Lost In Translation

There’s an art to language that a lot of people either do not know, or do not care. Think about it! Think about the process of language acquisition by a newborn. How the infant begins with mindless tataha-ing – a language of free interpretation – and then later SOMEHOW gradually able to form understandable monosyllables! The process is full of wonder, don’t you think?!

I have always been very fascinated by language! My favourite subjects in school were English and Malay. Love them to pieces. But I did not like the way they were taught to me at school. So I learned them my way!

During my childhood English training, I was required – by my father – to translate one English article into Malay. Per day!

Can you imagine the frenzy lifestyle I’d led at that time? I was only eleven years old. I had to go to school in the morning until 1.00 pm. And then in the afternoon, I had to attend my kelas mengaji Quran. I used to bring my homework to my Quran classes and tried to finish them while waiting for my turn to recite the Quran in front of the ustazah. I returned from my kelas mengaji Quran at 5.00 pm every day. My hectic childhood schedule did not end there. I had to translate one article every night PLUS any leftover homework I wasn’t able to finish during my Quran class.

Translating is hard work, folks! Very hard! I could never satisfy myself (or my father) of the accuracy of my translation. Accuracy is ever so elusive in the process of translating. Let me give you an easy example: How do you translate “You look so cool!” without confusing yourself when you have to translate “You look so hot!” Hahaha.  And to make things worse, when you flip through the dictionary, ‘cool’ and ‘hot’ are translated as different degree of temperature or the variation in weather! Ugh, frustrating!

See, there’s no accuracy! Nothing can be exact! You grasp at shades of precision! It irritates you that you could never get it just right. But deep inside, you know, that’s what makes translating so much fun…the elusive quest for precision is never ending!

And thus, it became a never ending passion for me.

How do you translate “I care nothing for the poverty of her purse, so long as her heart overflows with affluence.” into Malay? Imagine what an 11 years old will have to do to translate this sentence.  I had to open the dictionary and find out one-by-one the meaning of each word in that sentence. I had no idea what ‘affluence’ was. And the words ‘so long’ in that sentence confused me.

At my first attempt, I had translated that as “Saya kisah tiada apa-apa kemiskinan beg duitnya, sepanjang hatinya melimpah dengan kemewahan.” (Stupid, right? My earlier effort of translation was as dreadful as the malay subtitles in a pirated English DVD, hahha! I followed too diligently the sequence of words in that sentence and I mistook the ‘so long’ phrase in that sentence.)  Yup, I knew I did not make any sense at that time.

But I didn’t care as long as I got it done and I could get it shown to my father. I just wanted to get it done so that I could go to sleep, really!

But of course, I couldn’t get away with it! My father would never accept such a poor translation! And the whole article was full of stupid translation in the style of the above, I was surprised my father did not vomit out blood, LOL. Needless to say, my father was NOT amused.

After multiple attempts…I ended up translating it as “Aku tidak kisah tentang kemiskinan dompetnya, selagi mana hatinya melimpah dengan kekayaan.” Well…better, right? At least, I caught some of its intended meanings….but you see, the Malay version had lost the natural elegance and the lovely grace of the original!

So as I got better at catching the general meaning of a sentence, it became a source of irritation when I could not retain the beauty of the original version! I could ponder for as long as I could bear, but I could ONLY translate the ‘general’ meaning of a sentence (never the true, precise meaning that I understood in my heart), and even then, the beauty and the elegance were sadly lacking, if they were not lost altogether! As the months progressed, I became supremely irritated with my effort and at the end of my standard five, I was deliriously happy when my father said I could stop translating articles and focus on my UPSR next year.

I was glad to stop disappointing myself whenever I couldn’t get it PRECISELY RIGHT! As a kid, I haven’t studied language in depth…I thought it was something wrong with ME, and that was why I couldn’t get it right.

As I learned more, I understood now that every language has its own limitation that one can never get it right! One can only play with the attempt. The Malay language has limited precision.’ Love’, ‘adoration’, ‘fondness’…all of them are translated as ‘sayang’. Like is translated as ‘gemar’.  ‘Prefer ‘can be translated as ‘lebih gemar’. Hahaha. Yup, our words are limited.

I am not trying to say that the Malay language is inferior to the English language. I am saying that each language is unique that during translation, precision is never the aim!  English too, could not dream of translating ‘Pulau Pandan Jauh Ke Tengah, Gunung Daik Bercabang Tiga, Hancur Badan Di kandung Tanah, Budi Baik di Kenang Jua!”

