Arabic and Urdu: A rich shared heritage in need of revival

Arabic and Urdu: A rich shared heritage in need of revival
5 min read
As part of the Sheikh Hamad Award for Translation and International Understanding, a conference was held highlighting the research of Urdu-Arabic translators and researchers who are passionate about reviving a rich shared heritage.

Efforts are underway to rebuild links between Arabic culture and those of its neighbours; connections which are limited today, despite the almost constant interaction between the Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Urdu languages which existed throughout Islamic history.

Evidence for the deep cultural relationship between these languages is preserved by a rich legacy of texts and translations linked to the study of religion and language. However, reviving the study of these linguistic links today is in dire need of support and funding from states and institutions.

In August, a virtual conference was held, entitled: 'The reality and horizons of Arabic-Urdu translation in Pakistan'. It was arranged by the media team of the "Sheikh Hamad Award for Translation and International Understanding", based in Doha.

"Evidence for the deep relationship between these languages is preserved by a rich legacy of texts and translations linked to the study of religion and language"

Bilingual institutions in Pakistan's early days

The conference focused on the historical relationship between the two languages and their possible future. Researchers Hafiz Muhammad Akram, Fazl Ullah, Abdulmajid al-Baghdadi, Arif Sadiq and Hanan Al-Fayyad spoke at the event, and translator Abid Tahi chaired.

In his talk on 'Endeavours of the Arabic-Urdu translation movement in Pakistan', Akram explained that after Pakistan's independence in 1947, the Islamic Research Institute was founded, which published an Arabic-language journal focussed on cultural and civilisational Islamic studies.

Many private schools and universities were established which taught their programmes in both Arabic and Urdu and included courses in Qur'anic interpretation, grammar, rhetoric, literature and history alongside scientific courses.

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Islam: The cornerstone of the translation movement

Akram explained that for over 1,000 years, the translation movement was primarily concerned with the transmission of religious ideas and teachings. In aid of that, language was also an area of intense focus. The tafsirs (interpretations) of the Quran by Ibn Kathir and Al-Tabari and others were translated, and additional commentaries providing further explanation were printed for the first time in 1795.

Later came translations of the poetry of Mutanabbi and Abu Tamam and Al-Hariri's Maqamat, as well as language dictionaries like Al Munjid and Al Wasit, and history books like Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah (introduction) and The Conquests of Lands by Al-Baladhri. More recently, contemporary works from authors like Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, Taha Hussein, and Kahlil Gibran have been translated into Urdu.

According to Akram, all this has been accompanied by the establishment of institutes specialising in Arabic-Urdu translation, like Minhaj-ul-Quran, The Dar Al-Salam Library and Al Madinah Library, pointing to the recent revival of the translation movement from Arab, Persian and Turkish to Urdu, which is the official language of Pakistan and the second language of millions in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh and the Gulf states.

"Another dilemma for translators was the richness of the Arabic lexicon – where dozens of synonyms might exist for a word with highly specific nuances between them. He said that often there might only be one equivalent term in Urdu"

Lost in translation: The issue of connotation

Fazl Ullah's talk was titled 'Quranic rhetoric and the challenges in translating connotative meanings into Urdu'. He outlined the difficulties of translating the deeper meanings in Quranic verse, in contrast to the relatively easy task of transmitting the denotive (literal) meanings of passages on practical elements such as prayer, fasting and pilgrimage.

The attempt to convey the connotative meanings, and those linked to the rhetorical structures in the Quran, is much more difficult because these aspects cannot be understood when translated literally.

Abdulmajid al-Baghdadi spoke about the problems with Arabic-Urdu dictionaries: most are very old and contain few expressions relevant today. They were the products of individual scholars, which has led to shortcomings in their scope and content, such as is the case with Al Qamoos Al Jadeed (the new dictionary) by Waheed uz Zaman Qasmi, published in the sixties.

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Since then two other dictionaries have been published (most recently Qamoos ul Azhar), both of which heavily relied on their predecessors and so retained the same problems. In essence, these stemmed from their compilation by researchers for whom Urdu was the mother tongue and who had learned Arabic as a heritage language.

The value of collaboration

He highlighted the need for a new Urdu-Arabic dictionary that redressed the mistakes of its predecessors and says that fluent speakers of both languages must be involved in its compilation. He said that he was working on preparing a dictionary like this with the Jordanian linguistics professor at Al Azhar University, Hind Mahfuz. However, the project required urgent institutional support for its completion.

Arif Sadiq spoke about his personal experience as a translator and the issues he had encountered. One simple barrier was that the Urdu alphabet has 54 letters in contrast with Arabic which has 28, meaning that some of the sounds in the first are unavailable in the second.

In addition to this, Pakistani researchers and translators invariably learn modern standard Arabic, which can pose an issue when they travel to work in Arabic-speaking countries where people speak in various dialects.

Another dilemma for translators was the richness of the Arabic lexicon – where dozens of synonyms might exist for a word with highly specific nuances between them. He said that often there might only be one equivalent term in Urdu. Conversely, Urdu contains hundreds of Arabic loan words which have become imbued with new meanings over time – adding another hurdle to accurate translation.

The conference was concluded by Hanan Al-Fayyad who spoke about the Sheikh Hamad Award, explaining that an Urdu language category had been entered this year as a language of achievement, which was a testimony to the translation efforts underway between the two languages.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko