Postcards from Abu Dis (6): Lost and Found in Translation

My political philosophy class is now deep into Book I of Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle is tough going in any language, but he’s a linguistic obstacle course if you’re going from Attic Greek to English to Arabic and back again. Every technical word in the Aristotelian lexicon requires a special explanation that threatens to run aground on the reefs of some linguistic-conceptual-cultural misunderstanding.

Just consider the first passage of the text:

Since we see that every city (polis) is some some sort of partnership (koinonia), and that every partnership is constituted for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what is held to be good), it is clear that all partnerships aim at some good, and that the partnership that is most authoritative (kurios) of all and embraces all the others does so particularly, and aims at the most authoritative good of all. This is what is called the city or the political partnership. (1252a1-5, tr. Carnes Lord)

Since every what is some sort of what, and is what for the sake of some good, what is it that’s supposed to be clear?

Mission Nearly Impossible: Try explaining this, one clause at a time, in English via Arabic translation to 30 hungry, dehydrated, and nicotine/caffeine-deprived students fasting for Ramadan. Then listen to the Arabic translation via your weak, misremembered college Arabic of thirty years ago in search of any red flags in the translation, and hope you can catch them without losing your place or pushing your translators over the edge.

So: Is our students learning? Na’am, inshallah (“yes, if God wills it”)

I have two translators in the room, Sinan and Hadi, each of whom helps the other when one of them has trouble. They’ve have used the Arabic medina for “polis/city,” jamia for “koinonia/partnership,” and the adjectival form of “hukm” for “kurios/authoritative.” To add to the complexity, I prefer “association” to Carnes Lord’s use of “partnership.”

Sahih? (“Got that?”)

We spent most of the class explicating the Aristotelian idea of the polis/city, which had to be distinguished from “nation” (dawla), “country” (balad), “state” (also dawla), and “empire” (imbira’turia, obviously just an Arabization of “empire”). To avoid confusion, I decided to avoid “city-state” (medinat ad-daula) for polis, and decided to stick with “city,” adding a special explanation to the effect that an Aristotelian “city” isn’t a city in the modern sense–or even a city in the Palestinian sense. Medinat ad-daula is an intelligible phrase in Arabic, but I’m inclined to think that it would sound to students’ ears like an unintelligible paradox, prompting the predictable question:

Professor, how can a city be a state?

Well, it can’t, but “city-state” is not meant to suggest that a polis is a species of state; “city-state” is a term of art, and we already have too many of those floating around.

There is no easy way (that I know of) for distinguishing nations from states in Arabic (the same word translates both words), so it’s easy on purely linguistic grounds for Arabic speakers to think that every nation either is or requires a state, and vice versa.

Interestingly, I have a hunch that the average educated American–who has a working knowledge of American history but lacks a working knowledge of non-American nationalisms–might also have trouble seeing the distinction between “nation” and “state.” But I think that the latter difficulty arises from totally different sources than the Arabic-speakers’ difficulty. Both Arabs and Americans identify “nation” with “state,” but each has different conceptions of both concepts. In other words, they agree in identifying them, but disagree about what they’re identifying.

For Arabs, I think a “nation” is an ethnicity, and every ethnicity requires (or has the right to) a state. For Americans, by contrast, “nation” is to be identified with “state,” simply because the two words are synonyms; neither “nation” nor “state” is to be identified with any given ethnicity. Despite Woodrow Wilson’s inclusion of self-determination in the Fourteen Points, Americans have trouble grasping, much less sympathizing with, the idea of ethno-national self-determination. It sounds unAmerican. (Strictly speaking, the phrase “self-determination” doesn’t appear in the Fourteen Points, but a commitment to national self-determination is implicit in the second paragraph of the document.)

After giving what I think is the standard account of the nature of the polis in Aristotle, we talked about its possible exemplifications or approximations in the modern world.

To focus the conversation, I described the U.S. today as a counter-exemplification of the Aristotelian polis: in other words, I suggested that the U.S. provides a good (democratic) contrast to what Aristotle took the polis to be. In the U.S., we prize the freedom to do as we please with lives that we regard as essentially our own; we resent the idea that the nation has, or can dictate a single purpose to us, and have a very thin conception of “the common good” in the form of “the public interest,” which is sometimes (but pretty rarely) invoked to justify this or that policy, and plays little role in everyday political thought, discourse, or practice. Is that a controversial thing to say? Maybe, but it seems fairly obvious to me.

There didn’t turn out to be any literal exemplifications of the polis in the modern world. Among the closer approximations I came up with–and I know this is controversial–were Israel and Pakistan. Granted, both Israel and Pakistan are states, and as I’ve already said, the polis is not a state at all but a city. Further, being states, both Israel and Pakistan are much bigger than the political unit that Aristotle had in mind in his account of the polis. Given all of that, both Israel and Pakistan are obliged to rely on the use of force in a way that I don’t think is characteristic of an Aristotelian polis; put another way, each achieves an approximation (or illusion?) of being an Aristotelian koinonia by using the instrument of law to enforce a common conception of virtue in the service of a common good. Those are, I realize, large differences that distinguish both Israel and Pakistan from the Aristotelian polis.

