[The following poem is by Muḥammad Farḥāt al-Shalṭāmī (1945-2010), one of the leading figures of Libyan dissident literature. Born in Benghazi in the wake of Italy’s bloody colonial rule, al-Shaltami was employed as a teacher. He was first jailed in the 1960s under the monarchy – for his poetry as much as for his political activities. He was imprisoned again more than once during the 1970s by the Qaddafi regime. Shaltami was the author of numerous collections of poetry, with many poems originally composed in and about prison. Much of his poetry was published only in the 1990s. The Arabic original (below) comes from the collection Tadhākir li-l-jaḥīm (Tickets to Hell).]


You issue your verdict,

While morning still follows evening

And our mother, the great sun,

Dawns red despite your disgraceful informant.

Let me say this: Neither you nor I hold Time in our hand

As it passes by this huge world of ours.

The door locks shut

As morning makes its way. I can feel it, like a hand in the dark

Knocking down fences of the impossible,

Like fate's laughter, warning of sobs and tears,

And now I can see your crucifix, your scepter, your end, your predication

Now I can see you harvesting in the fields of death

Those things you planted with your own two hands.

Like me, you are someone who now awaits the cross in terror,

You wake to the delusion of a hand slipping ruin and annihilation into your palm.

To the delusion that the refuge of comrades surges and crushes while the essence

At dawn, a bullet smashes apart your barbaric head.

While you sit staring at the face of your dismal killer in mirrors.

Like me, you now await your cross with dread,

Whenever night falls, the echoes of a phonograph record bring you back,

You traitor. Yes. The worst of it all is to have betrayed.

-- July 26, 1969.

الاتّهام للشاعر محمد فرحات الشلطامي

أصدرت حكمك والمساء

ما زال يعقبه الصباح وأمنا الشمس الكبيرة

حمراء تشرق رغم مخبرك الوضيع

دعني أقول بأن ما بيدي أو يدك الزمان

يمضي بعالمنا الكيبر

*     *     *

الباب يغلق والصباح

آت أحس به، كأن يدا تحطم في الظلام

سور المحال كأن ضحك الدهر ينذر بالبكاء

فأرى صليبك.. صولجانك، وانتهاءك مبتداك

وأراك تحصد في حقول الموت، ما زرعت يداك

الآن مثلي، أنت ذا في الرعب تنتظر الصليب

تصحو على وهم بأن يدا تدس لك الفناء

وبأن حصنك بالرفاق يموج يزحم والخلاصة

بالفجر تنسف رأسك الهمجي رصاصة

وتظل تبصر في المرايا وجه قاتلك الكئيب

الآن مثلي، أنت ذا في الرعب تنتظر الصليب

وتعيد نفسك كلما عتم المغيب صدى اسطوانة

قد خنت آه لعل أبشع ما يكون هو الخيانة

          -- نشرت في  ٢٦-٧-١٩٦٩

من ديوان تذاكر للجحيم

  (بنغازي: دار الجماهيرية، ١٩٩٨)

Translation Theory, Practice, and Transduction

Or: Reflections on Working Between Arabic and Standard Average European Languages

[NB. These comments were delivered at the recent workshop, Towards an Arab Left Reader. Convened and organized by Profs. Mezna Qato and Chana Morgenstern at Newnham College, Cambridge University, one purpose of the workshop was to address issues that came up in the translation of key texts from the Arab Left.]

It’s daunting to speak on the subject of translation to this audience. Everyone of us in this room translates, whether or not we identify primarily as translators. For myself, I have come to prefer the clunky term of translation practitioner, since it suggests that such activity is practice: which means it’s never quite done and it’s never quite perfect. The word practitioner also speaks to knowledge gained through experience and repetition. Which is the most relevant kind of knowledge, I think, that there is on the subject of translation. 

And for this simple reason, I am not sure I have much to add to what you know by discoursing on the subject. Before I am accused of creating a naïve and false distinction between theory and practice, let me acknowledge what we also all know: that there is no such thing as proceeding without theory. All of us in this room have, to different degrees, read and given thought to questions of meaning and interpretation. Which is to say, for us to have gotten as far as we have in this room, our thinking is informed by the philosophy of language, semiotics, literary theory, postcolonial studies and so on. 

My point here in drawing attention to practice is to underscore something I have learned from experience that it is the practice of rendering texts from one language into another that teaches us the most profound lessons about translation in the sense that concerns us at this workshop. 

It is through the painstaking process of finding, or never finding, the right words and expressions that we begin to understand source and target languages. In the act of comparing senses, seeking equivalent phrases, and acknowledging—in frustration or glee—irreconcilable differences, we sometimes make discoveries about language writ large, or meaning, or what it’s like to be language-bound humans. In comparison, the lessons of translation theory seem to me much more humble with regards to what we are talking about here. Indeed, by now the very term “translation” has taken on so much metaphysical baggage that it rarely describes the actual material activities of people laboring between languages.

