Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Ontological Gap: Eastern Spiritualism Western Materialism

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Ontological Gap: Eastern Spiritualism Western Materialism

Article excerpt


The West and the Middle East have a history of conflict from the times of the First Crusade (c. 1096 CE) (3) until the era of instant and mass communication with the First and Second Gulf Wars. There can be little doubt that initial East/West clashes were rooted in spiritual misunderstandings implicating religious misconceptions exacerbated by linguistic differences. The current War on Terror is yet another episode in a series of Eastern/Western linguistic misunderstandings, this one brought about, in part, by poorly-worded, stilted translations of al-Qa ida communiques published and circulated by international news agencies. The question driving this research investigates the reason(s) mismatches occur in the target text (TT) with respect to the original wording of the source text (ST).

To establish the existence of an Eastern-Western ontological gap, this paper explores of the Islamic legal system, its development regarding subsequent adherence to traditional dogma, and its influence on the collective Arab worldview, proposing that discourse coming out of the Arab World is imbued with spiritual overtones. It follows that if a secular, materialistic society, such as the modern American society, were to translate spiritually-charged discourse published or broadcast from the Arab region--in particular communiques delivered by the Q[??]ida terrorist organization--a western translator would tend to devalue or debase those passages. In fact, results from this study indicate that the western translator, when translating al-Qa ida communiques, regularly traverses along the following four-point continuum: 1) relate the message with a high degree of fidelity; 2) change the message at times subtly while at other times drastically; 3) substitute an entirely different phrase/idea in place of the original; and 4) omit religious or theological references. A four-case critical discourse analysis of b. Laden's communiques is presented, indicating that the existence of this ontological gap--in all likelihood--plays a role in distorting translation from the Arabic source text into English target text that ultimately leads to misrepresentation and by extension misunderstanding on the global stage upon which pubic opinion resides and foreign policy is established.

Discourse Change over Time

An ontological shift took place in the West during the 11-15th CE century time span; theorists (4) support the notion that this ontological shift precipitated another shift of no less consequence in language use producing new discourse. Fairclough maintains, "[o]ne interesting feature of social scientific theorizations and analyses of the transformations of late modernity, from various theoretical perspectives, is that they emphasise that these transformations are to a significant degree (though certainly not exclusively) transformations in language and discourse". (5) This notion is illustrated in the empirical fact that discourse shapes and is shaped by reality. (6)

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests that a given language not only contains the ideas and concepts of its users, but it also excludes other ideas from being expressed. By way of example, I ask the reader to try to imagine a color that he or she has never seen. If indeed the reader can imagine a truly unique color, a follow up question would be: is it possible to describe that color to someone else? The upshot of this line of thought is that language dictates (and by extension limits) word choices to express notions and ideas. It is my contention that these lexical choices are bound not only by language, but a language community's accepted discourse, which changes over the course of time influencing a society's word usage. A logical question to pose at this juncture could be: on what basis does a translator make his or her word choices? One possible answer--and the one proposed here--is that one's world view, a society's meta-narrative, indeed one's ontology imparts ingrained biases and stereotypes into the very lexical choices that comprise the wording of the target text. …

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