But I still think that there’s something to the comparison. My point was that Israel and Pakistan each self-consciously conceives of itself as a political koinonia–a political association–with a common end, and a substantive conception of the common good. Citizenship in both countries is defined by allegiance to this robust conception (or supposedly robust conception) of the common good–the conception being supplied in the Israeli case by the idea of a Jewish State, and in the Pakistani case by the idea of an Islamic one. Each regime has a conception of virtue and the common good that it tries to inculcate through a public system of education, with the aim of getting citizens to identify their good with the state by identifying with its conception of virtue. And each is unapologetic about relying on the state to do so.

I have a feeling that my students were a little perturbed at hearing Aristotle compared with Israeli Zionism in one breath, and Israeli Zionism compared with Pakistani nationalism in the next. When I taught in Pakistan in 2012, students there were equally perturbed when I compared Pakistan with Israel. I guess all that’s left is to teach the same material in Israel, and I’ll have covered all of the relevant national bases.

Anyway, that’s when I decided to drop the real bomb. Neither Israel nor Pakistan is a good approximation of a polis, I suggested; they’re both too big and diverse to fit the bill. And both face the problem of how to deal with minority populations–a problem with no analogue in the case of an Aristotelian polis.

If you really want a good approximation of this polis, I suggested, you need to think smaller, and think of something closer by. I asked them if they could figure out what I meant. “Palestine?” someone asked. “No,” I said. “Just think of an Orthodox Israeli settlement.”

For a second, the class looked at me in blank incomprehension. But then, I think, they got it. I won’t elaborate, but I actually think that that comparison really does work: at some level, Israeli settlements really are like Aristotelian poleis. The biggest problem with the comparison is that the West Bank settlements are tied to Israel, which is a nation-state, and Israel is itself supported by the United States, which is a nation-state verging on an empire. But if you abstract the normative ideal of a Jewish settlement from its practical or logistical ties to Israel and the U.S., I’d say that settlements–which have a municipal governing structure–are a contemporary approximation of the Aristotelian polis. 

Incidentally, when I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, Alasdair MacIntyre used to use the example of the New England Town System as a “modern” approximation to the polis, but I no longer remember whether he was making a historical point about the structure of that system in colonial times, or making reference to the version of the system that exists today.

An unexpected linguistic stumbling block: At one point, I made passing reference to the “conceptual connection” between one thing and another, and both translators were momentarily stumped. It belatedly occurred to me that “conceptual connection” is a metaphor–possibly a dead metaphor, but still, idiomatically speaking a metaphor for purposes of translation. If you put the English word “connection” into Google’s translation device, you get 17 possibilities in Arabic, ranging over personal connections, computer-related connections, connections involving transportation hubs, and so on. If you put in “conceptual connection,” you get ittisal al maffahimi.

It sounds pretty impressive, but is it the right translation? Allah hu’ alim. God only knows. Let’s hope God’s Arabic is better than mine.

Postscript: An interesting paper I happened to encounter on this topic, Marco Allegra, “Citizenship in Palestine: A Fractured Geography,” Citizenship Studies 13:6 (2009).

On a more polemical note, consider Amos Oz’s claims, as described in a piece by Zachary Lockman:

Oz, in his wartime article for the New York Times, goes on at length about the romantic, idealistic and humanitarian character of the early Zionist settlers. They were pragmatic, politically aware, supremely self-analytical and egalitarian all at once, these men and women who by day drained the swamps of Palestine (to cite a popular Zionist image) and by night argued about social, political and ethical issues. The pre-state Jewish yishuv was not entirely idyllic, to be sure; there were some conflicts between the Labor Zionist leadership and the right-wing dissidents led by Begin. Despite this, Oz asserts, in many respects Israel was by 1948 “on its way to becoming a twentieth-century version of an Aristotelian Greek polis, characterized by the highest degree of individual involvement in public affairs.”

The Oz piece is Amos Oz, “Has Israel Altered Its Visions,” New York Times Magazine, July 11, 1982. For some reason, I haven’t been able to locate it in the Times’s archive.

2 thoughts on “Postcards from Abu Dis (6): Lost and Found in Translation

  1. I have a bunch of thoughts on this topic, but I’ll wait until the book comes out (since they all depend on stuff I say there, and there’s lots of it). But quickly, most scholars do think that the polis was a state; there is debate about that, but it is the majority position. But virtually everyone agrees these days that ‘polis’ doesn’t mean ‘state’; there are states that wouldn’t be poleis even if there can be no poleis that are not states. I can send you bibliography at some point if you’re interested.


    • I don’t know the literature at all, but in one sense, it’s clear from the outset that the polis is a state (and that “city-state” is the best translation, and in retrospect, does denote a species of state): if possessing a legally legitimized monopoly on force is necessary and sufficient for statehood, then a polis is a state. But the polis is so atypical as states go that describing it as one is bound to be confusing to the uninitiated. Most people’s paradigmatic example of a state is a modern nation-state, and poleis are radically different from those. I was actually more careful in class than I was in the post: I denied that the polis was a “modern nation-state,” rather than denying that it was a state outright.

      Is the book coming out soon? If so, I’ll wait for it.


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