Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Hamstrung by Translation: How to analyse Afghanistan in an Afghan language?

Borhan Osman 10 min

The most efficient languages to write about Afghan politics and society ought to be the two main languages of the country, Dari and Pashto. No foreign language can capture the various concepts native to Afghanistan as intricately as native speakers’ own languages do, for example in the case of Pashtunwali customs. However, the local languages have their own restrictions when used in areas outside their comfort zone, such as modern politics and – for that matter – political research and scholarship. Languages with lively-minded communities of speakers need to constantly expand into unfamiliar areas in order to catch the flood of external ideas and concepts. They also have to systemise the use of new terms in the uncharted territory. However, there seem few efforts to do this in Dari and Pashto. The problem becomes particularly noticeable when translating from highly expansive languages, such as English. As AAN launches its Pashto and Dari microsite, Borhan Osman reflects on these challenges and on the devilry of translation in general.

A Persian couplet from the Mughal time, translated into English. When it comes to translating modern texts from English into Dari or Pashto, for example on politics, problems emerge, writes Borhan Osman. There is too little literature produced in Pashto and Dari to help develop new vocabulary. Thus many expressions remain blurry or misleading. Photo: Wikimedia

We have been discussing translating AAN publications into Dari and Pashto for a long, long time. The benefits are clear – at one stroke, we thought, we could reach a wider audience. What made us reluctant to face up to the task was the difficulty of doing it in a satisfactory way. Several attempts to outsource the job forced us to conclude that commercial translations were failing to achieve even the most basic standards of a workable translation. So, AAN’s Afghan authors started to translate some of their own dispatches. Writing in our native Pashto or Dari we thought would be easy. It turned out we were wrong. While we had become comfortable writing about political developments in an English-language context, none of us had ever done this in our mother tongues. The problem turned out to be more than lack of experience. We discovered there were no established forms of language for writing, for example, a research paper with a political theme, in either of the two Afghan national languages.

Can something argued in English be also accurately argued in Dari and Pashto? It would be easy if it were only about what to say. However, it is the equally important point of how to say something that creates complications. AAN publications mainly deal with politics, topics tend to be sensitive and analysis nuanced. The original English draft is typically revised several times by the author and peer-reviewed to make sure that both the what and the how are presented in the best possible way. Applying the same rigorous revision methods to the local language versions is unsustainable, both in terms of cost, energy and expertise. An alternative option we explored has been to recreate the text in the local language with an attempt to stay as close to the essential meaning of the English text as possible.

Turbulent times in literary works and an expansion in language

The problem is not mainly one of vocabulary shortage – although that does account for some of the ambiguities, given the lack of established usage (and coherent understanding) in the local languages, especially in the fields of political discourse and analysis. It is the volume of original literature produced in Pashto and Dari offering a nuanced reading of modern politics that is not large enough to have created accepted norms. This has not always been the case, though.

There have been ups and downs in the production and introduction of political terms in modern Afghanistan. In the early 20th century, Mahmud Tarzi, often dubbed as the father of Afghan journalism (he also served as foreign minister and mentor of the Young Afghan movement), tried to introduce political terms in Afghanistan through his Seraj al-Akhbar newspaper that he founded and ran (1911-1919). His articles and editorials are full of terms common in Europe but new at the time to his compatriots. He tried hard to explain not only the words but also the meaning and history behind them. With the disappearance of Seraj al Akhbar and subsequent collapse of the Amanullah regime, efforts to familiarise Afghans with modern political ideas also faded away. Such efforts reappeared during the 1950s and 1960s, an era of comparative literary enlightenment (although still limited to the urban elites). During this time, Afghan intellectuals produced, on the one hand, valuable volumes of indigenous and self-inspired literature in various fields and, on the other, translated and explained major foreign literary and political works. The following decades of political turbulence and conflict halted and even reversed those advances.

The current period (2001-2014) has marked a new beginning with Afghans starting to adopt terms and jargon coming from the west. In part, this is an impact of globalisation on Afghan languages, but it is also, of course, related to the tentacular reach of the post-2001 intervention into Afghan life. One result has been a literal rendering of foreign terms unfamiliar to the local audience into local languages. We have seen the coining of phrases in an understandable way, as in the case of meritocracy شایسته سالاری (shaista-salari), literally the ‘rule of the competent’. Other terms have been literally translated without looking for any local match and their meaning is not obvious.

