymoron which, in applying it, led him to find the phrase "Holy War" to be, to quote him, "plain moronic." On the contrary, I think the adjective "holy" and the noun "war" are, in themselves, very opposite or contradictory concepts and therefore the phrase "holy war" is, like the name of a heavy metal rock group in the eighties, "Quiet Riot," a valid oxymoron.

We ought to be very cautious in applying "English" dictionaries to define essentially Eastern concepts or words. Translation does not mean trans-linguistically verbatim. Meanings often become obscure, eroded, or altered if not ignored altogether across cultural, temporal, and linguistic boundaries. Even in a nation like Guyana where there is one language in use, the spoken language is very different from the official language; "gwan" is different from "go." A vital force that often leads to having one meaning in everyday society as opposed to that set in the page of a dictionary, is the media. Most media regard the very word "jihad" as "holy war." Suppose someone who is versed in the Koran were to indicate that "jihad" means

"struggle," will the media's interpretation be incorrect? Well, yes and no. On one hand, a war is a struggle; but on another, "jihad" is not war. But because "jihad" is a struggle and a struggle can be a war sanctioned along

religious ("holy") sentiments, then indeed a "jihad" can be a "holy war."

Consider another figure of speech, the word "metaphor." Everyday understanding dictates a kind of comparison. However, the Greek root of the word means change, an alteration. But no English teacher teaches this, not

even in QC. Now, if one is to apply this concept of change to a sentence in order to locate a possible metaphor, one may end up sleeping in school. It's a peculiar thing that language is and we have to recognize that even in cases where a dictionary may have multiple meanings for a word, the way it's used on an everyday basis may not necessarily be wrong (technically), but inappropriate in what one is really trying to say. For example, if a woman mentions the word "harem," what's the picture that we get? Some kind of free-spirited heightened sexual activities that most would delight to be part of. But what about its primary (note, primary) and original meaning, which means a quarter in a home set aside where the women congregate (no, unfortunately, not for sex), since they were not allowed, for the most part, to mix with the men? It's sort of lost because no one invites somebody for dinner or a smoke or a meeting by saying, "Meet me in my harem."

So, to reiterate, let's be careful with our brazen misjudgment of Eastern concepts, for ignorance does not sit well on a newspaper page.

Yours faithfully,

Rakesh Rampertab