The Qur’an Today: Why Translate the Untranslatable?
This is Stefan Wild’s last lecture sponsored by Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Dr. Stefan Wild is a leading scholar in in oriental studies, the Quran, and Arabic lexicography. In this lecture Stefan Wild discusses:
- Recitation of the Arabic Quran and dissemination of the Quran.
- What is lost when the Quran is translated.
- The politics of translating the Quran
- Some of the most frequent mistakes made in translating the Quran.
The topic of my presentation today is translating the untranslatable. As I tried to show in yesterday’s lecture, the link between the Arabic language and the Quran is extraordinarily strong. To translate the Quran and to take the Quran out of its Arabic context was, and is, problematic and also a controversial endeavor. It is also unavoidable. If Muslims want Islam to survive as a world religion.
We must distinguish between recitation of the Arabic Quran on the one hand and the dissemination of the holy book on the other. I will deal with that in the first part of the lecture. In the second part I will examine what is lost in translation when the Quran is translated. And in the third and last part I want to analyze the politics of translating the Quran, and why many Muslims today view translations done by non-Muslims with suspicion. And as a very last conclusion I will attempt to identify some of the most frequent mistakes made in translating the Quran.
The Ahmadiyya Movement and Arabic Translation of the Quran in German
It should be clear from the outset that an analysis of modern translations of the Quran will also highlight inner-Islamic fault lines. My personal first acquaintance with such a text and translation of the Quran into German may show this.
When I started learning Arabic in Munich, in the 50s of the 20th century, the only Arabic German version of the Quran readily available in Germany and German speaking parts of Europe was one published by the Ahmadiyya community in Switzerland. Its lengthy introduction was signed by Mirza Mahmood Ahmad who died in 1965 – the head and second “caliph” of the second Messiah of the Ahmadiyya movement residing at the time in Pakistan.
The Ahmadiyya as many of you will know is a messianic and missionary revivalist movement that originated in 19th century India. It combines some modernist ideas with sufi elements. The movment split when one of his leaders claimed prophethood. This claim was, of course, based on a verse of the Quran and in Germany the first Ahmadiyya missionaries arrived around 1920.
The oldest existing mosque in Germany was built in Berlin between 1924 and 1928 by the Ahmadiyyas. Later, Sunni Islam became an enemy of the Ahmadiyyas because of the mounting pressure of the Pakistani government the head office of the Ahmadiyya had to be moved from Pakistan to London in 1984.
In Pakistan and Saudi Arabia Ahmadiyyas today are outlawed and persecuted. In many Muslim countries they are looked at with great suspicion. And in the introduction to their German Arabic Quran the head of the Ahmadiyya stated, “God instructed the prophet to fight this great battle with the help of the Quran as his strongest weapon. In fulfillment of this Quran, a German translation was made.”
The actual translation into German was done by unknown German immigrants in London during the Second World War under the supervision of the caliph of the Messiah who himself did not know German.
At this time the number of Muslims in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria was very very small. And the majority of them regretted that the most readily available version of the Quran offering the Arabic text was a German translation was far removed from mainstream Islam. Ahmadiyyas in Europe were fiercly missionary, socially engaged, not without liberal ideas and they made a number of German converts.
One of the most surprising Ahmadiyya doctrines was based on verse 50 of Sura 23 and taught that after his crucifixion Jesus had gone to Srinagar in India and had died there at the age of 120 years. Following the Ahmadiyya system of counting the verses in the Quran, this verse was 51 of Sura 23, not verse 50. And this special Ahmadiyya counting of the verses in the Quran and the inherent systematic deviation from the canonical counting engendered even more bitter criticism from other Muslims worldwide.
In the tiny Muslim community in Germany and German speaking countries but also in the rest of the world the Ahmadiyya Quran was increasingly read as a declaration of was against the mainstream authority of Sunni Islam.
Ritual prayer in Arabic or translated?
If we go back to the earliest period of Islam – and I’m now going to talk about the recitation of the Quran in Arabic and the related problems of translating it. At the time of the prophet the partial or complete liturgical recitation of part of the Quran was performed in Arabic and in Arabic only.