In US academic conversations the study of translation is dominated by questions of literature. This is a problem—and, as a side note, let me say that you are fortunate here in the UK to have real disciplinary and methodological diversity in the study of translation. My discipline, Comparative Literature, has long been in the thrall of its own translation studies. Even if much of this scholarship studies the role of translation in colonial and postcolonial contexts, much of it operates within older, unacknowledged Eurocentric and Christian notions of salvation and communion. As Mona Baker and I (and others) have written with regard to our present, violent moment, much translation activity is military in nature and it is not about human understanding, nor is it in the service of political solidarity.[1] Translation theory in the literary disciplines has been largely blind to this history, choosing instead to focus on a marginal slice of translation activity—literary translation—and imbuing it with a spirit of spiritual transcendence that is taken directly from the early Church. 

I don’t want to rehash this point any longer, since it’s not relevant to the project at hand, which really is one of political solidarity and human understanding. Just because most translation in our world is wielded as a weapon of empire, does not mean that all translation must be. And even if translation must be a weapon, we too know how to arm ourselves. 

What I want to say here is not a political pronouncement on translation as part of anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist struggles and solidarities, as important as that might be. Instead, I want to clear away some of the discursive debris that gets in the way of us doing what we are here to do: which is to take texts that were composed in different cultural and linguistic contexts, for audiences situated in different historical circumstances, dreaming different dreams, and to render them—across time, space, language and culture—into something else: in our case, legible texts that speak meaningfully to contemporary Anglophone audiences. 

I would like to make some points, but they are all might be distilled into two. First, there are longstanding theoretical debates about translation. If I were a proper scholar, I would have already invoked the work of Apter, Benjamin, and Spivak. And now I have. We have all seen battles where charges of infidelity or untranslatability were hurled as if their ground were clear. I would like to suggest that, as compelling as these theoretical debates can be, they are often unhelpful when engaging in particular translation activities. They may be helpful for conceptualizing such activities generally or for commenting on them, but it may be that they do not help us engage in them. So, what I want to say to anyone of you who finds those debates unhelpful: you may ignore them as you work, as long as you develop your own tools for reflecting on the work you do. Conversely, to those who find them useful, please ignore me and count yourself lucky.

Second, if I had to describe the feeling I most often experience while engaged in translation, it would be one of constraint and feeling stuck. I know that I am not alone: someone once described translation as trying to ride two galloping horses at the same time without being crushed under hoof. While I’ve never experienced such equestrian excitement while working on written texts, I do like the metaphor. To translate sometimes really does feel like being trapped between very imperfect options. Given this, I have found it necessary in my personal practice, to look for any choices I have at my disposal. So, that’s my second big note: to remember that we have choices when we translate. There is never solely one way to do it.

I had this spirit of choice in mind when I replied to the invitation to suggest a short reading for the group.[2] The 60-year-old essay by Jean-Paul Vinay and Jean Darbelnet I selected does something very important for me: it gets us away from thinking of “translation” in the metaphysical sense—the translation of philosophers—and gets us into the small procedures and strategies we necessarily and routinely employ when rendering text between languages. What Vinay and Darbelnet sketch out for us is a spectrum of choices—nothing more. But this is already a lot. They describe a range of direct procedures, from borrowing and calque to literal translation; and a range of oblique procedures, from transposition to modulation to equivalence to adaptation. Together, they provide a technical vocabulary for most of the techniques employed in the translations of this workshop.

But if you read the essay, you will have noticed that what they describe does not map easily onto Arabic-English translation. For instance, in the center of Vinay and Darbelnet’s spectrum sits literal translation. In many ways, this is the standard by which most translations are judged to be faithful or not. Unfortunately, it is a technique that the Arabic-English translator will rarely, if ever, have the pleasure of using. Why? The reason is simple: since losing most of its inflections, English relies on word order to make meaning. Thus, the most common sentence structure of Arabic—the jumla fa‘liyya—must undergo real transformations when it is rendered into English. There is no literal translation of it. Same with the manṣūbāttamyīzmaf‘ūl mutlaqḥālmaf‘ūl fi-hi—or the iḍāfa. Same with the differences between the aspective sense of Arabic verbs and the tense system of English. Rendering the māḍī into the past tense is not always the best choice, nor is the muḍāri‘ fully equivalent to the present tense. 

The point is not that these various differences are untranslatable, as some might say. It is true these language features do not exist in English. Yet, to say “there is no translation for them” is to insist, in a sense, that renditions must be literal. This is like saying that all hands must be left.

More importantly, for those of us working between Arabic and English, it is not an option. Fortunately, there are plenty of techniques other than literal translation for remolding these foreign linguistic shapes with the clay of English. Using Vinay and Darbelnet’s terms, we spend more of our time performing modulation, which pertains to lexical choices, and transposition, which pertains to shifts in grammar and syntax. Sometimes—while translating aphorisms (ḥikim and amthāl) we reach instead for equivalence. Thus, “illī fāt māt” might become “What’s done is done” or “Don’t cry over spilt milk” or something else. We are also heavy borrowers in English, thus terms like “jihadi” and “takfiri” are now effectively English words. 

