Guest Post
Gulnaz Sibgatullina
PhD candidate at Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (the Netherlands)

I had known about the project “Conversion, Translation & the Language of Autobiography” (CTLA) long before coming to the University of Edinburgh in November 2016. But only during my stay here as a visiting graduate student, did I finally have a chance to meet the scholars who conceived this project. In my discussions with Hephzibah Israel and Matthias Frenz I felt as if I was sharing ideas with my academic “soulmates”: despite considerable differences in spatial (India vs. Russia) and temporal (the 18th-19th centuries vs. the 21st century) boundaries of our studies, we found that we have been examining very similar phenomena.

My PhD research at the University of Leiden, Centre for Linguistics focuses on the phenomenon of one language used by two religions. I study the linguistic, cultural and religious interactions between Muslim and Orthodox Christian communities in present day Russia. On the level of semantics, I look at how a language accommodates meanings of two systems of thought. For instance, what makes us understand the Russian word Bog (“God”) as a synonym of “Allah” in Muslim discourse while at the same time associating it with “Father” and “Lord” in the Christian context?

What interests me as well is how a religious language becomes an important marker of identity. Consider ethnic Russian converts to Islam who fully translate Arabic-Muslim terminology into Russian: they use Orthodox Church vocabulary to talk about their belief in order to distinguish themselves from the negative images of Muslims in mass media. When the Russian official discourse today promotes the image of a peaceful interreligious dialogue in the country, I attempt to challenge the “neutrality” of such religious translations, since the history and current political and social circumstances exert profound influences on these translations.
Thus, similar to CTLA project members, I focus primarily on strategies of translation and their implications on the systems of thought, identity and power hierarchies. All case studies come from my two native languages, Tatar and Russian. Analysing religious discourse, I examine these languages outside their “comfort zones”. Tatar is a traditional Islamic vernacular, since the majority of Tatars who speak it perceive themselves as Muslims. Whereas the cases in my thesis study Tatar used for Christian discourse, for instance, how Christian evangelical missions and communities of baptized Tatars deal with religious terminology in Tatar loaded with Muslim meanings. Russian, in turn, used to be exclusively the language of the Orthodox Church. Today it becomes a new lingua franca for multi-ethnic and multilingual Muslim community. In the thesis I argue that such language shift is triggered not only from the bottom, but also by Islamic religious officials who want to reach out to the Russian state and Church authorities.

The agreements or disagreements over meanings become indeed most visible during acts of translation. In Russia, religious translation marks not only individual conversion experience; the religious revival that characterizes the post-Soviet Russia can be best explained as a mass “conversion” – from the discredited Communism back to the “lost” religious roots that has been negotiated and constructed in the present.