Some examples are ‘patronage politics’ translated into ارباب رعیتی (arbab ra’ayati), a strange coinage which can be back-translated to a ‘lord-subject’ system, or قیمومیت (qaimomiat), which means ‘guardianship’ and is also widely used in political contexts with quite a different meaning – ‘mandate’. ‘Democratisation’ translated into دموکراسی سازی (demokrasi-sazi) is another strange coinage, which means democracy-building. The same is true for ‘transitional justice’ literally translated into عدالت انتقالی (adalat-e intiqali), where, the (actually not obvious) English connotation of ‘transitional’, ie ‘justice in a time of transition from oppression to a freer society’, is lost: the Dari word used, intiqali, means ‘transitional’ in the sense of temporary or interim. (1)

Why someone who blows on a fire is a militant

The literal translations or mistranslations of such terms risk utterly misleading the reader, whether the translation is fundamentally incorrect (qaimomiat and adalat-e intiqali) or confusingly vague (arbab ra’ayati and demokrasi-sazi). The problem is compounded by the fact that many of the original English terms are metaphors – often dead metaphors – or jargon; try asking a native English speaker (who does not work in development) what empowerment, capacity building or transitional justice mean.

When it comes to the use of local languages in political research, any observer will find a number of translated works, all completed relatively recently. These translations typically reinforce the sense of a mere replication of English texts rather than their recreation in the local language. As a result, it is English, in many cases, which is determining the reception and production of vocabulary in the local languages. The outcome of such translations are forms of Pashto or Dari which are English-affected, non-fluent and sometimes unfamiliar beyond a limited circle of ‘specialists’, or ultimately just sound weird. This effect is evident both in terms of vocabulary and structure. The translation might be successful in giving the reader a sense of what the original English sounds like, but often fails to convey the intended meaning. It looks like the development of Afghan languages is somehow shackled or paralysed by translation instead of being enhanced by it.

Moreover, most research on Afghanistan has been done exclusively in foreign languages, increasingly in English, and some of it is then translated into local languages. There is not yet, then, a sufficient volume of research papers or research-based books written primarily in the local languages which could have founded the languages’ normative practice in the field of (political) research.

Sometimes, vocabulary also poses restrictions to translation. The emotional charge, the negative or positive connotations attached to words makes the task of choosing the right term an often painstaking effort. In late 2004, during the Constitutional Loya Jirga, the author remembers an international senior official using the word ‘militancy’, which was then translated into ‘militarism.’ Pashto and Dari are probably still in need of a sound match for the word ‘militancy’ which can both convey the meaning in a understandable way and also be devoid of negative or positive overtones. For ‘militant’, BBC Persian consistently uses the phrase پيکارجو (peikarjo, literally ‘one seeking war’), which is not that much different from ‘warmonger’. BBC Pashto, on the other hand, coined اورپکی (urpakay) for militant, which literally means ‘someone who mischievously blows into a fire’. By now, both terms have become part of the common vernacular. However, the first is imprecise and both have a stronger negative connotations than the English term. The same is true for the word ‘insurgency.’ In Dari, the word used for it is شورش (shoresh), or ‘rebellion’. In Pashto, there is no proper rendering of the word either. The closest term used for it is بغاوت (baghawat), which comes from Arabic and means ‘rebellion’, too. These terms have negative connotations and fail to grasp the neutrality of the English ‘insurgency.’

On other occasions, it is not the shortage of proper vocabulary which causes problems, but the misuse of it, ie the inaccurate selection of a term in the local languages. That can have grave consequences particularly when it happens in the context of a legal discussion or a document. One example is the translation of the term ‘agreement’ in the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). It has been translated into قرارداد (qarardad) in both the official translation and the media, meaning pact, contract or accord, denoting an even stronger binding than expressed in the term ‘agreement.’ The inaccuracy of the use of قرارداد for the BSA opens up misunderstandings about how binding the BSA is. A more precise translation of ‘agreement’ would be موافقتنامه (muwafaqatnama).

How money can be laundered

When it comes to vocabulary, including the use of neologisms (newly coined words or phrases), a key problem is represented by the absence of a generally accepted set of rules for instituting terminology. Journalists, national staff in international development organisations and government employees, each craft their own equivalents for concepts and terms originating in foreign languages. One such example is ‘money-laundering’. It has been translated in at least four ways in Dari:

شستشوی پول (shustosho-ye pul, literally ‘washing money’)

تطهیر پول (tathir-e pul, literally ‘purifying money’)

پول شویی (pul-shoyi, literally ‘laundering money’)

اختلاس پول (ikhtilas-e pul, literally ‘embezzling money’)

Such inconsistency in the use of a term whose very concept (albeit not necessarily the practice) is new to Afghan ears only adds to the confusion among the public about its meaning. Meanings get lost in translation even when the translator is very much in touch with indigenous concepts and yet approaches their own culture from what may, after all, be an ‘alien’ perspective. A stark example of this blind approach is when ‘loya jirga’, after having been sometimes translated as a ‘grand assembly’ for foreign audiences, was rendered back into Dari – albeit in rare cases – as مجلس بزرگ (majles-e bozorg).