As I said, in US academia the subject of translation is dominated by questions of literature. To give one example, the endless argument about foreignizing versus domesticating strategies of translation. But there’s really no argument, since there is a broad consensus among translation theorists that to domesticize a source text is to turn it into pabulum. There is the an apparently anti-capitalist version of this stance which states that a domesticized text is a commercial text, a text decontextualized so as to fit the needs of consumer markets made up of lazy, infantilized consumer-readers. And there is an anti-racist or anti-imperialist version: domesticization whitens the source text and is thus accomplice to cultural appropriation. (As an aside: How odd that cultural appropriation is now a crime. It was not that long ago that the Marxist critic Dick Hebdidge developed that term in order to describe the counter-hegemonic practice of bricolage in working-class British subcultures.) 

So, the translation scolds tell us: don’t domesticate, foreignize! Don’t bring the text to the reader; make the reader go to the text. Make the reader work, for in that work they will become alienated—however slightly—from their own linguistic and cultural context. And thus the reader, and the language itself, will grow beyond themselves. Despite my tone, this line of thinking is rich and compelling. It was first articulated 200 years ago by Friedrich Schleiermacher, and then grew—with the German and British romantics—into an aesthetic position that went far beyond the practices of translation. Eventually it became a foundation for the estrangement poetics of literary modernism. 

My point in mentioning estrangement is not to denounce it. But rather to historicize it. And to point out how odd it is that one particular literary technique—that emerged first two centuries ago within particular philosophical-literary movements, and then another a century ago—would continue to dominate so much discourse on translation even in our present. Yet, to assert that literature should be modernist in style is like saying that every moment should be 1968.

By the same token, it makes little sense to think that all translation need be literary, or performed under reining literary-critical stricture. Indeed, as I understand it, the project of the Left Arab Reader is not one of literature. The texts we are working on are not necessarily literary in nature (more are not). Our audiences are not necessarily literary audiences, or audiences expecting literary texts. And our purpose, I think, is not necessarily to “move” audiences in aesthetic ways. 

I have been using words like remolding, reworking, changing and transforming as if nothing were lost in the process. Of course something is lost. We can always translate better. We can practice and improve. If we are doing academic translation, we have the luxury of using paratext—we can introduce and comment, we can supply footnotes. (For an excellent example of this, there is Samah Selim’s recent discussion of her experience translating Arwa Salih’s memoir.)[3]

But what about fidelity? What about faithfulness to the original? Those who want to talk about faith are welcome to, but to do so returns us needlessly to a world of Christian metaphysics. Let us talk about works, not faith. Let us look at grammar and sense. Let us investigate context, resonance, and semantic fields. But let us put aside all talk of faith. While we’re at it, let us stop talking about The Word so we can start talking about words.

To conclude, I want to refer to the linguistic anthropologist, Michael Silverstein, whose work has yet to be taken up by translation theorists. In one essay, “Translation, Transduction, Transformation,” Silverstein observes that translation theory has been based primarily on what Whorf called, ‘Standard Average European Languages,’ whose grammatical structures are relatively proximate (and often fully equivalent) and whose cultural contexts are highly overlapping.[4] If the material on which translation is theorized has come from closely-related—or standard average European—languages, which share common cultural rituals and landmarks, then it may not explain the labor that needs to take place when working with more distal languages, such as Arabic. Moreover, Silverstein points out, because such theory is grounded in Saussurian models of denotative language—signifiers that denote signifieds—it fails to describe non-denotative aspects of language. 

Let me give just one example of non-denotative language: the Peircian category of index, which has no place in the Saussurian universe, and hence in literary theories of translation. But it is a common part of language.

To explain, consider the word “bābā,” which appears across a wide number of Arabic dialects. What does it mean? We might translate it as: father, papa, pops, dad, daddy, paterfamilias, and so on—and these capture some, or much of its meaning. We might discuss the differences between it and the MSA forms of “ab” and “abū.” We could discuss register and tone. We could argue whether the word “daddy” can ever be appropriate now that we have heard it on Ivanka’s lips. 

However, these discussions won’t get at critical aspects of the word in usage. Consider how in some dialects “bābā” is the word a child uses to address their biological father, and also, how that father addresses the child, irrespective of their gender. It does not follow, then, that the meaning of the word “bābā” is also “child.” Rather, this usage is pointing—indexically, outside of language—to the relation these people have with one another. By the same token, the word doesn’t mean “parent-child” relationship: rather, it is the sound that people in this relationship use when signaling this relationship to one another. 

The same is true for many other such words: māmā, ‘ammū, giddū, and so on. Moreover, biological kinship does not begin to contain the uses of these words—all of them can be used, affectionately and ironically, by friends, lovers and so on, again, irrespective of gender. To render these usages involves getting into the structures of human relations in the Arab world—and to puzzle with how to express this lived culture in textual terms. Most importantly, to translate compels us to move beyond purely denotative models of signification.

