One of the challenges that I’m confronting in my translation project is how to render words into English that, in Spanish, preserve very clearly not only their Arabic etymology but the specificity of their meaning relating to the society and culture of the Islamic period in Spain. For now, some preliminary thoughts and problems. Eventually, perhaps, a proper essay.
Some of the words that come from Arabic also exist in English:
Mozárabe: We have the word Mozarab in English, but it’s not going to resonate for Anglophone readers as it does for Spanish readers, especially those who inhabit a country where one can still regularly attend Mass celebrated according to the Mozarab rite. The text introduces the Mozarabs in such a way that it’s not a problem. They may not feel as familiar to English readers, but those readers won’t really lose out on anything in this case.
Mesquino: I love being able to translate this as mesquin and keep the Arabic etymology of the Spanish word in place in the English.
However, there are also words that are more complicated to translate while preserving the linguistic and cultural layers that they encode.
Alcázar: Sure. It’s perfectly fine just to translate this word into English as castle, but in doing so, it loses the traces of the Arabic morphology and root — al-qasr — that are preserved in the Spanish; and for a text like this, where we are very much talking about castles built by people riffing on ideas of Arab identity, it’s important for that layer to be there.
Muladí: This is a hispanization of the Arabic word muwallad, which refers to non-Arabic Muslims, often from convert families. Between Heinrichs, Hitchcock, and Glick, there are some interesting discussions on how to translate the term, including the option “indigenous Muslims.” In literary non-fiction, though, these academic solutions lose the euphony of the Arabic that persists in the Spanish. Mulatto seems like it might be the best choice on this front; but it is not etymologically related in spite of how similar the two words might sound and, more importantly, it has such a different and specific set of connotations in English that I’m not sure it is usable in this context.
And then there are words that are regular, everyday words that the author highlights to help connect his Spanish-language readership to the Arabic substratum present in their own language. When he writes about the limits of urban political authority, he also gives his readers insight into the development of Spanish: “La única autoridad, nombrada por el cadí o directamente por el soberano, es el sahib al-suq, el señor del zoco, que se llamó luego muhtasib, de donde viene la hermosa palabra castellana almotacén.” To a Spanish-language reader, this is an illumination of her own language; to an English-language reader, it’s no more than a random factoid. Is my responsibility as a translator to leave it as written or to try to find a parallel example that will resonate with English readers in the same way the original resonates with Spanish readers?