Saturday, July 07, 2018

Translating the Word of God: Choices when rendering the Arabic Qur’an into “plain English”

In line with the importance of the Qur’an as the sacred scripture of Muslims, translations of the Qur’an into English are plentiful, starting with the work of George Sale in 1734  “Koran - The Alcoran of Mohammed, Translated into English immediately from the Original Arabic; with Explanatory Notes, taken from the most approved Commentators” and followed by another three dozen at least, penned either by orientalists or Muslims, through the centuries to follow. Arguably the most popular amongst Muslims in the UK is the translation of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall “The meaning of the Glorious Qur’an”, first published in 1930, alongside with that of Abdullah Yusuf Ali “The meaning of the Holy Qur’an”, first published in 1934. Understandably, the language employed by either of them sounds somewhat dated today, which can get in the way of understanding. The Qur’an describes itself as a book of guidance, but trying to follow it in a language no longer spoken is akin to trying to follow the instructions of your SatNav in a foreign language. This was especially highlighted to me in my work with Muslim young offenders who wanted to turn to the Qur’an for inspiration but found the language barrier too great to overcome. Therefore in 2004 IDCI in Birmingham published my “The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an, An Explanatory Translation by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall. Fully revised new modern English edition” and “The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, English Translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Fully revised new modern English edition”, in which I carefully adapted the text and replaced some of the more archaic expressions with modern ones whilst tying to remain true to the style of the original translator. The former has since seen several editions and has become the translation of choice for many. Yet, for me it has always remained a compromise in that editing somebody else’s translations brings numerous constraints. More than a decade later my own translation “The Wise Qur’an, the Eternal book of Guidance translated into plain English” has been published, also by IDCI Birmingham.
The term “plain English” is what was represented my key objective in preparing this translation. Many translators have in the past tried to enhance the esteem of the Qur'an by choosing a distinguished, learned and complicated language, often in an attempt to parallel Bible translations. The result has been that the message was lost on the ordinary reader. Furthermore, translators have been at pain to achieve the greatest possible accuracy. This being a worth-while objective, even more so when dealing with the divine word, it very often destroyed the clarity of expression as a result by keeping the translation too literal. It is my belief that those who would like to explore the fine details of the Qur'anic text best do so by learning Arabic as it is entirely impossible to consistently mirror in another language the full richness and detail of the original.

In any case it is a fallacy that there should only be one authoritative translation into a given other language. Since a full understanding, and thus transferring, the complete content of a Divine text cannot be given to any human, there must by necessity be several translations, some focusing on the meaning, some on the literary and poetic style, for example. Furnishing another translation does not imply that existing ones are inadequate, but simply that they are unsuitable for the intended purpose.

My attempt at translating the Qur'an was therefore not a scholarly exercise, but an effort to make its words of guidance and wisdom reach as large an audience as possible and enable them absorb its meaning and the images it contains in a language they can relate to as their own. The Qur’an states that it was revealed in “clear (or plain) Arabic”. For its meaning to be transferred to another language, in this case English, one must equally strive for the same clarity of expression which speaks directly to the soul without requiring the mind to engage in complicated decoding first.

An important condition for translating the Qur’an is that one’s own interpretation does not overtake the wider meaning. Language is open to interpretation, and interpretations differ in accordance with time and culture. For that reason, the Qur’an cannot be correctly implemented without reference to the life example of the prophet Muhammad, peace be with him, who not only transmitted the Qur’an but also demonstrated its practicability and viability. To include this dimension, classical writings on Tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis) were extensively consulted when preparing this translation.

Yet, one must also avoid the mistake of making the translation of the Qur’an itself into a commentary by substituting words in order to force their interpretation. The Qur’an speaks for itself, and as far as possible the words and phrases chosen by the Creator should remain unchanged. Adaptations are, however, required where a literal translation of the Arabic sentence would violate the syntax of the English and thus sound outlandish.

To illustrate the approach described above I would like to give a few examples of the choices made when completing the translation.

As for clarity of expression being achieved by not adhering unnecessarily closely to the word sequence in the original, the phrase “did you not see the water which you drink” is appropriately rendered as “take a look at your drinking water”. Likewise, the single letter word “wa”, meaning “and”, is often used in the same way as a comma in English and when it occurs in a list, the repetitive insertion of “and” will make the sentence difficult to follow.

Another example is prepositions which differ between languages, and to use the same preposition just to “stay close to the original” actually distorts it. Previous English translations of the Qur’an describe the gardens of paradise “underneath which rivers flow”, conjuring the image of some kind of sewage system. The Arabic word “below” is used in connection with rivers because the river bed is below the earth surface, but in English rivers flow “through” the land, since different cultures have different concepts of space and time. Thus in English children, for example, play “in the street”, which does not mean the inside of it but the inside of the space between buildings which is defined by the street. In German, on the other hand, they play “on the street”, the street here being defined as the actual road surface. Likewise, when we are told in the Qur'an to travel "in" the earth, we use "on" the earth in English.