There are other linguistic, but non-denotative, aspects of language that we tangle with all the time in Arabic. For instance, sub-lexical aspects of language that create sense, but not at the level of denotation, or what Peirce called symbol. We all know how, through jinās, the tri-radical Semitic root system can cast shimmering semantic auras across texts. We don’t have jinās in English, though sometimes we use Latin or Greek roots to approximate the effect. And there are also, for example, sub-root sound patterns in Arabic. The pair q-ṭ, for instance, hints at acts of cleaving and paring, which is then elaborated variously in the tri-radical roots q-ṭ-ṭq-ṭ-rq-ṭ-‘q-ṭ-fq-ṭ-m and so on. Similarly the pair gh-m suggests something murky, which is then expanded across a number of tri-radical roots, such as gh-m-m, gh-m-rgh-m-ḍ and gh-m-q, and so on, all of which retain the gesture toward obscurity, albeit with different shades. A deep awareness of these sound patterns can be found in the canons of poetry and prose. These are not cases of onomatopoeic words, though those exist as well. Authors employ such patterns to generate senses that, again, cannot be explained by Saussurian terms. 

These examples of index and symbol are neither extreme nor rare. These are as commonplace in everyday talk as they are in prestige textual traditions. They are present in routine family interactions, public speech, slogans and poetry, religious discourse and profane. 

The point is, that unlike translators from Spanish to French or from French to English, we cannot translate these features without also translating quite a bit of their social and cultural contexts. The term Silverstein uses for this process is transduction, which he describes as a process of conversion. But this is not conversion in the sense of religious faith. Rather, the metaphor is one of energy and dynamics. In processes of transduction, it is energy, not meaning, that is converted. Through transduction, the energy of wind or falling water becomes electricity. Friction occurs, and there is resistance. There are inefficiencies and contingencies. But for all the slippages, there can be sparks and shocks, and sometimes the lights come on. 

I can think of no better metaphor for what we are doing than that. 


[1]   See, for example: Mona Baker, “Interpreters and Translators in the War Zone: Narrated and Narrators,” The Translator 16: 2 (2010), 197-222, and “Narratives of Terrorism and Security: ‘Accurate’ Translations, Suspicious Frames,” Critical Studies on Terrorism, 3: 3 (2010), 347-364; Elliott Colla, “Dragomen and checkpoints,” The Translator 21:2 (2015), 132–153; and Moira Inghilleri, “You Don’t Make War Without Knowing Why: The Decision to Interpret in Iraq,” The Translator 16:2 (2010), 175-96.

[2]   Vinay and Darbelnet, “A Methodology for Translation,” in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2007), 128-137.

[3]   Samah Selim, “Politics and Paratext: On Translating Arwa Salih’s al-Mubtasarun,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 38 (2018), 180-202.

[4]   Silverstein, “Translation, Transduction, Transformation: Skating ‘Glissando’ on Thin Semiotic Ice,” in Paula G. Rubel and Abraham Rosman, eds., Translating Cultures: Perspectives on Translation and Anthropology (Oxford: Berg, 2003). Thanks to Michael Lucey for introducing me to this essay.

Hamilton Comes To Our Home

Hamilton has colonized my daughter’s fourth grade. To be a subject in the Hamilton Empire, you need to have memorized the musical’s main songs. To be a master, you need to have seen—or be about to see—the play itself. Which means, in Washington, DC, you need to be able to shell out $400/person to enjoy the three-hour experience. It is difficult to grasp how anyone can attach emancipatory politics to such an theatrical commodity whose price puts it beyond the reach of all but the very rich. 

Right now, my daughter is upstairs singing along to the songs that have been playing in a continuous loop since we bought the CD. Without having heard the actual music ever, she knew half the songs by heart. She learned them on the playground where kids sing them everyday, all recess long.

With modified words, it seems. I learned this yesterday when she asked about the seventh word in the first song: whore. We had an interesting conversation about sex work, poverty and misogyny. She then asked about the fourth word: bastard. We talked some more about misogyny and shame. These were conversations I never thought I’d be having.

“What do the teachers say when you sing about whores and bastards?” I finally asked. 

“Oh, no one sings those words,” she replied. “They replace them with others.”

I listened in for a few songs. At one point, I pointed out, “That’s dancehall style they’re singing. Remember listening to Capleton?” 

Like most people, my daughter is allergic to my pedagogical voice. She told me to shut the door so she could listen in peace. 

This morning, as we sat down to French toast, she asked, “What exactly was the American Revolution?”

I asked what she knew about colonists fighting the British Empire, and she told me. 

“That’s what we’re taught, but it’s a simplification of reality.”

“What’s a simplification?”

“It’s when you turn something that is in reality complicated into something simple.”

There I was with that pedagogical voice, “But in any society, there’s lots of struggles going on at any time, right? What were the other struggles going on in the British colonies of north America?” 

They’ve been studying this stuff for a couple years now, and she began to talk. She told me about the struggles of Native American Indian communities against the waves of white settlers. She recalled our infamous ancestor, Captain Isaac Maddeson of the Jamestown Colony, and his genocidal war against the Powhatans. She recalled the time we saw representatives of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi peoples deliver their tribute to the Governor’s House in Richmond, as they do each November, to fulfill the terms of their 1646 Treaty with the Commonwealth of Virginia. She told me about enslaved people (yes, thankfully, this corrective phrasing—and the concept behind it—are taught in her elementary school!) struggling against slaveowners and slaveowner allies. We talked about struggles between rich colonists and poor colonists, landowners and workers. 

She spoke eloquently, yet was frustrated, “But what do they have to do with the American Revolution, Baba?”