Recitation of the Quran is at the very heart of the prayer rite. And that is why according to traditional Muslim theology the ritual prayer of the salat that contains as its most important element the first sura must be recited in Arabic and only in Arabic. But already in the first centuries of the Muslim expansion there were dissenting voices. Two of the most venerable religious authorities of Islam taught contrary doctrines.
Al-Shafiʿī (died 820 CE) opined that for the ritual prayer to be valid it had to be spoken in Arabic.
Abū Ḥanīfah on the other hand (died 767 CE), equally famous, taught that those new Muslims who did not know Arabic could recite the ritual prayer in a different language. How could a person who had just converted to Islam communicate with God in a lanuage that this person did not understand? We do know know whether that was Abū Ḥanīfah’s reasoning. But in any case according to him reciting the first sura in the ritual prayer in Persian did not make the prayer invalid.
Al-Shafiʿī’s contrary opinion prevailed in the end but more by a twist of history, than by a better argument. And the element of mystery in reciting the holy text is not necessarily impaired by the fact that the reciter does not completely understand what he is reciting.
I was for a long time an altar boy in the 40s in Germany in the Catholic church, and I remember how much I felt that magic while reciting the confession of sins at the beginning of Holy Mass in the Latin Confiteor. I did not understand the Latin words, but that did not diminish but on the contrary enhanced the fascination. And of course it is an advantage for any religious community to have one common cult language.
For the Muslim community, Arabic was in many ways what Latin was for the Roman Catholic church for more than a millenium. And in view of the fact that the Quran so clearly links its Arabic character to the divine origin of the text it is easy to understand that for most Muslims recitation of the Quran was, and is, valid only in Arabic.
This unique status of the Arabic language for the Quran seemed in grave danger, endangered as never before, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk pushed for modernization by deciding in 1928 that the ritual prayer in the muezzin’s call for prayer should be in Turkish. Atatürk went even further and promoted a Turkish translation of the Quran to be printed in the newly introduced Latin script. He ordered that this translation should take the place of the Arabic Quran.
This caused a general outcry in Turkey and far beyond the Muslim world but Ziya Gökalp (died in 1924) wrote a poem that celebrated Atatürk’s move,
A land where the call to prayer from the mosque is recited in Turkish.
Where the peasant understands the meaning of the prayer in his worship.
A land where in the schools the Qur’an is read in Turkish.
Where, big and little, everyone knows the command of God.
This, O son of the Turks, is your fatherland.
For a majority of Muslims Atatürk’s attack on the Quran was sacrilegious and followed logically from sacrilegious abolishment of the caliphate in 1924. This brutal break with the Ottoman Muslim past induced not a few Muslims to think that kemalism with its nationalist modernizing secularism was a greater danger to Islam than communism or national socialism.
Sheikh Mustafa al-Siba’i?, erstwhile sheikh of Islam of the Ottoman state in Istanbul fled to Cairo in 1926, asked for political asylum and from his exile in Egypt attacked Kemal Atatürk’s Turkification project. And especially of course the Turkification of the Quran. He engaged in a memorable and aggressive discussion with Muhammad Mustafa Mahdari?, head of the Ḥanīfah – you will remember that the Ḥanīfahs had a different doctrine in things pertaining to the translation of the Quran, then the shafa in majority.
Mustafa S. accuses an Egyptian intellectual at this time of Atatürk’s replacement of the Arabic letters by European style letters in Turkish and accuses him of trying to persuade Arab Muslims…
The success of the printing press in the Muslim world and the recognition of the highest Muslim authorities that it was unrealistic to expect that the vast majority of Muslims would learn Arabic in order to understand the Quran.
There is a widespread conviction among many Muslim scholars that in any translation of the Quran its most vital characteristics are lost. What is called a translation of the Quran can never be a translation. It can never be the Quran and the inimitability of the Quran – and we have spoken about this in the last lecture – cannot but disappear even in the best possible translation.
Any translation cannot claim to be more than one possible exegetical attempt – that’s the opinion of many many Muslim scholars until today. Therefore, most translations of the Quran done by Muslims carefully deny that they are translations of the Quran. An English translation for instance may call itself, “An English Translation of the Meanings of the Holy Quran.” And very often the Arabic text is reproduced with the translation to show that only the Arabic text is the real Quran. And then the book title may become something like, “The Normal Quran and the Interpretation of its Meanings into English”. Now this interpretation into English is a little awkward but it shows exactly the problem which we are facing.
