Kalimatna: Arabic to Arabic Translation

I started studying Arabic during my sophomore year of college six years ago.  Arabic is a very difficult language even for the most gifted language-learner, and given the fact that I am not a gifted language-learner, I think I’ve come a long way.  I spent last year in Jordan reading and studying a variety of classical Arabic texts, which ranged from pre-Islamic poetry to Quranic exegesis.  Sounds pretty impressive, right?

Given the high level of my reading abilities, you might assume that I can speak and understand Arabic with equal facility.  Unfortunately for me (and for the vast majority of Arabic students) that is not the case.  In fact, whenever I open my mouth here in Nablus, I am barely able to utter a sentence without someone breaking into laughter.  “What is so funny?” I have demanded numerous times.  “You sound like a child,” or “you sound like a cartoon character” is often the response I get.  The secret about Arabic (that very few people tell you when you start the language) is that in order to be able to both read and actually communicate with people, you have to learn what are essentially two different languages: fusha (classical Arabic) and amiyya (the spoken dialect).

Unfortunately for me and for other American students of Arabic, fusha is pretty much the only language taught in universities in the U.S.  So when we come to the Arabic speaking world bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and eager to practice our Arabic, we find that no one can understand us, we can’t understand anyone, or that we just sound ridiculous (like the characters in the cartoon programs or like someone from the Middle Ages).  Needless to say, this can be endlessly discouraging. That’s why I’ve decided that the ability to laugh at oneself is the most important attribute for any student of Arabic.  Otherwise, you are doomed for severe depression for the rest of your life.

During my interviews for the Kalimatna Initiative these past few weeks, I’ve tried to keep in mind this “most important attribute.”  It helps me feel not too bad when I ask my questions in carefully prepared Arabic and the interviewee stares at me blankly, blinks for a few seconds, and then turns to Hassan (my Palestinian partner) who then “translates” what I said from Arabic-to-Arabic.  “That’s exactly what I said!” I often squeal after he has re-posed my question.  He smiles back at me with laughter in his eyes.  I glare at him for a second and then sigh, secretly nursing my hurt pride.  At least he could understand me.

-Mary

Mary is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.

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