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Languages

Bid for, nearly got, missed by half an hour, a translation job requiring Jawi to English skills. Jawi is a hidden language in Malaysia. It exists only on paper. Muslim children, a little over half the population, learn it for twelve years of their lives. Up until I was about thirteen-years-old, we had to answer Islamic Studies papers with it. That changed to allow us to use either Jawi or Rumi (Roman characters). We were always only responding in Bahasa Malaysia.

Jawi is still taught in school, only for Islamic Studies. Islamic Studies textbooks are still printed in Jawi. It used to be the printed and written language for every official document, about a decade or two before my parents got married. Unlike my mother's language, my father's language hangs on as a kind of fossil. My brother never even tried to learn, though he had to, for about seven years. I used to have to write all his homework for him. Jawi, Arabic letters used to write the Malaysian language, is beautiful. Its calligraphic form is certainly a lovely thing. In my eyes, an equal to beholding a piece of calligraphic art written in Han Dze.

Jawi is also part of my entire conflict with Islamic Studies as a compulsory subject for students of Muslim descent. We were taught Jawi, and in a larger view, the Arabic alphabet, in order to read the Quran. We were never taught to read the Arabic language, only to enunciate the sounds without meaning. Throughout my schooling experience, the Arabic language was and still is an elective subject that many students avoid, with perfectly justifiable reasons. Certainly, no one wants to slap on an added subject for students who already have an extra tertiary-preparedness subject over everyone else. So for twelve years, I was made to read the Quran blind -- for "exam purposes". That's all you really need to pass a paper and a practical. I never understood a word I said. For about the last six years, thanks to a very piecemeal education from moving around as much as we did, I was dependent on classmates willing to transliterate the Quranic text so I could read it. Jawi, and the Arabic alphabet, wasn't my problem. Apathy, and an inablity to read Arabic diacritics, was.

My question is, would the current Muslim population of Malaysia be better off being able to understand what they were reading in class, if they were able to speak the Arabic language? I don't really know. It's certainly an easier way to indoctrinate one version of the religion over any others. Many Malaysian students of Muslim descent would remember memorising the readings for Quranic quotations and their interpretations -- for "exam purposes". One of the great ironies of the Quran is that Muslims are taught to read it aloud, and walk away satisfied in understanding it only through the minds of others. It's a dangerous mentality, when you think about it. But at the same time, it's hard to say anyone really suffers for it. Proving that life does not revolve around the language of religion, only the interpretations of it, I suppose people do live better with just the idea of things instead of their reality.

Begs the other obvious question, really.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
salimma
May. 23rd, 2006 08:08 pm (UTC)
An interesting comparison would be to the use of Latin language by the Roman Catholic Church up to the Middle Ages and beyond (the mass was still held mostly in Latin until the Second Vatican Council). Gutenberg did not merely revolutionize secular literature, but also the grip of the Church in religious dissemination. AFAIR the first book printed was a German-language bible.

Funnily, whenever I attend mass for cultural reasons I actually prefer it to be held in Latin if the choice is available. The luxury of being able to recite church doctrines without actually looking at their meanings too closely cannot be underestimated.

This holds even for prayers conducted in the vernacular, be it in Christianity or Islam: how many of us actually said "Amin" without considering its actual meaning?

I agree with your conclusion - the language barrier might be a good thing, it allows (unintentionally) for freedom of opinion.
mokie
May. 24th, 2006 05:25 pm (UTC)
No offense, but I think you missed her point.

Many religions make use of a sacred language, or use a language that has been made sacred through its connection with the religion. Yes, for the layman it enhances that sense of mystical things afoot, but only because it obscures so much about the spectacle in front of him. In effect, a language barrier is created between follower and deity, a barrier that necessitates a dependence on clergy to act as interpreters and mediators: the faithful are forced to trust not in God but in the preacher, because apparently God only speak Latin, or Arabic, etc. You can't understand God's language and God can't speak yours, but the preacher in the pulpit will be happy to tell you all about what God has to say about women's rights, civil rights, foreigners and homosexuals and abortion and premarital nookie and so on.

By keeping religious study and debate out of the hands of the average person, the religious elite are released from any accountability. Religion, like politics, needs to be understood clearly by as many people as possible so that we can better discern who's building a better world and who's passing out the poisoned Kool-Aid, so that we can prevent the excesses and abuse that come with powertripping and help men of God keep their egos in check and remember that it's their duty to serve God, not to play God.