If a Muslim translation gives the book title as “The Quran” without reference to the meanings of the Quran and if it does not print the complete Arabic text next to the English one, that usually indicates that the translator has a fairly liberal outlook. Conversely, when the celebrated and often used English translation of the Quran by Arthur Arberry, a non-Muslim, calls itself, “The Quran Interpreted” this has to be seen as a clear bow to Muslim sensitivity. Arberry himself explains in his introduction, “I have called my version an interpretation conceding the orthodox claim that the Quran like all other literary masterpieces is untranslatable.”
The name of Nasr Abu Zayd…he told me that in 1993 – before this affair happened when he was divorced from his wife and had to flee Egypt – he told me that when he was still at the faculty in Cairo they discussed the project of a student who proposed to write a MA thesis on French translations of the Quran. Some of Nasrs colleagues objected that the Quran as such could not be translated and that therefore a translation of the Quran into whatever language was impossible. So the topic, they argued, should be rephrased. It should be French Translations of the Meanings of the Quran. And there was a long argument among the faculty and the result was the victory of the Meanings school. And Nasr commented, “I could have imagined that an Azhar sheikh would argue in this way, but these were all professors of the faculty of humanities in Cairo. And he referred of course to the fact that the University of Cairo was planned as a sort of a counterpart to Azhar, to the religious university.
And when we discussed the difference between translation of the Quran and translation of the meanings of the Quran he looked at me and smiled and said, “When you translate a text can you translate anything but its meaning?” I will come back to this at the end of this lecture.
With the advent of modernity reasons beyond the general Muslim distrust of translation of the Quran emerged that made many Muslims uncomfortable with translations into European languages done by non-Muslims. The main reason is that before the 1960s in Europe most of the translations of the Quran were done by non-Muslims and the title were also non-Muslim. Non-Muslim academic…
And in many cases the Muslim reader saw these translations and especially their comments on the text as extremely unfair and biased. A good example is Richard Bell’s translation of the Quran published in 1916 [Edinburgh]. Its subtitle said, “Translated with a Critical Rearrangement of the Suras.” And in fact, Bell attempted to restructure the Quran in accordance with a fairly arbitrary Bellian chronology that changed the Quran into an almost unrecognizable hodge podge text of disjointed verses.
Moreover, Bell’s comments could be acidly protagonistic. Sura 89 begins with a divine oath and Bell informs the reader that this oath is “absurd.” Small wonder then that Arab Muslim scholars wrote back and frequently drew the reader’s attention to the fact that there were glaring errors and mistakes in many of the non-Muslim translations which is certainly true. And they gleefully remark that this is true even today, “With regard to many orientalists and professors of Arabic language in the West whose poor knowledge of the Arabic language is usually kept secret.” That’s touché.
Nasr Abu Zayd’s remark that the translation of any text could only be a translation of the meanings of the text was meant as a warning that there had always been an element of mystification of the statement that translating the Quran was impossible.
It is of course understood that no translation of any text from any language into another language can hope to give more than a translation of the meaning of the text; the rest is usually lost in translation. And it is beyond dispute that a word in LANGUAGE A can never correspond completely to a similar word or a word with the same meaning in LANGUAGE B. In this respect however, the Quran is, of course, far from unique. One of the most famous early representatives of Arabic culture in Abbassad times, Al-Jāḥiẓ , noted about Arabic poetry and not talking about the Quran, “Arabic poetry is untranslatable. It cannot be adapted to any other language. When this is attempted its structure is shattered, its metre is destroyed, its beauty disappears, and its marvels fall away.”
And something very similar is true for the Quran. The miraculous rhetorical quality that the Quranic text has for the believer does defy translation.
The politics of translating the Quran
Now this brings us back to the politics of Quran translations.
I have already stressed that all translations of the Quran have one thing in common: they are all exegetical. And in this sense those traditionalist Muslim scholars who insist that no translation is more than an exegesis (tafsir), that no version gives more than one out of many interpretations are right and in a way Nasr Abu Zayd was wrong.
It is undeniable that the interpretations underlying these translations have often far reaching social, ethical, and political implications. This is even true for traditional attempts to spread translations of the Quran and the most prominent agent in this respect is the King Fahd complex…for printing the Noble Quran in Medina.
