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Translating “Governance” into Arabic


Influenced by various political, religious, linguistic and regional considerations, the debate around the precise translation of the phrase “governance” into Arabic continues to be a heated one. Although the notion of governance existed in the MENA region for some time, the need for a more precise formulation of the concept and its related terminology emerged in the early 1990s as these issues became more prominent in the global development debate.


The World Bank MENA report, Better Governance for Development in the Middle East and North Africa (2003) adopted the terms idarat al-hokm (إدارة الحكم) and al-hokm al-jayyed (الحكم الجيد) for “governance” and “good governance,” respectively.  While consensus over an acceptable region-wide phrasing remains elusive, the World Bank chose one of the least controversial and politically charged terms in circulation. A literal translation of the Bank’s terminology for governance would be the “management of governing.”  For “good governance,” the concept of governing was kept while adding the term jayyed (جيد), which is the simplest and least loaded translation of the word “good.”


One of the first terms used to refer to governance was the word al-hakimiya (الحاكمية) which uses the linguistic root of the verb to rule or govern and is the closest concept to ‘governance’.  However some objections about this term were voiced by secular observers because it is also used by Islamist scholars to refer to the governance of God. Other objections came from Maghreb scholars, who felt that the phrase originated in the Mashrek and was not adequately attuned to regional nuances in Arabic. The latter proposed a new term, al-hawkama (الحوكمة) which has subsequently gained adherents in North Africa.


Additional objections originating from the Gulf surround not only the linguistic validity of the new terms but also the methods used to derive them.  Other terms have been proposed. One is al-hokm al-saleh (الحكم الصالح), which would literally translate into “virtuous governing.”  This phrasing has been criticized by two separate camps. The first includes many reformers and activists, who argue the term saleh (صالح) is imbued with meanings of wisdom, infallibility and purity that are almost impossible to find in real world politics, making it inappropriate to use the term to refer to any actual system. The second camp includes many conservatives and loyalists to existing political structures, who argue that the term hokm (حكم) (especially when combined with saleh) is too politically charged. Proponents of this position encourage the use of more managerial or technocratic terms to avoid any hint that the phrasing addresses ruling or the exercise of power.


Another related term that has circulated widely is al-hokm ar-rasheed (الحكم الرشيد), which translates roughly into “wise governing.”  Although the phrase also includes the term hokm(حكم)   which refers to governing or ruling, most objections focus on the second part, which many consider as overly imbued with religious implications.  Many secular scholars across the MENA region argue against the new term for its association with the Rashideen Caliphates, the four Rightly Guided Caliphs that immediately succeeded the Prophet.  Additionally, the term rasheed (رشيد) comes from the root roshd (رُشد), which roughly means awareness or wisdom and is used in several Arabic expressions to imply a “coming of age”—leading to many of the same reservations surrounding the use of the similar term saleh   (صالح).


Other terms from these distinct traditions have continued to emerge. Al-hakama (الحكامة) is a newly coined term derived from the same root (hokm - حكم) and has been occasionally used in North Africa, although it has received similar objections based on its lack of linguistic validity.  Once disputed, the term al-hawkama (الحوكمة) received a boost recently following its endorsement by Al-Azhar University in Cairo, a renowned authority on the Arabic language.  This phrase has gained further momentum when it is combined with al-sharikat, producing Howkamat al-Sharikat (حوكمة الشركات) to refer to “corporate governance” or literally the governance of companies.


Another composite term that has also been used for “good governance” is al-idara ar-rasheeda (الإدارة الرشيدة), which literally translates into “wise” or “aware” administration.  This term takes into consideration concerns about using the term hokm (حكم) and dilutes the more politically contentious concept of roshd (رُشد) or rasheed (رشيد) by combining it with notions of management rather than governing. To avoid criticism for dropping the political dimension from the concept of governance, the term al-idara ar-rasheeda (الإدارة الرشيدة) can be combined with the use of idarat al-hokm (إدارة الحكم) to refer to governance, which brings back the concept of governing and makes it implied in the translation of “good governance.”


This discussion has been provided by Charles D. Adwan of the World Bank.

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