Wednesday, September 12, 2007

This is why Arabic is so beautiful

Although even if you don't speak or read Arabic, every so often you can get a glimpse of what makes this language so mysteriously beautiful. Take a look at the cancellation of the scheduled visit of Syrian FM to Saudi Arabia: it was canceled, not postponed.

"What's the deal here?", you might think. But, according to a diplomat familiar with the Saudi way of thinking, there is no small difference between canceling a meeting and postponing it. While the latter formulation keeps the option of a later meeting wide open, the former choice of words slams the door shut.

You just got to love those subtleties, well, at least I do. Thanks to Naharnet for reporting it like this. Yet, it makes you wonder how many more nuances get lost in translation and/or lack of cultural understanding.

The other day, e.g., I blogged about the statement of Sinioria who said that he was willing to listen. Instead, I observed, it would be better if he was willing to talk. Turned out that, actually, as per Arabic culture, what Sinioria said was quite something. In a region where everybody always talks and regularly shouts, offering to listen is unusual. It puts you in a weak, subservient position which most Lebanese rather avoid: it’s better to keep on talking and believing that what you say matters, than to shut up for a while and show interest in what others have to say.

How many more of such misinterpretations are made by foreigners like me? Plenty for sure and that’s understandable. Still, it is examples like this that make you realize the depth of the Arabic language and culture. Most likely, I will never be able to fully grasp it. Then again, I have the rest of my life to try!


Mustapha said...

I can't see your point on why Arabic is particularly special in communicating diplomatic nuance.

In all languages, diplomats chose their words very carefully and tailor them to specific contexts and relationships. "not encouraging" and "unacceptable" convey different meanings, while "useful" and "interesting" are subtle ways of saying "nothing happened"..

Riemer Brouwer said...

I suppose you're right in that all diplomatic language should be carefully applied.

Yet, it seems to me that English, e.g., is much more direct than the flowery Arabic and thus leaves less room for nuances or confusion for that matter. Often it seems that even well educated Lebanese struggle to get the correct meaning of an Arabic word. But that's just an impression.