How in God’s name can you translate that pantun into English without sounding ridiculous!! Hahah. Try it! I had tried to do it in the past and I have given up!  But does that mean English is inferior to Malay just because it could not properly catch the meaning of that pantun without losing its elegance and beauty? Of course, not! Malay is a Malay language with its own place for beauty and elegance; and English is an English language with its own place for grace and splendor.

You see? Translating is a lesson in dealing with frustration!


I was glad my father taught me English and Malay that way. It gave me something to contribute to my friends.

They helped me with add Maths and Physics. I helped them with English! It was a very satisfying arrangement of quid pro quo.

The exchange was hardly fair, wasn’t it? After all, Add Maths and Physics were a million times HARDER. So I believe, I got more benefit from my friends, than they ever got from me. But I always delivered my part enthusiastically. I asked them to sit next to me and then we went through each sentence of the essay as I corrected it.

Again I was frustrated when they asked “Awat pulak ayat aku macam ni salah?”

I really didn’t know the answer! I just knew it sounded wrong! But I had to come up with an explanation anyway, and I wasn’t always successful in explaining!!  THAT, was also another source of frustration.

There were times when the sentences they constructed did not make any sense AT ALL to me, and I had to tell them (very nicely)  “Okay, ayat kau yang ni kan…..ehem, aku macam tak berapa faham kau nak cakap apa sebenarnya. Cuba kau habaq kat aku, kau nak cakap apa sebenarnya dalam bahasa Melayu. Nanti aku bagi ayat dia dalam English.”

Usually, I always tried to modify their sentences rather than giving them a new one altogether (I thought it was fair to retain their idea as much as possible), but sometimes I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes the sentence just COULD NOT be salvaged and it required a new one in total.

It could be a headache too.

But for a headache, it was a very enjoyable one. I enjoyed paying back their kindness towards me. I always felt like they helped me more with my Add Maths and Physics than I could ever help them with English. I was so glad I got something to give back, no matter how small.


And then  I went to Newcastle. Over there, proof-reading my friends’ assignment was a pastime of mine. They made my life in Australia fun and meaningful; and for them I would proof-read a thousand essays and be happy about it –  or die trying.

Wallahi, I miss them!

In Newcastle, I got to know a few Arabs in the mosque and at the uni. In fact, one Saudi girl was my housemate for awhile. I listened to a few lectures about the beauty of Arabic language – a language I had never learned while growing up. During the month of Ramadhan, I listened to the Imam (of Arab origin) CRYING while reciting the Quranic verses in Solat terawih in the Newcastle mosque.

I just felt lost.

I also felt something acutely similar to envy and jealousy towards the Arabs.

And then  I realized…how much more excruciatingly difficult it would be to appreciate the Quran in all its beauty when you don’t know Arabic!  I thought translating English articles into Malay was hard! I thought  translating Malay pantuns into English was next to impossible!

Try translating Arabic into English! I would DIE of frustration!

Did you notice that verses in the Quran rhyme? They rhyme while making sense too!  How are you going to translate it, then? Translating rhyming pantun is already super HARD. How do we properly translate rhymed poetry like the Quran and doing justice to it?

Well, we have done it! We did translate the Quran into many languages. But what happens to the elegance and the beauty? What happens to the beautiful rhymes? What happens to the precision of the message?

It’s lost!

Do you think it’s easy to convey a long message and a beautiful story while making them rhyme?  And usually our prophet (by Allah’s leave) came up with those beautiful words on the spot, as he was answering the accusation of the pagans. It’s HARDER than having a conversation in pantuns (without taking five minutes to come up with an answer each time you have to reply). It’s not easy!  And the pagans of Makkah were stunned into silence because every time they said something, our prophet was able to reply instantly and the replies were precise and beautifully constructed EVEN when they rhymed.

When we convey to the world that “Mukjizat nabi terbesar adalah Al-Quran” we have no idea of what an immense thing we are talking about. How could we, when we do not know Arabic? The translation helps you in getting the ‘general’ idea of what Al-Quran wants to tell you…but if you’ve had some experience in translating classic literatures into another language, you will know what a huge, monstrous lost in elegance and beauty would translation render!

Try to translate Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, into Malay. You would think that Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Anne Bronte were all one and the same person; a dead bore. If you read Lagak Wasangka (the Malay translation of Pride and Prejudice), you would have NO IDEA what is the big deal with Jane Austen! You will be lost!

How is that different than reading the Quran in Malay? You will, Insya Allah, get the wisdom of the teaching, but you will never know what makes it such a literary masterpiece. That’s why one cannot understand the statement “Al-Quran mempunyai gaya bahasa yang tinggi” when one was understanding it in Malay.