“That’s the point. The American Revolution is a simplification, making all these other complicated struggles disappear or appear irrelevant, so that people talk instead about one group of white male settlers who took up arms against their home country. But that’s what war does.”

“What does war do?”

“It gets people to forget all the struggles they know of. Instead, they talk about only one—and it might not be the most important one.” There was an awkward pause. I added, “You’ll see this soon enough.” 

“See all what?”

“See what happens when Trump starts a war. All the people you know who today think Trump is bad. Or the Republicans are corrupt and the NRA is nasty. You watch, as soon as Trump starts the next war. Most of them will say: this is no time for disagreements; now’s the time for unity; we’ve got to stand with the President, even if we didn’t vote for him, even if we oppose him. I’ve seen it happen a few times in my adult life now.”

“How many wars are there?”

“I’ve lost count.”

By now, my daughter was clearing her plates from the breakfast table. “Can I go back to my room, Baba?”


As I started washing the dishes, I could hear the strains of Hamilton coming from her room again.


Campus Free Speech, or: the Pundits' Dumping Ground

Sometimes history repeats itself, first as news, then as opinion. Last year, liberal and rightwing media reported chilling incidents of how free speech was under attack on university campuses. UC Berkeley students ‘rioted’ in February to prevent Milo Yiannopoulous from speaking. In March, Middlebury College students expressed their opposition to Charles Murray’s invitation in the most ‘uncivil’ terms. In September UC Berkeley administrators spent $600,000 to protect the free speech rights of Ben Shapiro. In that same month, my university invited Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to give a talk in which he employed all authority of his office to denounce campus illiberalism. (See my discussion of that here).

Months passed. After Charlottesville, the news spotlight turned from campuses. Occasionally a campus-related incident occurred, but its significance was usually inconclusive. Case in point: Christina Hoff Sommers spoke on 5 March at Lewis and Clark Law School. Students shouted at her. She delivered her talk.  

While no longer a mainstay of news reporting, such events have now become editorial rocket fuel. Last year, New York Times editorial and opinion page gnawed this bone many times over. In recent weeks, they’ve picked it up again as if it were fresh.

So here they are again, condemning the supposed illiberalism of campuses again. For all their practice, they’re no wiser than they were a year ago. They seem to relish nothing more than the hypocrisy they believe to have discovered. J’accuse, they cry: If liberal arts colleges are so liberal, why are they so illiberal when it comes to views they oppose?

The same gotcha. The only thing that has changed is that a strange alliance has now congealed into a giant scab of centrists, liberals, and putatively 'thoughtful' conservatives, claiming that campus free speech rightly belongs to them. 

These events are taking place at universities and so it is understandable that many observers would dissect the merits and constraints of free speech as an issue of higher education. But still, the focus on the campus comes at the expense of many things, including an honest appraisal of public speech, rights and power in this country. By limiting the discussion of free speech to the university, our pundits are willfully drawing attention away from the broader field on which these debates and struggles are being played out. Imagining that free speech is a ‘campus problem’ is like watching only the football plays that happen between the 10-yard line and the end zone. Those might be some of the most exciting moments of a particular game, but they won’t tell you much about the sport.

Many Institutions of Public Speech

Universities sponsor a lot of public talks. But compared to the actual spectrum of public talks held at public and private institutions? Campuses are at most a sideshow.

Where I live (Washington, D.C.), there are dozens of foundations, funds, institutes, thinktanks and organizations that host public lectures every day and every week. There are public lecture series at the World Bank, the International Monetary FundThe Brookings InstitutionThe Wilson CenterThe Washington Institute for Near East PolicyThe American Enterprise InstituteThe Cato Institute to name just a few. 

Similarly, various kinds of corporations—such as RandGoldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley—commonly host speakers and organize lectures. Similarly, military and intelligence agencies—like the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the NSA—host public speaking events all the time. Government agencies—such as NASA and the Department of the Interior—do as well. (Seriously—look at any of these links to see how much public speaking is going on in these venues. All of it exempted from the norms governing campus speech.)

Then there are the weekly and bi-weekly sermons and talks at churches, temples and mosques. Public readings and forums at museums, bookstores, cafes and libraries. In this alone, there are hundreds of full-time booking agents and planners, hundreds of venues, and large audiences that attend public talks on any given day.

The kind of public speaking takes place at centers of financial and political power may not then be free speech in the way it is defined at universities. But then again, it usually far more consequential. Its authority—in the form of word power directly informing policy and shaping deed—is often more palpable than the kinds of campus form of free speech. More importantly, it is so powerful that its status as public speech is wholly exempted from debates about free public speech. Quite a trick. Well played. The football metaphor again: if controlling the midfield is core to the game, doing it invisibly is pure genius. 

Why the University?

Given this reality, why is the campus the focus of so much concern? The answer seems to derive, in part, from a deeply-held though unexamined conviction. People expect universities to act not just differently, but contrarily to almost all other institutions in American society. People expect universities to serve as disinterested hosts for a liberal—that is, an extremely broad and diverse—range of speakers, positions and topics. We expect that because we believe that the education process must involve experiences of hearing opinions that are different from one’s one, that these experiences stretch our thinking.