This complex is in many ways the Muslim answer to the various Christian Bible societies and the difference is that the King Fahd complex is much better funded. The complex is a huge enterprise with more than 1,700 employees. By 2006 it has printed more than 136,000,000 copies of publications of the Quran and Quran related Arabic texts and more than 27,000,000 copies of translations.
Every participant in the pilgrimmage receives a copy of the Quran, the Arabic Quran, of course, as a present.
And the complex also publishes translations, of course, of the meanings of the Quran always accompanied by the original Arabic text. The complex is under the authority of the ministry of Islamic affairs…and in Saudi Arabia Islam is first and foremost a political issue. Religion is politics and the publication of the Quranic text, like the pilgrimmage, is a highly political and politicized issue as well. So is the publication of all translations of the meanings of the Quran.
In one of the most audacious and most bold projects of the complex was for a time a translation of the Quran into sign language…As far as I know this translation has not been finished yet.
With regard to modern translations of the Quran, I think there are four trends discernible.
First, Arab speaking Muslims are today the minority in the Muslim world and their percentage is dwindling. That means that the vast majority of Muslims do not know Arabic.
Second, translations of the Quran will become more and more necessary, more and more numerous, and more and more divergent.
Third, translations of the Quran by Muslims will more and more outnumber those by non-Muslims.
Fourth, the Quran has from its beginnings also been read and studied by non-Muslims. In modern times there will be more and more non-Muslims who want to read, study, and understand the Quran.
Let me give you an example. It is not rare that non-Muslims read the Quran in the mental framework of religious controversy. The best know such approach in recent times was perhaps the famous, or the notorious, remark of Pope Benedict XVI in his Regensburg lecture on belief, reason, and university read on 12 September 2006.
He quoted a Byzantine Emperor as saying that one will only find bad and inhuman things in the Quran such as the prescription to spread the faith with the sword. And the pope comments in a digression on Muslim exegesis,
“The Emperor certainly knew that Sura 2, 256, says: ‘There is no compulsion in religion…’ This is probably one of the early suras which, as some experts tell us, date from the time in which Muhammad was still powerless and threatened. But the emperor knew of course the later rules of holy war as layed down in the Quran as well.”
The Pope’s remark, I think, still fits into the framework of inter-religious polemics and this not withstanding the fact that Pope John the XXIII, for the first time in the history of the Roman Catholic Church has in Vaticanum II opened the gate for a dialogue between Catholics and Muslims.
In an age of globilization; however, the Quran is increasingly no longer read in the spirit of controversy. More and more Christians and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, secularists, agnostics, and atheists neither read the Quran 1Doesn’t Dr. Wild mean that more and more non-Muslims are reading translations of the meanings of the Quran? as believers nor in the spirit of religious controversy.
The Quran becomes then also a book beyond Muslim theology and even beyond religion. It is read as an important representative of monotheistic metaphysics in the history of world religions. It can be read as a historical source or as a literary document.
In all these global contexts, the translated Quran becomes more immediately important than the Arabic original.
I will turn now to translations of the Quran done by Muslims.
Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall
The first Muslim to translate the Quran into English was Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (d.1936), a British convert to Islam. He criticized earlier translations because he said they included, “comments offensive to Muslims and almost all employed a style of language which Muslims at once recognized as unworthy…. It may be reasonably claimed that no holy Scripture can be fairly presented by one who disagrees with its inspiration and its message.”
This is a fairly common type of attitude.
This is one of the earlier testimonies showing that many Muslims tended to prefer a translation done by a Muslim to a non-Muslim translation. Often there is no clear cut dichotomy. Muslim readers prefer Muslim translations and Muslim translators envisage Muslims as their target readers while non-Muslim translations cater to non-Muslims. This is not a 100% reality but its tendency, I think, clearly visible.
For political reasons, after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 translation of the Quran, translations done by Jews, were of particular interest. Muhammad Asad, who died in 1992, translated the Quran under the title, “The Message of the Quran” in 1980 (published in London). And this translation is generally praised by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Muhammad Asad was born in 1900 as Leopold Weiss, grandson of a rabbi, in Lemberg, at the time Poland.