We could never understand what is the big deal with the Quran. We could not understand why some of the Arabs during the Prophet time came into Islam by listening to the Quran alone; we could not understand what happened in the heart of Saidina Umar Al Khattab (r.a) after listening to the recitation of Surah Taha just before he embraced Islam…it is something we cannot comprehend or appreciate when we don’t know Arabic. Until NOW (1400 + years later) the Quran remains the standard and the benchmark by which all Arabic literature is judged.

For an ancient document, that’s huge!


Our medical specialist – when I was a student – hailed from Africa, and thus he is a proficient Arabic speaker. He is a devout Christian.

He looked at the hijab on my senior and asked “Can you speak Arabic?”

My senior told him “No.”

“But I thought you are a Muslim. Do you read the Quran?”

“Yes I do.”

“So, you don’t understand what you are reading?” I could imagine his look of profound incredulity.

My senior cleared her throat. “We read the translation. We can read Arabic letters and recite the Quran. But if we want to know the meaning, we have to read the translation.”

He showed my senior what he thought about it by the smirk on his face.

My senior, I am sure, had a lot to say.

-She could say, “I know I am lacking but I will learn.”

-She could say, “Our holy book can still be found in its original language! It is the only REVEALED holy book which is still in its original language and memorized word-by-word in its original language even if we didn’t know the meaning of it. Do YOU have a holy book that you read in its original language, regardless of whether or not you understand the meaning of it? At least in my case, I can learn Arabic and then I will understand the Quran as it is meant to be understood. But to those whose holy book can no longer be found in its original language, they can NEVER understand the book as it is meant to be understood. No matter how many languages they learn in order to understand the many versions of their holy book, it will never be the same as the original that is lost. So you see, if you want to talk about understanding one’s holy book, there’s still hope for me… more hope than others.”

Of course my senior just remained silent at that time. You see, at that time we haven’t thought of that rebuttal yet, hahaha.

My senior went home and told us about the conversation she had with her specialist in one of our usrah sessions.

It was like a slap to all of us.

It made us reflect.

How could we find it satisfactory that we call ourselves as  Muslims, and yet our ability in Arabic only extends to ’making Arabic sounds’. (that’s what reciting the Quran amounts to: us being able to pronounce ‘sounds’ that we know no meanings to).

It’s not satisfactory! The Medical Specialist – a non-Muslim – certainly thought it’s NOT satisfactory! So how could we, as Muslims be at peace when we don’t know Arabic? How could we be complacent and think that it’s okay that we don’t know Arabic, when someone outside our religion look at us and find us lacking and wanting!

I urge the government to please make Arabic a compulsory subject to all Muslims; not just to students of Sekolah Agama. They have to score in this subject the way they have to score other subjects if they want to get straight A’s. It has to be learned without being thought of as less important than Add Maths or Physics or Chemistry. It has to be a compulsory pass, if not a compulsory distinction!


Once, when I had told people that I wanted to go to Klinik Kesihatan as an MO or become a psychiatrist, they thought I was a bore or a lazy bum.

Yes, I thought any sort GP-ness was boring too when I was a student. But I have always thought that psychiatry is a very interesting field – especially if one is obsessed about stories the way I do.

I like hearing amusing, unique and moving stories. I will seriously show great interest to all bizarre rendition of incredible hallucination or delusions. At the end of such stories I will probably go, “WOW, that would make such an interesting plot for my next novel. We’ll share the royalty!!”

Some questioned my decision, “Hang tak boring ka nanti? Dah dapat ENT, masuk sajalah ENT. Kau dah appeal twice nak masuk psychiatry. Kalau tak dapat juga, memang takdirlah. I can see you as an ENT surgeon…. but not as a psychiatrist. Kau bukan org yg penyabar, Fiza.”

I shook my head firmly and said “Aku tak pernah boring bila ada free time! I HAVE been bored by dull people and tepid small talk – but I have never been bored having some free time on my own. When I have free time, I like to read lots of fiction or I write. There’s no time to get bored; there’re always stories to read, general knowledge to acquire and things I care about that I need to write down. And I don’t like surgery… Kemahiran Hidup aku dulu bahagian jahitan semua mak aku yang buat. Hahha. I have had poor fine motor skills ever since I could remember. Do you want me to ruin my patients’ life by my clumsy motor skills? Rather than surgical-based, aku lagi rela buat medical walaupun busy!”

And NOW, there’s even more reason for me to WANT even more free time

I am going to use my uninterrupted weekends and my uninterrupted public holidays to do my own thing.

I want to learn Arabic! No definite plan yet regarding the how and the when, but if I could master the arabic language as my third language before I finally use my last breath to proclaim my shahadah, I would die a happy lady.


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