Tag Archives: India

Massively Corrupt Translation

Obverse Arabic; reverse sporting Sanskrit.

When two powerful but rather mutually exclusive cultures come into contact (and here I’m not talking about West/East in the present day), strange things happen between their languages.  In one of my courses this semester I am studying the power dynamics of such linguistic interplay.  But this particular example comes from an Islamic history lesson on the Mughal rulers of northern India given by Professor Michael Cook.  In those particular days amazing levels of not only corruption but also of creation, of mistranslated openness, accidental syncretism, can be found between the Muslim rulers and their Hindu population.  I deal here with a few words written in the Śārada script (a version of Sanskrit) on a coin struck in Lahore during the reign Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (r. 998 – 1030 CE).

The words are: 

avyaktam-eka muhammada avatāra npati mahamūda


This phrase, roughly decoded, is meant to replicate the Islamic shadada, or Profession of Faith, which occupies the central space on the front of the coin:

لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله (lā ʾilāha ʾilá l-Lāh, Muḥammad rasūlu l-Lāh)

In English:  There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Prophet.


However, things go very badly for the translation, at least if read from a Muslim theological viewpoint (rather than from the perspective of the Sultanate’s colonized Hindi subjects).

First, for fans of James Cameron, the word avatāra surely jumps out from the Sanskrit.  What has this to do with Muhammad?  Are Mahmud’s medieval translators depicting the Prophet of Islam as a giant blue-spackled centaur from a planet far, far away?  No.  This is the word chosen in the inscription to represent the Arabic rasūlu:  Messenger, or Prophet.  Except, in the Sanskrit, the term carries with it connotations less relevant to an earthly messenger and much more indicative of an incarnation, a reincarnation.  Definitely not an Islamic concept.

Next, the opening phrase avyaktam-eka stands in for the Arabic lā ʾilāha ʾilá l-Lāh — ‘There is no god but God.’  Again, the translation takes great liberties.  What we have is something much closer to “Invisible and One” or “Unmanifested and One.”  Furthermore, the Sanskrit employs a neutered case ending rather than a masculine ending, definitely changing the anthropomorphic, masculine Islamic deity into an ungendered metaphysical concept patterned strongly on the Vedas or Upanishads.

It is also worth noting that Sanskrit possessed a perfectly well-established and well-understood word for God:  deva Surprising, very surprising, not to see that word used in this inscription.  My professor hypothesized that the decision not to use deva in the inscription might be linked to Sultan Mahmud’s other courtly language, Persian.  There, the word deva sounds suspiciously like the Farsi div, which means demon.  Should Sultan Mahmud have chosen a translation that included the word deva as a stand in for God instead of avyaktam, his Persian courtiers would have been very offended indeed to hear a Śārada-Sanskrit version of the Profession of Faith that sounded, to them, like ‘There is no demon but demon . . .’

Finally, the word npati means something roughly equivalent to king, lord of men, prince, or sovereign, none of which are titles the Prophet Muhammad claimed, though subsequent Caliphs called themselves Leaders of the Faithful, Amir al-Mumineen.  At the expense of an authentic translation of the shahada, it seems Sultan Mahmud opted to use the very small, very precious space of this coin to remind his subjects of his place in their earthly dominion.

In the end, the coins issued by the Islamic Sultan Mahmud of Lahore, to the great edification of his Hindi subjects, portrayed the Profession of Faith in terms not so different from the way they already thought about the world, blending the language of Islam into a new and entirely different, entirely strange conception of the central tenet of the new religion:

The Unmanifested and One incarnate King Muhammad.


It’s not quite Hinduism.  It’s certainly not Islam.  And, doubtlessly, such a translation qualifies for mention on NQR.




*Credit for the Śārada translations to E.A. Davidovich and A.H. Dani, “Coinage and the Monetary System” in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. 4., UNESCO Publishing, 1988, page 414.