In 1926 in Berlin he converted to Islam and later became a close friend of the Ibn Saud dynasty. During the Second World War he was interned in British India. Part of his family died in German concentration camps. After the war he was Pakistans representative to the United Nations. And this is one of the cases where a translation is almost generally [universally?] praised.
The translation by Nessim Joseph Dawood, however, which came out in London in 1956 was less well received.
Muslim sensitivities were “deeply offended by the way. He translated key terms and by some of the notes to the translation.” This is a quote from, Abdel Haleem, a well-known translator of the Quran teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
Stefan Wild gives an example of how one Quranic verse is translated differently
Now, I will try to show to show you now, this is all a lot of theory, I will try and show you with one example how different translations of one Quranic verse can be.
Now this is surely one of the most, the best known verses of the Quran….
Sura 1 verse 2
Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds (Tarif Khalidi, The Qur’an, New York 2008)
Now, nothing seems to be simpler than that. And I think this is…the best translation. There’s no explanation, there’s no bracket and no footnote. It’s just that.
Now this translation is a translation which came out which was done in the King Fahd complex in Medina in 2009. It’s very very modern and here you have,
All praise and thanks are Allah’s, the Lord of the ‘Alamin (mankind, jinn, and all that exists (Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali & Muhammad Muhsin Khan, The Noble Qur’an. English Translation of the meanings and commentary, Medina 2009).
Now the first important difference is that Tarif Khalidi says, “God” whereas this Medina translation says “Allah” and these are two different schools in translating the Quran. The Allah is for many…the word “Allah” is irreplacable. Only “Allah” has the whole gamut of meanings which the divinity in Islam has.
The more ecumenical translation is of course Tarif Khalidi’s translation because Allah is not a name, it just means “the God.” It’s not a name of God but it is God. So it is very acceptable to translate translate it by the word “God.”
“All praise and thanks are Allah’s, the Lord of the ‘Alamin” – this I think is a mistake…Somebody who does not know Arabic, for him “‘Alamin” doesn’t mean anything. So the one who knows Arabic doesn’t need it and the one who doesn’t know Arabic, for him its just a word which makes the text more difficult and less comprehensible.
And then in the brackets, that is of course pure tafsir. This is what we find in many tafsirs and part of exegetical literature “mankind, jinn, and all that exists ” are meant by “‘Alamin.” Now, I prefer the first translation to the second one although the second one…gives you more information in a way. But it’s, as a translation, not very successful.
Some of the most frequent mistakes made in translating the Quran
Now there are many sins committed by translators of the Quran and one of the most obvious sins is often due to the translator’s insufficient acquaintance with the stylistic levels of the target language.
I will give you now a translation which was done in a very very outstanding publishing house, had a forward by the Sheik Al-Azhar at the time, Gad al-Haq Ali Gad al-Haq, a world famous spiritual authority in Islam. And the translator states in his afterward to this English translation, “Every word simple or compound was looked up in Oxford Dictionary to find out the relevant and appropriate synonyms, idioms, and phrases which would ? the subject and impart to it the dignity which might befit God’s discourse.”
Now such an approach often leads straight to disaster. Already in the preface the English rendering of the everyday Arabic global form نشكر (?) (“we thank” “we give thanks”) is unusual. Instead of saying, ‘We thank President Mubarak for his encouragement the Preface to the English version says, “Our bosoms peep forth gracefully put forth a thanks to President Mubarak for his encouragement.”
And unfortunately this strange and pseudo old fashioned phrase was even used to translate Sura 1 verse 2,
Bosoms peep forth and answer thanks to God, Creator of the universe, for Whom are extolled the glorious attributes. (1:2). (Abu-Shabanah Abdel khaliq Himmat, The Select in the Interpretation of the Holy Quran, Arabic-English [Cairo 1993])
Now this is in a mind-boggling translation which was done in absolute good faith. The man who translated it did his best. But once the translator does not master and know the target language they will always fall into this kind of a trap. I think that is one of the most common and one of the most dangerous traps of translation.
A further frequent misconception is to force upon one Arabic word one single meaning.
What looks like consistency for each word in Arabic (single word in the target language) is in reality taking words outside their context and often seriously misrepresenting the context of a verse.
Another related problem lies in retaining too many Arabic words in the translation like this “‘Alamin.” This is often due to an understandable effort to stay as close to the Arabic text as possible, but the outcome is often dubious.