It sounds very pretty, very mystical, yes, but in terms of significance, you might as well be listening to a Bulgarian soap opera.

In vampyrichamster's case, she studied this language for years, memorizing for exams and such, without ever understanding the content. However mystical it might have sounded, without some understanding of what those sounds actually meant, it's just empty words, nonsense sounds.

(Sorry, potentially offensive icon popped up on that one. Didn't want to give the wrong impression here. ;) )
mokie
May. 24th, 2006 05:48 pm (UTC)
(Yeah, I know, all of this is ironic, considering that Christianity generally skewed toward the lingua frana, be it Greek or Latin, and the scent of sacred only attached to those languages afterward. But anyway, eh?)
salimma
May. 24th, 2006 05:49 pm (UTC)
No offense taken (both for the refutation and the icon) - I did not read the last paragraph properly; pleading guilty to an inadvertent case of cherry-picking here.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that the language barrier might not be entirely negative. You memorize what you're told to memorize, sure, but probably without entirely believing it. So the indoctrination is not 100% believable. Whereas if the source material is readily available (and in the case of the Koran there are unofficial translations anyway), people can be easily persuaded to believe *anything* by carefully picking the right verses.

There's always the option to carefully read the entire (pick your holy book here), but 1) if you do that you might as well enter a religious vocation, 2) there's no guarantee you're not drawing the incorrect interpretation anyway, but you're in danger of getting an overblown confidence that you are correct ("I've read *that* much, I must know more than you")
vampyrichamster
May. 24th, 2006 06:26 pm (UTC)
Hullo. I've noticed you friended me, and I've done the same to you. Mind if I ask where you found my journal? :)

The point of my post was that language barriers in religion are inherrently dangerous, as they prevent people from directly accessing their religion. The idea of a holy language, useable only by the religious elite, separates the masses from the religion, and leaves them vulnerable to misinformation.

Three problems emerge:

a) The people are dependent on interpreters to direct their spiritual needs, creating a direct barrier between them and God.

b) Because the people are unable to speak the language of God, the interpreters are free to mold their messages according to whatever political whims they prefer.

c) Longterm dependency on interpreters creates apathy among the people, who are no longer keen to equate directly understanding the language of God with understanding God. This primes them for even more manipulation by their religious leaders, in whom they place their trust.

The idea that people need barriers, or people who know one's religion better than one's own judgement, is the entire reason and purpose of religious office. It's what gives religious "officers" the power to tell their followers to fly into buildings, for example.

Whether the religious officer in question also says you can save Palestine, free Tibet, spread Jesus open or return to nature is irrelevant. People should have the right to access a religion directly in their native language, and not be restricted by an official language just because it makes the religion look more mysterious.

More precisely, just because translations are available, does not mean the translations are reliable. Which brings me back to the subject of my post: Why are the Malaysian Muslims, who hold the sanctity and unchangeability of the Arabic Quran as a keystone of their religion, willing to run their lives only by unreliable interpretations? And if it doesn't matter, then what is the purpose of having religion as such an integral part of their lives?
salimma
May. 25th, 2006 02:02 am (UTC)
Hi there. I found your blog from another Ergo Proxy fan blog - you commented there, I think - it's run by the guy who was disappointed not to see more of Real.

Having to rely on translations is always a disadvantage, but unfortunately it is probably unavoidable in the long run. Languages change; most Arabic and English speakers would probably find the classical Arabic of the Koran, and the Middle English of the King James Bible, rather archaic. Eventually we'd have to trust someone, whether religious authorities or linguists.

But quite right; there's a conflict of interest unless the translation is done by a disinterested party. As for apathy among the believers, while regrettable - it's a two-edged sword. It could lead to people turning away from the officially-sanctioned religion (potentially into breakaway, more extreme, sects, as is happening in the States, or just simple abandonment, like in Europe.

There's an interesting triangle to be drawn between Islam, Catholicism and the various evangelical Protestant sects: Islam and the evangelicals hold their holy books as being the sacred, immutable word of God (to differeing degrees, since one frowns on translations), while Muslims and Catholics share their flocks' disinterest in reading the book for themselves. On the other hand, Catholics don't hold their bible to be the *only* source of divine truth.

Religious experience does not have to be derived from an intellectual understanding of the text - the Sufis and various Eastern religions (and also the Quakers) emphasize a spiritual understanding of religion through meditation. Ironically religions that put a lot of barrier between their adherents and their texts might push people in this direction by making the other hard to reach.
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