Cold War

Flags on the jerseys of four Solar Bears: England, US, Sweden, India/Canada

This little facet of our lives in the Middle East isn’t, from the outside, a matter of politics or religion or deep cultural division.  It’s sport.  But ice hockey in a country where temperatures in the winter rarely dip below 80F (and in the summer soar above 130F) automatically exhibits some of the best qualities of a Not Quite Right experience.

I help coach the youth team in Muscat, Oman — a team with the excellent name “Solar Bears.”  Being involved with this team has several interesting features to it, things that reflect the expat experience in general:

1.  The children (and their parents) hail from a wide variety of countries and cultures: various places in America, Canada, Finland, Sweden, India, and even England.  Many of them have played ice hockey in their home countries, or their parents have played, and they bring a greater level of skating and hockey ability to the ice than I anticipated.  They are also the best behaved group of hockey children I’ve ever met, having personally witnessed about 20 of them eating a quiet brunch, using their silverware appropriately–knifes and forks in the British way.  It almost felt wrong, the lack of noise, the lack of wild energy at a hockey get-away weekend!

2.  The rink:  in Muscat we play on a tiny, 1/4-sized rink that was made in the early 80’s.  It has a boarded-up 80’s-era mall attached to it, a dehumidifying system (necessary in the muggy air here!) that functions only intermittently, often leaving a dense fog in the building and causing drips to fall from the ceiling to the ice.  Actual stalagmites of ice form where the drips hit the chilled surface.  Even worse, a rat ran out of the Zamboni room our first day in the rink, crossing my wife’s feet!  We occasionally skate on 1/2 inch of slushy water on top of the ice.  It’s not the best place to play, but is an ice rink.  Other rinks, in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are full-sized, modern, great sheets of ice.  Oman will soon open its own Olympic-sized sheet too, adjacent to a horse-training pavilion and right on the edge of the balmy, palm tree-lined ocean.

3.  The equipment.  Parents pool together resources, lending elbow pads, sticks, jerseys.  Anyone visiting Canada or the US or Scandinavia ends up taking orders for various missing pieces of gear.  Amazon.com gets a lot of business.  Even something as simple as cloth-tape, for the shin pads and the blades of the sticks, is hard to find here.

4.  Sand.  Drying damp hockey gear in 100+ degree bright sunlight is a great thing.  Getting sand, omnipresent, out from under skate blades, from between the joints of pads, from the fibers of socks, is another thing.  Sand and sharp skate blades are arch-enemies and no one here knows how to properly operate a sharpener.

5.  Energy/water.  In a region where energy is in surplus (gas costs less than $1 a gallon) but water is in shortage, it is interesting to see that the countries have the motivation and the wherewithal to freeze water.

Overall, the experience is one that has broadened my children’s perspective.  To keep them somewhat on pace with their peers back in the United States, to give them the opportunity to play this sport despite the climate, is a great, but strange and sometimes oddly priviledged experience.

The Value of Education

While our United States federal and state governments debate budgetary issues and decide how (or whether) to trim services and expenses, it might be worth pointing out the levels toward which the human spirit will rise in the quest for self-betterment.

Boy studying by the light of a hotel marquee

This boy, studying in a pool of lamplight cast from a hotel marquee in Rishikesh, India, certainly could teach American students (and politicians) a few things about desire and determination and perseverance.  The very same sort of willpower this boy displays, a stubborn individual drive, is one of the things that has made America great.  It is one of the things that continues to make America great.  But it is also a thing we must guard as we, as a people, become accustomed to our privileged way of life.

As the democratic protests across the Middle East and North Africa continue, it should be noted that the relative satisfaction of a people with their government seems to be less related to the overall standard of living and more closely tied to the opportunity a government provides for its citizens to succeed, to maximize their own potential, to make something of themselves.  This, along with the promotion of basic human rights and tolerance, should be the marks by which a society judges itself.  It is tough to quantify the amount by which any bill of law or regulation improves these aspects but anything directly reducing freedom and individual opportunity would be Not Quite Right.