Works in Arabic translation can be ‘unscholarly and manipulative’ (updated)

 Update: For a link to the full document (in German) please click here.

 A German scholar fluent in Arabic
has discovered numerous flaws in an  Arabic
version of Professor Mark R. Cohen’s Book Under Crescent and
Cross. The Jews in the Middle Ages
, calling it  highly
manipulative, Islamically-correct and deficient in scholarship.  Such a
translation cheats the author, the official sponsors and the unsuspecting
reader. Friedhelm Hoffmann summarises his findings for Point of No Return:


Professor Mark Cohen: ‘would be
enraged’ by the Arabic translation of his work

The Point of No Return post of 2
May 2018, “Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Abbas?”, blamed
the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for distorting history. Speaking
during the National Palestinian Council in Ramallah, Abbas had stated
that “such pogroms did not take place in Arab nations, which had Jewish
communities”. Abbas’s statement seemingly relied on evidence provided
by Jewish scholars. Indeed, he might have been truly convinced that
his opinion was actually supported by serious historical research done by
leading western scholars of Jewish studies.

Maybe Abbas had
had his views confirmed by reading the Arabic translation of a
treatise on Jewish history in the Islamic world, authored by the
renowned American scholar of Jewish studies Professor Mark R. Cohen
from Princeton University. Could he have assumed that what he
had read in Arabic corresponded to what Cohen actually
had written in the English original for the American
and international readership? Not necessarily. He might have
been unwittingly duped by a manipulated and “politically
correct” Arabic translation.

This would
be the case had he relied on the Arabic translation “Bayna l-hilāl wa-l-ṣalīb. Waḍʿal-yahūd fī l-qurūn al-wusṭā / بين الهلال والصليب : وضع اليهود في القرون الوسطى
(Cologne/Baghdad 2007) of Prof. Cohen’s book “Under Crescent
and Cross.
 The Jews in the Middle Ages” (Princeton
1994). A decade after Cohen had written this historical treatise, he
himself saw to its translation into Arabic and delegated the task to two
promising Arab researchers at the Free University of Berlin,
Islam Dayeh (إسلام دية) from
Jordan and Mouez Khalfaoui (معز خلفاوي) from
Tunisia. The aim was noble, the result disillusioning, despite the fact
that leading research institutions and networks in Germany and the
US, such as the Berlin research programme “Europe in the Middle East – The
Middle East in Europe” and the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study, the
Department of Near Eastern Studies of Princeton University, the BMW
Foundation, Herbert Quandt and
the Zeit Foundation, Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius, were
the project’s official sponsors.

What a
noble aim – to overcome the gap between western scholarship in the field of
Jewish studies and the Arab readership – to open up western humanities to
the Arab reader in his own tongue: a truly
enlightened endeavour. Moreover – and this might have been the real
reason behind the whole enterprise – this
translation granted an academic seal
of approval to the two Arab translators. Promoting
them as open-minded researchers who do not shy away from
delicate topics, such as the situation of Jewish minorities in the
Latin West and the Islamic East during the Middle Ages.

Alas,
neither aim was reached.
What deep disappointment awaits readers of Arabic!
One might choose at random any page of the Arabic translation
and would find it full of
mistakes and misunderstandings of every kind, sometimes
even downright and deliberate distortions. Thus,
the Arab reader will be confronted with quite astonishing
historical and religious assertions. He will read that the Roman
emperor Constantius [II] ruled in the fourth century BC (p.
297 n 1); that Judaism counts among its holy scriptures a Hebrew (pp. 87,
268) as well as a Jewish gospel (p. 315); that Islam reveres the
“Evangelical personalities” of the Jewish Bible as prophets (p.
309); that the better conditions Jews experienced in the
medieval Polish realm, compared to other Western European kingdoms and
principalities, materialized in the fact that the Polish monarchs
treated their Jewish subjects as badly (sic) as did their
Western European counterparts (p. 27). Moreover,
according to the Arab translators Dayeh and Khalfaoui, Voltaire
(sic) advised Arabs to build modern nation states (p. 43 

n
2). And to believe this translation, Cohen talks about
“the peoples of Israel” (p. 86) and “all the Jewish peoples in the Islamic
world” (p. 233) in the plural. The Arab reader will encounter this
kind of mistranslation (and unconscious manipulation) all over the book.