Another difficulty when translating between languages belonging to distant geographical environments is that it is not always possible to use the same equivalent of a word throughout. On the one hand, Arabic has a multitude of names for an object, for example a camel, for which English only has one or two. On the other hand, the reverse is also often the case, and the same Arabic word needs to be represented by a different English word dependent on context. A “kafir” is, for example, both the one who rejects the truth and the one who rejects the blessings he received. In the latter case he needs to be described as ungrateful. So in the Qur’anic statement “if you were to count the blessings of Allah you could not enumerate them - man is unjust and ungrateful” it would be wrong to use “disbelieving” instead.

I avoided the word “disbelief” altogether and used “rejection” instead, because the concept is of somebody who rejects the truth after having been exposed to it. As for “abd”, literally a slave, I used “servant”, although man is not just in the service of God but also owned by Him. I made this choice not only because of the tarnished image of slavery but because it allows to retain the correlation between the noun and the verb, so Allah’s “servant” (Abdullah) is somebody who “serves” Him, rather than just “worships” Him, as the concept of worship in the Qur’an is much more extensive than the English word implies.

If this translation were aimed exclusively at Muslims who are already familiar with key Arabic terms, then it would be legitimate to leave many such terms in Arabic without translating them (and such a translation has been published by Aisha Bewley in 1999: “The Noble Qur'an: A New Rendering of Its Meaning in English”), but because I wanted this translation to make the Qur’an more accessible not only to Muslims but also those who have not previously encountered the message of Islam, I decided to opt for a translation of terms wherever possible, even if such a translation is not always adequate to convey the complete meaning, for example, I have rendered Salah as prayer in spite of the different associations various cultures attach to this word. Whilst the Qur’an is the foundation of Islam, it is not possible to learn everything about Islam exclusively from the Qur’an, less so from a translation, and an exploration of the meanings of key Islamic terms will need to be pursued elsewhere.

I have made an exception from this rule of translating key technical terms of Islam in two cases in particular: Zakat and Injil. A simple translation, like the often used “poor tax” or “poor due”, does not do justice to the concept of Zakat which forms the third pillar of Islam. Zakat is a specified share of surplus wealth to be redistributed to a specified group of disadvantaged members of society. Due to its obligatory nature it is more than charity, yet it is not a tax, because it can, and preferably should, be given directly to the recipients without the involvement of the state. So in this case I have left the Arabic term without further explanation. I have also left Injil as the revelation given to Jesus, because it is not equivalent to the Gospel, the latter representing third party accounts about his life rather than the actual revelation he received.

A particular difficulty in translation is posed by idioms and metaphors. Where there is a direct correlation, the familiar idiom should be used. For example, the woman who untwists her thread after having spun it is, in fact, the woman who undoes her knitting after completing it, and to cling to the literal wording means losing the power of this well-known expression. Other idioms have become common but are based on earlier incorrect translations, so for example, the “camel fitting through the eye of a needle” is based on a mistranslated Biblical metaphor. Etymologically the term “jamal” used in the Qur’an, which also means camel, here means a thick rope, and the expression makes a lot more sense with this meaning, so in spite of everybody having heard the camel version, I chose to move away from it.

Finally, there is the issue of tense: Many future events are described in the Qur’an in the past tense, because in the knowledge of God they have already happened, and present tense is used to convey a sense of regularity or immediacy also for events of the past. Whether this appeared equally strange to Arab listeners at the time of first revelation we do not know, but in order to make the text more approachable, all those who have previously translated the Qur’an into English have substituted those tenses with the ones one would normally expect in a continuous narrative.

These are not always ideal choices. As a result of settling for one option above another, some of the depth of the meaning of the original will be lost, especially where the Arabic word has layers of meaning. Here, only the dominant meaning can be conveyed, and to access the fine nuances of alternative interpretations the reader would have to consult a book of Tafsir (exegesis). Similarly, when legal rulings are derived from the Qur’an, these cannot be based on a translation but require full consideration of the original wording and its context. Where it is possible, however, to leave an ambiguity in place, it is best to do so. A day in the Qur’anic text often means a time period rather than a day, but this inference is also possible in English, so there is no problem in keeping to the six “days” of creation, for example. Ultimately, every translation of a perfect text such as the Divine revelation will be a compromise, and I pray that I will have achieved my aim of introducing the reader of my translation to some of the beauty of the original without diverting from its meaning but, most of all, make it easy to read and comprehend and allow it to speak both to the intellect and the heart.
The “Wise Qur’an” is available from IDCI or on ebay.


At 25 June 2020 at 14:05, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AsSalaamu'alaikum.... Allah reward you for your efforts and exertions. A polite request; is it possible to obtain an editable version (word/pdf) of the translation? If so, who should be contacted? Many thanks.

At 26 June 2020 at 15:09, Blogger Mustaqim said...

Please contact info AT


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