The last problem which I want to mention is a problem that vexes many translators, especially non-Muslim translators. And the question is whether the Quranic rhyme should be imitated or not.
As most of you well know, the endings of Quranic verses usually show a rhyme or assonance. In pre-Islamic Arabic culture, elevated speech coming to man from a higher superhuman source was linked to rhyme, the so called Saj`–rhymed prose. And together with a certain rhythm. This was part of the magical poetic quality of Quranic speech and why Muslim translators usually do not even try to imitate the rhyme in their translations. Some non-Muslim translators did try to imitate the Quranic rhymes in their translations. Muslim translators are often mostly interested in translating the meanings of the text and they regard attempting more as futile anyway.
The best example for the other way, to try to have a rhymed translation, is perhaps the German poet Friedrich Wilcot Friedrich Rückert a contemporary of Goethe and a poet of note. He often tried in his selective German translation of the Quran to give rhyme to the endings of the verses translated into German rhyme.
In other cases and even more frequently Wilcot dispensed of the rhyme but stuck to rhythmical patterns.
Annemarie Schimmel, many of you may remember her as a professor here in Harvard called Wilcot’s translation, “The only translation in which the poetical power and lustre of the original shows through in the translation.”
Translators like Hartmut Bobzin to whom we owe the most recent translation of the Quran into German used rhyme when it pleases them or when it comes easily in German, but they do not attempt to enforce it. When they do not use rhyme they use rhythmical prose, alliterations, and other poetic devices.
They insist that rhyme or at least rhythm is indispensable if the translation intends to reproduce in the modern reader’s mind an ever so faint echo of the power of which Quranic Arabic has for an Arabic reader or listener. They do not attempt to slavishly imitate the Arabic rhymes but want to tap the whole universe of German poetic speech in order to make the text as impressive and as powerful as possible.
Their aim has little to do with theology; it is usually purely aesthetic.
A further and last stumbling block for the translator is the question of how many explanatory footnotes and other commentaries are necessary for the modern reader. Here the translatory has a vast amount of latitude. And the commentaries of translators extend from some rare interspersed footnotes to voluminous articles and essays on the histories and correct assessment of the verses.
This of course depends entirely on the targeted readership. There must be room for a translated version of the Quran for the interested layman with a minimum of supplementary information. This should ideally also give the reader an inkling of the aesthetic dimensions of the text.
On the other hand there must be a place for a scholarly translation that discusses all the problems inhered in the Arabic text but cannot at the same time evoke its aesthetic dimensions.
At the end of this lecture I would like to quote to you a verse of Friedrich Rückert. It’s not a translation of the Quran but it’s a verse on the Quran. And I give you the English translation first,
A magical power must inhere in something upon which a world hangs spellbound as on the Quran.
This is a very flat and very unpoetic translation, and in German it sounds,
Wol eine Zauberkraft muß es seyn in dem, woran
Bezaubert eine Welt
hängt wie am Koran.
(Die Weisheit des Brahmanen)
I think the faithful English translation shows that poetical magic is lost completely. So the failure of this translation symbolizes in a way why the essence of the Quran is untranslatable.
Thank you very much.
The lecture ends at 45:18, and then a period of question and answer follows.
There are some interesting observations during the question and answer period – one of which was very intriguing. Judaism and Christianity have not typically had a problem translating the Scriptures into other languages. Stefan Wild points out that the Greek New Testament was written in a “lowly language” “everyman’s language” or street Greek. But this is not true of the Quran. It is the “best language” because it is believed to be divine. These are completely different approaches to the language.
- The Quran is revelation to the Arabs because it’s in Arabic.
- No New Testament scholar would say the New Testament was revelation because it’s Greek.
Stefan Wild believes Hebrew comes closer to the Arab vision of Holy Scripture.
“In a certain way the whole debates of Christology about the figure of Christ in a way replicated in the Muslim discussions on the status of the Quran. Is it created or is it not created? Is it eternal with God or isn’t it? And there were very very different approaches to that.”
This goes along with something Andrew Walls, founder of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World, and retired professor at Edinburgh University, has observed,
Christian faith must go on being translated, must continuously enter into vernacular culture and interact with it, or it withers and fades.
Islamic absolutes are fixed in a particular language, and in the conditions of a particular period of human history. The divine Word is the Qur’an, fixed in heaven forever in Arabic, the language of original revelation.
