How Do You Translate Insha’allah? Foreignizing vs. Exoticizing the Text

The other day, I was rather ham-handedly interviewing Dr. Samia Mehrez when she started to talk about an interesting dilemma: How do you translate إنشالله?

I would say, by informal survey, that most literary translators (and reporters, who seem to delight in the phrase), present it in transliterated Arabic: insha’allah.

After all, English-language readers “know” what it means (or think they do), and it gives a flavor (not too spicy!) that they’re expecting. Those Arabs, they just love their God.

But—Mehrez notes—beyond the debate of whether and when to “domesticize” or “foreignize” a text, there is also the translator who exoticizes it. “And,” Mehrez said, “I think exoticizing has that need to maintain certain Arabic words in Arabic. When they need not necessarily be in Arabic.”

I had noted earlier that Ahdaf Soueif says she is “very careful” about using Arabic terms in her English-language texts.

Mehrez added:

And the religious formulas are a case in point. How important is it for a Western reader to have a formula like insha’allah stand in the text as insha’allah, when it doesn’t mean God willing—it really doesn’t mean that when people say that. They mean a million other things.

The same could be said for “el hamdul’allah” and other oft-heard phrases that invoke a diety. Further, Mehrez says:

Obviously that’s constantly misread…that these are a religious people, that they cannot speak one single sentence without a religious evocation.

And indeed: I am not a religious person, but I use these phrases constantly. Once, I was out having coffee with a friend who uses these phrases exceedingly rarely. I told her that I would be home by four o’clock, insha’allah. She turned to me—because she is also this sort of friend—and said, “What do you mean by that?”

For a moment, I was speechless. Finally I said, Well, traffic on Gezirit Suez looked bad going the other direction, and maybe I’ll be stuck, and…and….

So on the one hand, I had meant something akin to the English “I hope”: Traffic looked bad, I hope I’ll get home by 4. But on the other hand, it was also an acknowledgment that getting home by four o’clock was not something entirely under my control. I wanted to be home by four; I’d promised to be home by four; but would I be?

So what is a translator supposed to do?

a) Leave it in the text as insha’allah, potentially exoticizing the work, re-creating the (expected) hyper-religious Arab?

b) Translate it as “God willing” or “I hope” or “we’ll see,” depending on the context?

c) Erase it from the text entirely?

None of these seem a particularly satisfactory answer. I would love it if someone else had a d), e), f), or g)….

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19 replies

  1. I think there are problems in translation that simply don’t have “ideal” solutions. And the problem of translating (or not) phrases such as “insha’Allah” is also applicable to Arab writers who write in English. Obviously Ahdaf Soueif has her own opinion and seems to be quite comfortable with it, and that’s good for her. Personally, as an Arab writer who writes in English, I struggle with this issue all the time. I don’t want my fiction to read as if it could have taken place anywhere. My characters are Arabs, and most of my stories take place in the Arab world — albeit different time periods — and this is something that has to be clear to readers without me hitting them over the head with it. This is a problem that writers of other ethnicities face when they write in English. I can think of Indian writers who go through the same issues. Their fiction is “sprinkled” with Hindi/Bengali phrases. As a reader, I never got the feeling that they were “spicing” up their writing with these phrases, but just felt that they were pulling me deeper into their world. Obviously, an Arab character living during the Crusades, for example, would not be speaking in English, but because the writer is writing in English, he/she does. So English here doesn’t become a language opposed to/other than Arabic, for example. The writer writes with whatever language expresses best what he/she wants to say. So while a lot of the writing would be in English (in my case), there still would be terms or phrases that I wouldn’t be able to write in English. Hmmm… now I think I’ve confused myself! But this is, in my opinion, a never ending (and often circular) discussion.

  2. “i hope.” “yes.” “god willing.”
    depends on who says it and where, really.

  3. Marwa: I, as you say, often appreciate foreignized words in an English-language text—like in Chinua Achebe’s /Things Fall Apart,/ for instance. I don’t know any Igbo, but I think some of the words he uses help paint a clearer picture of his world. And I think that can be “foreignizing” rather than “exoticizing.” Indeed, I don’t think Achebe exoticizes.