More
worrying are the downright distortions wherever Cohen’s facts or
judgments do not fit into the worldview of the two translators. To give a
major example: Cohen states that “this indulgence of non-Muslims ended
abruptly with the Mongols’ conversion to Islam in 1295’: he implies
that the “pagan” Mongols were more tolerant rulers prior to, than
after their conversion to Islam. Since such a positive judgment in favour of
non-Muslims seems not to be acceptable to Khalfaoui and Dayeh,
they elide the Mongols’ conversion into “the invasion by the
Mongols” [of Baghdad] (p. 25 n. 2), thereby postponing the Mongol invasion
of Baghdad from 1258 to the key date of 1295. By this
manipulating ruse, the translators manage to lay the blame for the
deteriorating standing of non-Muslims in Iraq after 1295 on the alleged
invasion by the pagan Mongols, while Cohen originally had traced the
deterioration to their very conversion to Islam. Apart from the
ideological twist, the translators thereby commit a grave historical
error, disclosing their own ignorance of Islamic history, the destruction
of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 at the hands of the Mongols being a major
turning point.

This is
just one of many such distortions, which seem to have their origin in
a mindset close to the Muslim Brotherhood’s. Apart from the
distortions, the translation does not comply with generally-accepted
academic standards. One third of the annotations in the
footnotes have been omitted for no reason, another third
have been kept in the English original, and the last third
have been rendered into Arabic in a way which can best be called
a preliminary draft.The neglect of the annotations deals a further
blow to the academic character of the book.

The
translation of the main text is of a higher quality.
Nevertheless, it abounds in misunderstandings and
mistranslations in addition to a deficient Arabic vocabulary of
Jewish and Christian terms and general historical
terminology relating to Western Europe. Indeed, the translation
does not meet the prevalent academic standards in serious
Arabic publications in this field.

Finally, the
most serious defect is the complete lack of any references to contemporary
Arabic publications in the field of Jewish (and Israeli) studies as would
be normal in similar publications by serious scholars and translators in
the Arab world.

The
Arabic reader will not find any references in his own language, be
they Arabic translations of international standard treatises of Jewish studies
or indigenous Arabic treatises on Jewish and Israeli topics. This lack cannot
be justified on any grounds, since Arab scholars have been building up
quite a voluminous library of Jewish and Israeli studies over the last decades.

To sum up, this translation gives a misleading
impression of the English
original, thereby misrepresenting the discipline of Jewish
studies as pursued at American universities. It exploits the Arabic
reader’s good faith in the trustworthiness of the translators and the
quality of the translation. Yet, this is exactly
what Prof. Cohen himself affirms in his preface to the translation.
Cohen enthusiastically thanks the able translators and stresses the
high quality of the Arabic rendering, thereby admitting that he never read any
part of it, otherwise it would have enraged him.

For
the Arabic translation reaches
its lowest ebb when even the Islamic creed “I confess
that there is no god but God” is gravely distorted in the Arabic
rendering, thus shaking any Arab reader’s trust in Cohen’s
scholarship. If the mistranslation of the Islamic
creed was intentional, one can only assume that the two Arabic
translators wanted to make fun of Professor Cohen and ridicule his
reputation as an international expert of Islamic studies in the
eyes of the Arabic reading public.

Such
a lopsided, manipulated and “Islamically-correct” translation
into Arabic does not benefit anyone. It only furthers the careers of
the translators who fake their intellectual grasp of the topic
translated. Neither will the western scholar know the
Arabic readership’s response on his treatise,
since they did not get to read what he wrote,
but a deficient version of it. The Arabic readership are cheated
as well, since they put their trust in a translation which does
not accurately render the ideas of the western
scholar. If the two translators thought it wise to distance
themselves from some of Professor Cohen’s more delicate topics and
conclusions, they could have easily done so in
the notes, instead of stealthily interfering in
Cohen’s main text.

To come
back to my starting point: What is the benefit of joint
academic projects between western and Arab scholars, like this
translation, if in the end the Arabic readership is deceived and
made to believe that they are getting a trustworthy
rendering of what the western scholar has written? How can they
critically compare between their own viewpoints and convictions and those held
by authors and scholars from the West? Does it not, in the
final analysis, hamper mutual understanding, when the Arab
readership, among them decision-makers like Mahmoud Abbas, are misled ?

Readers who are interested in
a more detailed treatment of the Arabic translation
discussed above and with a reading command of German, are
invited to
click here for a
free PDF copy of the complete review essay (136p.) from the online server of Tübingen University Library.  The reviewer Friedhelm Hoffmann is  at [email protected].

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