Pashto and Dari which ‘smells’ English

The key problem is that local languages have suffered from not having a process to develop their own linguistic terminology in multiple fields, including that of political analysis. What has arisen in those fields tends to be based exclusively upon translations and is not ruled by agreed guidelines, which therefore leads to inconsistency and confusion. For more than a decade, the replication of terms and concepts originating in English has been preferred by both national and international institutions, as opposed to their recreation in local languages.

While it is certainly a challenge for any language to cope with the flood of incoming concepts and terms which Afghanistan has experienced recently, the least that could have been done would be to keep the process of developing and expanding the language as consistent as possible. That, however, would only have been feasible in the form of an open and serious debate about how the (use of the) language is changing and with a viable reference, for example a body of experts, who could examine language trends.

A great deal of this linguistic chaos is due to a lack of agency by Afghan intellectuals, in addition to a lack of state-supported academic efforts at encouraging the development of political lexicons of the two languages. The poor quality of school and university education in recent decades, an indication of a general weakness of the state, is at the heart of the problem. It is exacerbated by a generation of journalists trained under this substandard educational system, who, in the absence of a book-reading culture, have established a prominent role in promoting certain forms of language usage after the burgeoning of media in the past 13 years. Language training is usually not taken as a significant feature for journalism career. Added to that is that media houses, including most of the newspapers and magazines, hardly have a proper mechanism for language checking. This chaos has allowed an influx of amateurishly-developed neologisms as well as opening the door to what often seems to be an unhealthy linguistic purism, ie people arguing about what ‘real Dari’ or ‘real Pashto’ should be. Additionally, the politico-economic hegemony of foreign organisations and media is another factor contributing to a predominantly translation-based and unregulated form of language in fields such as politics and development.

The need for original research and writing

Fundamentally, however, it is clear that if all a language has in a certain field of knowledge is (poorly) translated texts, it cannot possibly become an effective tool for critical and independent discussion in that domain. In order to gradually improve the use of a language in such fields, there is a need for original research and written production in that language, above and beyond translations. In an ideal situation, the local language would be rich in original intellectual production and the norm would be for translations to be guided by the local language, not vice versa. Currently, in areas heavily reliant on translation and thin on original material, the practice of translation seems to be establishing a rule whereby, in order to understand much of the ‘new’ vocabulary in Dari and Pashto, one has first to understand the foreign language.

At AAN, efforts will be ongoing to get the gist of each publication into Pashto and Dari with the aim of making sense of the subject from these languages’ perspectives, rather than being guided by the original English version’s structure and methods. We will try to be precise and concise and keep our Dari and Pashto texts simple, but AAN’s dispatches in the national languages may still suffer from the deficiencies described above. Being mindful of all the problems, we will try to avoid shortcomings and mistakes and hope this will, at least, be a good beginning for us writing better analytical Dari and Pashto.


(1) While the author could not find a working equivalent for patronage politics, there are more meaningful matches for ‘transitional justice’ in Dari. Some Iranians have been using عدالت در وضعیت گذار (adalat dar waziat-e gozar) and عدالت دوران گذار (adalat-e dawran-e gozar); the literal meaning of the first is ‘justice in a situation of transition’ and of the second, ‘justice of the era of transition’. They sound better than the commonly used adalat-e intiqali, which, hearing it for the first time, sounds like temporary justice.

Another possible example is ملت سازی (mellat-sazi), a literal translation of ‘nation-building’. The late intellectual Qasim Akhgar criticised the borrowed concept embodied in mellat-sazi of ‘building’ the nation. He argued a nation cannot be formed. It should come into existence through willingness of the people themselves and therefore the concept belongs to the category of to become (becoming a nation), rather than the category of to build. This denotes a process driven by the internal resolve of the people, in contrast to mellat-sazi (literally building nation-building), which denotes a process driven by an external force. While this literal meaning should also work for countries just out of foreign colonisation, in the Afghan context, as argued by Akhgar, a more meaningful expression would be mellat shudan (to become or evolve into a nation), where the people themselves are seeking to gain a national identity. Given this difference in conceptuality, some Afghan intellectuals and writers have consciously used mellat shudan for nation-building.


Dari English linguistic development Pashto Political Education research translation