    But then again, I think a few Arabic words, like “insha’allah” and “madrassa” and “jihad” have come to mean all sorts of stupid things in the minds of foreign (American) readers, and this makes them a little bit useless as words/signifiers.

    Bibi: I want an easy answer!

  4. Interesting. Many of those words (especially “insha’allah” and “jihad”) do carry specific things to many, especially in the US. I read a fair amount (small, but more than average) of fiction and non-fiction from the Arab world but when talking to others about what I am reading they often take them certain ways, make stupid jokes, etc. because they have these set beliefs. At the same time, I think it is hard to translate those words into English in a way that truly evokes their placement and meaning in the Arab world. I personally prefer having them there, knowing the wealth of meanings behind it, but I know that I am an exception rather than the rule by knowing that they do have more than one meaning!

  5. Amy: Good to hear from someone outside the bubble.

    And surely people who are willing to pick up a work of Arabic literature are more likely to be of your ilk than the stupid-joking sort.

    So perhaps different considerations for a literary audience vs. a newspaper audience? Don’t know.

    • Good point, and you are probably right. Those of us reading any amount of Arabic literature are a different sort than those who just stick to the newspaper.

      What I also do love and find very useful though is that most books have a short ‘definition of terms’ either in the beginning or end of the book – that way if there are any truly new terms, or with terms like ‘insha’allah’ and ‘jihad’ the reader can get a quick note on what it does and doesn’t mean.

  6. hehe, an easy answer! if there were easy answers, google translate would be doing our job!

    in general, i try to avoid them. as dr. merhez says, i tend to use a million other things. (before i was a translator, i was a teacher — it was quite amazing how naturally the religious invocations didn’t show up in english.)

    i also avoid other words that in western mind are “typical” of the arab world. “bakshish”, for example. there are enough words that will place the story firmly into arab world: mashrabiya. awama. sabil. y’know, stuff that is specific, but neutral.

    amy mentioned “jihad”, so here’s a funny story: in the “palace of desire” there is a scene describing khadiga’s relationship with her mother in law. basically, it says something like “khadiga continued her own personal jihad to take over the entire house”, more or less. i was like, i don’t want to use jihad, i’ll use some other military term. when i was reviewing the translation, i checked the english translation, just to make sure i did the right thing. the word used in english was “crusade”. given that this was back in 2004, maybe funny isn’t the right word; but as a translator, i did find it hilarious.

    • Hah! That is hilarious, and, I suppose, accurate in a sense. We use crusade to mean a lot more than the religious crusades! Though not as common a term.

  7. *mehrez. apologies.

  8. As an English learner of Arabic who has no religion and does not believe in god, the name Allah in so many common Arabic words sticks out like something of a sore thumbd to me.

    I’ve often wondered how literally I should read it, and, while assuming that the answer to that is probably ‘not very literally at all’, I’ve still felt uncomfortable using it in my ignorance of its connotations. I’ve found myself looking for alternative phrases I might reasonably use as a beginner, without my own speech seeming ludicrously specific or out of place.

    Perhaps a similar answer might be found to your question. If an Arab, speaking in Arabic, were for some reason to pick a word or phrase other than إنشالله in a given context, what word would they chose? Perhaps one might reasonably use the translation of that word instead when translating إنشالله.

  9. First, I want to say that although (I think) this is my first time commenting here, I really love your site & commentary. I wish I had known about it when I first started studying Arabic, because I would probably have a much better idea of Arabic literature. Anyway, this question in particular jumps out to me. Personally, after about a year total (roughly consecutive but not continuous) in Egypt and a year of sort-of teaching Arabic in an assistant position at a New England College, as someone with many Muslim friends (Arab and otherwise)….I still bristle at the untranslated in sha’allah in most contexts.