In contrast, most other institutions that sponsor public speech are maintained precisely in order to promote specific partisan, policy, commercial and ideological goals. This is true even of those institutions dedicated to promoting the public good. It would be ridiculous to expect such institutions to diversify the pool of speakers they sponsor, let alone act as disinterested hosts.

But to ask a naïve question: why is this so? The current public arguments around free speech suggest that we define free speech as speech that is not always already in the service of a predesignated end or programmatic agenda. We thus expect to find free speech only where the value of disinterest reigns. Hence the focus on the university.

The University as Dumping Ground

This point underscores an odd choice implicit in the free-speech position currently being advocated by centrists and liberals—for whom legal and moral rights and freedoms exist without reference to the power structures—financial, institutional, governmental—undergirding them.

What is odd about that choice is that, as a society, we maintain hundreds of public and private institutions that routinely sponsor public speech. At the same time, many accept the notion that only one of these—the university—should be charged with upholding disinterestedness.

Here, then, is the oddity: while accepting as normal that interest-driven institutions would host only speakers that further their interests, many also expect, as normal, the university to host varying, diverse, and often conflicting perspectives, no matter the cost.

Have we delegated this special task to the university because we believe it is so sacred, or because we believe it is so worthless? I admit I am tempted to jump to conclusions, given the ever-shrinking sources of financial support for higher education in this country and given the decades-long attack on the intellectual autonomy of the university by many of the other institutions listed above.

In other words, many seem to have decided that interest-driven institutions should be free to sponsor their own kinds of speech (and not required to include a diversity of viewpoints and arguments). And, in contrast, they have decided that the university should be required to serve as a free space for diverse viewpoints, regardless of the nature of their intellectual content or social value. The point is that in doing so, we are asking of the university something we would never ask of other institutions, even those that claim to serve the public good: to serve, like the internet, as a general dumping ground for public discourse.

Two Very Different Kinds of Free Speech

Historically, the notion of free speech on campus is rooted in an attachment to disinterest as a positive value. The university doesn’t just promote disinterested speech in teaching and research, it also—especially in the form of speakers invited from outside—promotes interested speech that takes place in a neutral forum. Such speech is valued, not necessarily with regard to its content, but rather as an ends in itself. Its value isn’t in the orientation or argument of a particular speech, but rather in the possibility that such talk occurs at all.

So what makes that free speech? Nothing but the fact that these constraints are self-imposed and the fact a university community would make this choice for the principle behind it, regardless of loss or gain. It is a very Kantian sense of freedom, one that is foreign to most Americans.

But isn’t the kind of speech that takes place at interest-driven venues also a kind of free speech? When thinktanks, corporations and government agencies promote speech, foster public forums and protect voices, they do so also on the grounds of exercising a right to free speech. However, in this case, it is not the principle of free speech in the abstract that motivates, but rather the preference for a particular kind of speech. A line of thinking that might augment profits. An analysis that supports or critiques an already existing or proposed policy. In such institutions, diversity is a positive value only when it helps to support stated goals.

For Americans, it is easier to see how this second kind of speech is free. It is the freedom to speak as one likes, and to encourage speech that one likes. The only constraints to this sense of free speech are those of will and resources.

So, if “campus free speech” is based in a notion of freedom constrained by obligation and responsibility to a collective good that transcends interest; this other kind of free speech—interested free speech—is based in a notion of freedom as unconstrained, as bound up with the pursuit of power or advantage.

We thus have two very different kinds of free speech existing in our world of public forums. On the one hand, 'normal' free speech, which is a kind of interested speech designed to further the goals of its sponsoring institution. And on the other, 'campus' free speech, which happens without respect, and perhaps contrary to, the interests of its host institution. On the one hand, free speech as metaphor for the libertarian individual—unfettered by obligation. On the other, free speech as metaphor for the social collective—bound by obligation, even when it runs counter to immediate interests.

The failing of liberal commentators lies not in their inability to recognize these different kinds of freedom. But in the asymmetry of their demands and expectations. They ask nothing—indeed, expect nothing—from the institutions of interested free speech. Meanwhile, they ask everything—indeed, expect it as natural—from the institutions of disinterested free speech.

Silence, Freedom and Power

Disinterested free speech is an extraordinary phenomenon in any era. It is not naturally occurring, especially when the pursuit of gain is held up as the highest virtue. In an era where unregulated competition favors the strong and powerful, disinterest is not just abnormal, it is also always fragile, always in peril. Without protection, it cannot be expected to survive the onslaught of rival interests.

Yet, what contemporary critics of campus illiberalism advocate is just the opposite. They seek to remove all walls that separate the campus from the "free market of ideas." But, what exactly is that "free market"? It is simply the world of interest-driven private and public institutions where they tend to work. Are those institutions run as free markets? Hardly. If anything, they resemble intellectual monopolies. 

The arbitrariness of the assault suggests that is not motivated by a concern about free, unfettered speech, but by an abhorrence toward the notion that an institution would pursue disinterest (no matter how imperfectly) rather than interested forms of knowledge. Indeed, contemporary liberal hot-takes on free speech display not just a misunderstanding of disinterest, but a disbelief that such a thing might be worth pursuing in the first place. So then, if you don't understand the principle of disinterest, why speak about campus free speech?

