The first gay book to have been ever translated into Arabic after being originally printed in English has run into problems straight off the press.
The book, Gay Travels in the Muslim World, a compilation of stories penned by a collection of both Muslim and non-Muslim writers and edited by journalist Michael Luongo, has been translated into Arabic by publisher Arab Diffusion.
The publisher, however, chose to translate the word gay as شاذ, (shaath), a word with the literal meaning of ‘deviant', or ‘pervert';- much to the dismay of both the authors and the gay community in the Arabic speaking world.
The concern over the translation chosen by the publishers reflects a broader concern over the negative terminology used by Arabic media in general to descibe homosexuals. Gay rights organisations and individuals across the Arabic speaking world have been pushing for media adoption of the word مثلي (mithlyy)- a term without the negative connotations associated with shaath.
Throughout the Arabic speaking world homosexuality remains a taboo, and is frowned on by society as a whole.
Bint el Nas, a site for LGBTQ women connected to the Arab world which strives to challenge the narrow image of homosexuals, states that:
The Arabic language does not have positive words to express the emotional or sexual relations between two people of the same gender. The known expressions in formal or classical Arabic are negative and degrading: “shouzouz jinsi” (unnatural or abnormal sexuality), “loowat” (the homosexual act among men, in reference to the story of Prophet Lot in the Bible or Lut in the Koran), and “sihaq” (the homosexual act among women). However, during the last years of the twentieth century, some sociologists, psychologists, and journalists whose professional conscience was alive, started to use the positive expression of “junusiya misliya”, which is an accurate translation for homosexuality — a word that was first used in the European languages around 100 years ago.
Bint el Nas has compiled a glossary of positive Arabic terms for sexuality, available to view here.
Many are frustrated by the mainstream media's neglect in adopting such positive expressions, and their lack of use in wider society. Algerian blogger Belphoros, writing in his blog, L'Algerie en Rose, points out that:
Il existe tres peu de terme en arabe, on n'aime pas nommer les choses, en ignorant les choses on croit les anuler, les nier, mais ca marche pas, c'est de l'hypocrrisie, il faut affronter les choses et avoir le courage de les nommer, essayons d'appeler Un CHAT un CHAT.
Les termes qui concerne l'homosexualite’ sont tres pejoratifs, …
Il faut qu'il y ai des termes neutres qui nous identifient, on doit travailler pour traduire les termes, enrichir le dictionnaire arabe, …
There is a need for a neutral terminology to identify us, we must work to translate such terms, and enrich the Arabic dictionary….
Belpheros goes on to call for a ban on the use of all derogatory terms denoting homosexuality by the media, and to replace them by the neutral mithlyy (for homosexual men) and mithlyya (for homosexual women).
Back in 2006, CNN's Hala Gorani wrote this piece about reporting on homosexuality in Beirut. When asking the Arabic speakers at CNN what the best translation for ‘gay’ would be in Arabic, the following responses were provided:
Heads were scratched. “Luti,” one suggested. “Shaz,” another offered in an e-mail.
Those terms are widely understood, but essentially translate as “pervert” or “deviant” in Arabic.
While more positive terminology has been adopted by some major publications such as Lebanese Al-Akhbar, the only Arabic newspaper that advocates for LGBTQ rights and covers LGBTQ issues in a positive light, in the majority of cases homosexuals are portrayed negatively by the media, the same negative terms are churned out again and again.
الشذوذ بصفة عامة وباختصار هو ان يفعل الانسان شيء ضد طبيعته،فالمجرم شاذ والارهابي شاذ. وللاسف،يطلق بعض الناس لقب شاذ على المثليين،إما عن جهل او عمد،والسؤال المحير: كيف يطلقون لقب شاذ على المثليين ويقولون انهم يفعلون عكس طبيعتهم
To be ‘deviant', in short, is to do something against one's nature. Criminals are deviant, and terrorists are deviant. Unfortunately, some also call homosexuals deviant. This may be either through ignorance or intentionally.
The puzzling question is: How can you accuse homosexuals of deviancy and say that they are acting against their nature?
لقد خلق المثليين بطبيعتهم كما خلق المختلفين جنسيا بطبيعتهم،فالمثليين والمختلفين جنسيا اناس طبيعيين لا يختلفون عن بعضهم لا بالانسانية ولا بالشكل ولا بالطبيعة ….والشاذ الحقيقي هو الذي يسعى دائما لاقصاء الاخر
Editor of Gay Travels in the Muslim World Michael Luongo has requested the publisher use a more neutral translation, however the books have already been sent for distribution and it is unlikely to be changed.
“It is…regretful for me to have this book, an honest testimony of gay Muslim life, have its title mistranslated with the use of a pejorative term that demeans gays. It is regretful that we have come so far in the struggle for gay rights and recognition only to be publicly smeared by a single unaware Jordanian publisher.”
Despite the negative response to the title translation, the fact that Gay Travels in the Muslim World has been translated and published for distribution in Arabic is in itself a great achievement. As most literature and information regarding homosexuality is not translated or published into Arabic, those from the Arabic speaking world who cannot read or understand European languages have been denied the opportunity to achieve the awareness, education and self-affirmation that stems from the exposure to such discourse.
Over at Queer Muslim magazine Huriyah‘s blog, editor Afdhere Jama underlines this point, saying:
i would have rather they used the word “مثلي”/”mithlee”, which literally means “same” (i.e, same-sex). but it is so nice that there is an arabic translation to this great book that one might even overlook the crude word. i would be more interested to know what the content of the book itself is like… rather than the title, though.