    Now, my mother happens to be a Presbyterian minister and my grandmothers were brought up either in Christian Science or the Salvation Army, so I may be coming from a context where “God willing” sounds a little more normal in English than it is does to most people. Still, I find that people who are unfamiliar with Arabic tend not to know what these phrases mean (even literally) as well as they think they do, and they have this sort of shuffling, obsequious, more-pious-than-thou ring to them… PLUS Most people, even a lot of curious people (those who might not regularly pick up a translated Arabic novel, but who would start reading one if it caught their eyes), don’t understand the meaning of “Allah”, which is a serious problem. Why constantly distinguish between “our” God and “theirs”?

    After I returned from my first study abroad semester in Alexandria, I noticed I began using the word “hopefully” much more frequently than I had before. I guess I was trying to replace “in sha’allah”, or the attitude of in sha’allah. Maybe that’s what needs to be translated, the attitude of in sha’allah.

    And maybe translators (or people writing about Arabs/the Arab World) could then more easily make the distinction between more and less overtly pious characters, instead of giving their readers the impression that every one of these muttered phrases has the same connotation in every situation. Certainly, the words “Thank you, Jesus!” sound very different coming from the pulpit, or the mouth of someone who is literally thanking Jesus, than they do coming from someone who uses that name lightly because he/she does not believe in all (or any) or the stories behind it. In our own cultures we are aware of such distinctions…but I’m less confident of our ability to pick up on the same distinctions when they’ve been (incompletely?) translated from another culture/context.

    I guess these aren’t easy answers either, but I do think the question deserves an answer.

  10. Jessamy: Well, I suppose if someone had an easy answer to something that so troubles me, then I’d have to feel stupid. So maybe better that no one has offered one yet. Although my friend SaqerM. suggested translating it to the Spanish equivalent, ojalá. Heh.

    Another thing Dr. Mehrez talked about in the interview was translators making better use of their forewords and afterwords. On the one hand, I think—as I told her—that most readers skip the forewords and afterwords. On the other, I think that perhaps some of these issues could be addressed there.

    And you’re right: context is very important. Sometimes insha’allah *does* mean God willing, and that our lives hinge on the will of God. Sometimes “I swear to God” does literally mean that someone is swearing to God; sometimes it just stands as an intensifier.

    I wonder how our non-religious religious terms (sweet Jesus, Jesus H. Christ, I swear to God, Oh God) are translated into other languages.

    Matt: You’ve just got to use it yourself for a while to see. And you should hear how many Egyptians, while speaking in English, use “Oh God” or variations with absolutely no thought to a deity whatsoever.

  11. i think your last question is the answer to your original one: how would you translate the english terms into other languages? it’s really just your feeling that will tell you. ojalá this solve the problem. ;-)

    i used to hang out with a bunch of confused emos/punks/metalheads back in the day and took to using insha’allah (complete with the eye-roll) to say “whatever”. fifteen years later, and people have yet to mistake me for religious.

  12. I notice that I use terms from the other side as well (in English): hell, for instance, which I seem to use often and innocuously. Although usually not around my children.

    I don’t think I’d translate this into Arabic as “nar.”

    Shoot, so there was an easy answer…. :-)

  13. Makes me think of a certain Arabic translation from English where every other line in dialogues had the phrase “min haqq al-jaheem” stuck somewhere in it. I found it singularly annoying. I wonder how many Arabic books (or dubbed movies) have English speakers express their frustration by exclaiming “yaa 3eessa”?

  14. The case of insha’allah is particularly interesting because an adverbial that expresses impersonal modalities of a hopeful sort has recently undergone a surprising revival in the English-speaking world. Not too long ago the language police liked to point out that “hopefully” properly means “in a hopeful manner”.

    German, in contrast, expresses these concepts (?) by different words (hoffentlich vs. lit. hope-full, hope-glad, or hope-happy), while Russian has no single word to express either. For bonus points: compare and contrast the Oriental mind, the American dream, the Protestant ethic and the Russian soul.

  15. d) Tell others not to take things so seriously.
    e) Tell yourself not to take things so seriously.
    f) Stop taking things so seriously.
    g) Get kittens.


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