Because they are not in actuality concerned with the topic at all. If they sincerely desired free speech on campuses, they would speak up for it always, and not only when it aligned with their own positions. The would speak up on behalf of all campus speakers who have been attacked for the content of their speech, and not just those promoting eugenics and White supremacy. 

They would have denounced the vicious and false attacks of Campus Watch, Jihad Watch, and the David Project over the last 18 years. They would use their columns to condemn Canary Mission's slanderous black-lists that target hundreds of undergraduates—most of them people of color. They would stand up against current pro-Israel lobby efforts to write anti-BDS legislation into educational policy.

They would have defended Prof. Steven Salaita, a Native American Studies academic whose professional career was ended by a network of right-wing ideologues. They would have spoken out on behalf of Prof. George Ciccariello-Maher, the dynamic and well-regarded scholar of Latin American politics who was driven to resign from Drexel University by outside pressure and a lack of support from campus administration. They would stand now with the noted Stanford scholar, Prof. David Palumbo-Liu, as he is subjected to a McCarthyite campaign for speaking out about the danger of fascism on campus. They would shout foul every time Prof. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of Princeton University receives a death threat. These are real cases of attacks on the free speech, reputation, and safety of campus communities. They have caused measurable—not merely potential or symbolic—injury to actual people. 

And in every case I've just listed, those liberal and conservative pundits who speak loudest about campus free speech have been consistently silent. The glaring exception to this rule is Bari Weiss, who far from being silent, once worked with lobby organizations to assault free speech at Columbia University. She has since falsely tried to claim otherwise. That conservative and liberal colleagues—such as Bret Stephens and Shadi Hamid—enthusiastically rallied around her only underscores the bankruptcy of their entire argument.

No, this debate is not about free speech. It never was. As Noah Berlatsky has argued, it’s about a group of pundits working together to promote themselves as a class. They may differ from one another on many points. Indeed, the issue of campus free speech is sometimes the only thing that binds them together.

For the time being, the university campus will remain a useful strawman for them. Punching hippy profs and snowflake students is a whole lot easier than taking on the actual behemoths of institutional public speech in our society—the thinktanks, funds, corporations and agencies. These are the biggest and loudest platforms of speech in our society, and they are anything but free. 

Don't expect our nation's pundits to criticize those kinds of institutions for their flagrant lack of diverse viewpoints: that would involve examination of their own workplace.  

Onomatopoeic Words That Imitate the Sounds of People in their Speech and Various States of Being

Al-Qahqaha echoes the qah-qah cackle of the laugher. Al-Ṣahṣaha mimics the loud, scolding ṣah-ṣah of a man hushing a crowd.

Al-Da‘da‘a sounds like what is said to someone who stumbles and falls — da‘-da‘, i.e, “Get back on your feet!”

Al-Bakhbakha imitates the bakh-bakh exclamation of a man excited by something he finds to be excellent. Al-Ta’khīkh mimics the akh-akh sound a man makes when he is moved by something he considers fine.

Al-Zahzaha copies the zah-zah interjection of the contented man. Al-Naḥnaḥa (and al-tanaḥnuḥ) imitates the slight coughing sound — naḥ-naḥ — of a man asking to be excused and the like. Al-‘Aṭ‘aṭa resembles the ‘īṭ-‘īṭ yowling of the shameless buffoon when he’s drunk or spouting nonsense.

Al-Tamaṭṭuq resembles the sound that a man, savoring his food, makes with his tongue against his soft palate. Al-Ṭa‘ṭa‘a imitates the smacking sounds made by the finger-licker when pressing his tongue to his hard palate and enjoying something tasty he has eaten.

Al-Waḥwaḥa resembles a voice with hoarseness in it.

Al-Hazhaza and al-barbara mimic the shrieking of a legion of camels in battle.

Al-Kahkaha mimics the sound that a cold person makes while blowing on their frostbitten hands.

Al-Jahjaha imitates of the cry of lions or camels. Al-Harhara resembles the bleating of flocks. Al-Basbasa mimics the cry of cats.

Al-Walwala parrots the words of a woman saying, “Wa-waylāh!" (O Woe to him!)

Al-Nabnaba mimics the yelping of the delirious man during intercourse.

—Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), 240.

Concerning Onomatopoeic Words That Mimic the Sounds of the Distressed, Exhausted and Sick

Al-Aḥīḥ and al-uḥāḥ are the shriek brought out by pain or affliction. Al-Naḥīṭ is the heavy huffing noise that gives rest to the fuller as he beats clothing on rocks. Al-Hamhama is a sound that emanates from the moan of worry or sadness that quivers in the breast. Al-Zaḥīr is the groan  emitted during labor or hardship. Al-Tazaḥḥur and al-ṭaḥīr mean the same thing. Al-Nahīm is similar to al-naḥīm, which resembles the wail that gives comfort to the exhausted laborer who makes it, as in the line from the poem: What’s wrong? Why don’t you sigh, O Evening? / Don’t you know that the sigh is comfort to the cupbearer?

— Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), 241.



al-Tha‘alabi: Types of Loud Noises

Types of Loud Noises

Any forceful voice is al-ṣiyāḥ (to shout, cry). Al-Ṣurākh (and al-ṣarkha) is the sharp cry that comes from fright or calamity. Close to it in meaning is al-za‘qa (shriek) and al-ṣalqa (grating cry, especially during battle). Al-Ṣakhb is the noise made during argument and quarrel.

Al-‘Ajj is the raising of the voice when one says the ritual phrase, “Here I am to serve you!” or when one invokes the name of God during slaughter. Al-Tahlīl is to raise one’s voice in saying, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God.” Al-Istihlāl is the first cry of the newborn child.

Al-Zajal is to raise the voice when one is moved by music. Al-Naq‘ is the loud scream. Al-Hay‘a is the cry of fright, as in the Prophetic tradition: “The best of men is the one who holds fast the reins of his steed and the one who, when he hears the shriek of fear, flies toward it.” Al-Wā‘īya is the crying lament over the dead. Al-Na‘īr is the shouting of the victor over the vanquished.

Al-Na‘īq is the sound of the shepherd calling his flock. Al-Hadīd (and al-hadda) is the fierce noise you hear when part of a building or mountain collapses. Al-Fadīd is the farmer's throaty call to oxen or donkeys while working in the field. As mentioned in the Prophetic tradition, “Brusqueness and harshness are traits of the loud-voiced men in the field.”

Al-Ṣadīd (to laugh out loud, to raise a clamor) is another loud noise, as is al-ḍajīj (to raise a tumult), and appears in the Qur’an: When Mary’s son was given as an example, your people howled with laughter (Surat al-Zukhruf: 57), which is to say: they raised a clamor, a tumult, a ruckus. Al-Jarāhīya is the sound of people when their words are spoken publicly and openly rather than in secret and, according to Abu Zayd, is similar to al-hayḍala (the hue and cry of battle).

Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), 238-9

Al-Tha‘alabi: Concerning the Sounds of Movements

Concerning the Sounds of Movements

Al-Hams is the sound of a person stirring and is mentioned in the Qur’an: All voices shall fade for the Most Merciful, and you shall hear nothing but a faint stirring (Surat Taha: 108). Similar to this is al-jars (the muted pecking of birds, the buzz of sipping bees, or the hum of a distant crowd) and al-khashfa (the rustle of creeping serpents or slinking hyenas). As the Prophet said to Bilal: Whenever I see myself entering Paradise, I hear a faint rustle, and there you are.

Very close to this in meaning are al-hamsha (susurration, said of locusts devouring provisions) and al-waqsha (a faint fluttering, like the stirring of a child in the belly). As for al-nāmma, this refers to how a person might be betrayed by their footsteps. Al-Hashasa (to rustle, susurrate) applies in general to anything with a barely perceptible sound, such as the soft treading of camels as they walk. Al-Hamīs is the sound made by the pads of camels. As in the line of poetry: They walk among us with the softest of treads.

— al-Tha‘alabi, Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), 237-8.

al-Tha‘alabi: Types of Barely Perceptible Sounds

Happy "Friday Word List" from al-Tha‘alabi's Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya (Fundamentals of Language and the Secrets of Arabic). 

Types of Barely Perceptible Sounds

Among the almost imperceptible sounds are al-rizz (a sharp rumbling of the belly), then al-rikz (a slight, far-off cry, such as the voice of hunter calling his dogs), which is mentioned in the Qur’an: And how many generations before them have We destroyed! Can you (Muhammad) see any one of them? Can you hear from them the slightest of sounds? (Surat Maryam: 98).

Then there is al-hatmala (to murmur to oneself) which is softer than the tones made when whispering into someone's ear. Then there is al-haynama (to mumble-read), which is like reading aloud, only unclearly so. As the poet Al-Kumayt ibn Zayd al-Asadi put it: Whenever I’ve witnessed foolish speech, it was spoken by men who murmured and mumbled.

Then there is al-dandana, which is when a person speaks and you can discern its prosody but understand nothing of the words because that person is hiding them from you. This appears in the hadīth: As for your mumblings and those of Mu‘ādh, we understand them not.

Then, al-naghm, which is the ringing of speech and the beauty of its sound. Then there is al-nab’a, which is a soft sound. Finally, there is al-na’ma (to sigh or moan), which is a very slight sound.

Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), p. 237.

al-Tha‘alabi: Types of Intoxication

The prolific anthologist ‘Abd al-Mansūr ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Muammad al-Tha‘alabi (961-1038) was the author of the encyclopedic lexicon, Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya (Fundamentals of Language and the Secrets of Arabic). In this original work, al-Tha‘alabi organizes vocabulary according to remarkably subtle distinctions. To honor the drinking you may do in the coming days, let's us turn to his lexicon of drunkenness:

Types of Intoxication

When a person drinks, he becomes nashwān (giddy, elated). If drink overcomes the person, then he becomes thamil (buzzed). If it reaches the point where punishment is merited, then he is sakrān (inebriated). If he goes on drinking his fill, then he is sakran ṭāfiḥ (completely drunk). If he is unable to control himself or keep himself together, he is multakhkh (shit-faced). If he is unaware of his surroundings and unable to move his tongue, he is sakrān bāt, which is to say, an inarticulate drunk.

— Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), p. 298.