For Christians, however, the divine Word is translatable, infinitely translatable. The very words of Christ himself were transmitted in translated form in the earliest documents we have, a fact surely inseparable from the conviction that in Christ, God’s own self was translated into human form.
Much misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims has arisen from the assumption that the Qur’an is for Muslims what the Bible is for Christians.
It would be truer to say that the Qur’an is for Muslims what Christ is for Christians. (The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, 29)
“We are stuck with the formula it’s [the Quran] untranslatable, but it will always be translated. As long as there are Muslims the Quran will be translated because it’s a book which, it’s a very old book, at it recedes with every day farther into the past. And it has to be translated; it has to be interpreted…It cannot be translated but it must be translated.“
Stefan Wild’s Other lectures sponsored by Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies:
The History of the Quran
The Language of the Quran
|↥1||Doesn’t Dr. Wild mean that more and more non-Muslims are reading translations of the meanings of the Quran?|
thoughts on “Stefan Wild: Why Translate the Untranslatable?”
I was born in a small village in India. At the age of about seven or so I went to learn to read the Quran in a local Masjid and I completed the Arabic Quran at the age of 15 or so.
When I went to college my ideas changed and I thought it was useless( astagfirullah) just to read the Quran in Arabic without understanding the meaning. So I started reading the English translation of the Quran and eventually forgot to read the Arabic Quran fluently
After reading the following Quotation from a Christian Arabic Language professor on the beauty of the Quran, I realised my naivety and foolishness and started re-learning to read the Quran in Arabic.
THE QUOTE THAT BROUGHT A METAMORPHOSIS IN ME
“The Quran was revealed in Arabic. It is a matter of faith in Islam that it is of divine origin, it is inimitable and hence to translate is always to betray. Muslims have always deprecated and at times prohibited any attempt to render it in another language.
Anyone who has read it in the original is forced to admit that this caution seems justified. No translation however faithful to the meaning has ever been fully successful.
Arabic when expertly used is a remarkably tense, rich and forceful language.
And the Arabic of the Quran is by turns, striking, soaring, vivid, terrible, tender and breathtaking.
As Prof Gibb has put it, “No man in 1500 years has ever played on that deep toned instrument with such power, such boldness and such range of emotional effect.”
It is meaningless to apply adjectives such as “beautiful” or “persuasive” to the Quran, its flashing images and inexorable measure go directly to the brain and intoxicate it.
It is not surprising then, that a skilled recitor of the Quran can reduce an Arabic speaking audience to helpless tears.”
QUOTATION TAKEN FROM THE BOOK:
AUTHOR: John Alden Williams ( a non-Muslim Arabic scholar)
PUBLISHER: Prentice Hall International, London 1961
The following Quotation taken from the foreword of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s Glorious Quran reinforces the above views of Prof. Alden equally effectively and forcefully.
“The Quran can not be translated. That is the belief of old- fashioned sheykhs and the view of the present writer. The Book is here rendered almost literally and every effort has been made to choose befitting language.
But the result is not the Glorious Quran, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy.
It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Quran: and peradventure something of the charm: in English.
It can never take the place of the Quran in Arabic nor is it meant to do so.
Thank you for taking the time to comment.
Biblical miracles–such as Jesus healing the blind–were objective. Anyone who saw them, friend or foe, did not deny them (see for example John 9). The claim about the miracle of the Qur’an is unlike biblical miracles. This claim is subjective. If I understand what you wrote above, you were blind to this “miracle” as a young boy. Why? Why didn’t the miracle of the Arabic Qur’an change your life in your early studies? Why was the quote of a professor more powerful?
Why would a book that is for the whole world and for all time be limited to a particular Arabic dialect that most people don’t speak or understand?
I’ve read that only twenty percent of Muslims speak Arabic. If a Muslim isn’t fluent in classical Arabic, then how can a Muslim believe something they can’t understand? Doesn’t this confine the majority of Muslims to putting their faith and trust in what Arabic speaking Qur’anic experts say about the Arabic Qur’an? What if these experts don’t all agree?
Some Arabic speakers (like the ones you quoted above) give a positive assessment of the Quran’s beauty. But others don’t. Who should a non-Arabic speaking person believe?