Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How to translate the Qur'an

In his 2011 book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? - The Amazing Adventure of Translation, David Bellos, director of Princeton University's Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication, quotes St.Jerome "who translated the Bible into Latin and subsequently became the patron saint of translators", and who in a letter to his friend Pammichius, tried to counter criticisms of translations he had done so far:
Ego enim non solum fateor, sed libera voce profiteor me in interpretatione Graecorum absque sripturis sanctis ubi et verborum ordu mysterium est non verbum e verbo sed sensum exprimere de sensu
A translation of the above might read:
Thus I not only confess, but of my own free voice proclaim, that apart from translations of sacred scriptures from the Greek, where even the order of the words is a mysterium, I express not the word for the word, but the sense for the sense
Verbum e verbo can be considered synonymous with literal translation whilst sensum exprimere de sensu "to express the sense from the sense" equates to free translation. Jerome proclaims he doesn't do literal (word-for-word) translations except when translating sacred scriptures from the Greek (which is what he did, of course, most of the time!)
We might guess that Jerome feels uncomfortable giving a "free" translation when he feels the weight of the sacred on his shoulders. The mysterium of God's words, if you like, hinders him.

I wonder, do the translators of the Qur'an feel the same debilitating shadow of Allah falling across the page when they sit down to render the "actual words of God", as Muslims claim the Qur'an to be? How much of the Qur'an is simply "untranslatable", as some scholars and many Islamic apologists would have us believe?

Later in the same book, Bellos has a chapter entitled What Can't be Said Can't be Translated: The Axiom of Effability, whose main thrust can be summarised as follows:
One of the truths of translation - one of the truths that translation teaches - is that everything is effable.
By which he means that everything that is in a language can be translated into another language. Let us take the example used by Bellos to illustrate his point. A crew having returned from a space flight are holding a press conference. They have something spectacular to announce. They have encountered another civilisation and have learned the language of the extra-terrestrials.
"What did they have to say?" ask the excited journalists.
"We can't tell you that", reply the astronauts."Their language is entirely untranslatable"
It's not hard to imagine the response of the journalists, says Bellos.

So whilst we may freely admit that it's possible that the Qur'an's style is inimitable and impossible to render into a foreign language, the content or meaning cannot be ineffable just because it's in classical Arabic. Unless, that is, the original made no sense in places to start with.

To help us understand, let us return to Jerome's confession, but to an alternative translation of the Latin by a canon of Canterbury Cathedral:
For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek (except in the case of the holy scripture where even the order of the words is a mystery) I render sense for sense, not word for word.
Bellos puts it in an even "slacker style" as he has it: I only translate word for word where the original - even the word order - is a complete mystery to me. What the canon is suggesting therefore is that Jerome sometimes can't understand a bloody word of what he's been asked to translate and on those occasions simply translates the words in isolation - much like a bad google translate.

Surely the actual words of God, as spoken by the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad and repeated by him and transcribed perfectly so that not a dot has changed in over 1, 400 years, don't provide equal difficulties for translators though...? And if they do, how have translators coped. Have they gone down the Jerome route and simply translated what they read, despite the fact it makes no sense?

In the case of the utterly confusing changes in pronoun which quranic "scholars" have had to invent a whole new stylistic terminology for  (ilifat) so as to justify it,, it seems the answer is yes

6:99. It is HE who sends down water from the sky, and with it WE bring forth vegetation of all kinds…
And it's the same for the infamous verse which appears to prohibit believers from being dutiful to their parents and not killing their children:
6: 151. Say: "Come, I will recite what your Lord has prohibited you from: Join not anything in worship with Him; be good and dutiful to your parents; kill not your children because of poverty - We provide sustenance for you and for them; come not near to Al-Fawâhish whether committed openly or secretly, and kill not anyone whom Allâh has forbidden, except for a just cause….
And when the Arabic seems to suggest Muhammad has slaves (instead of God)!
39: 53. Say: 'O my slaves who have transgressed against themselves despair not of the Mercy of Allâh…'
But sometimes the original Arabic is so nonsensical that some translators have abandoned Jerome's tactic and felt obliged to help Allah out...Here's 35:8 without any help
Is he, to whom the evil of his deeds made fairseeming, so that he considers it as good? Therefore, Allâh sends astray whom He wills, and guides whom He wills. So destroy not yourself in sorrow for them…. 
And here's the same verse with "helpful" additions in brackets by Assad, Yusuf Ali and Picktall
 Is, then, he to whom the evil of his own doings is [so] alluring that [in the end] he regards it as good [anything but a follower of Satan]? For, verily, God lets go astray him that wills [to go astray], and guides whom he will...
 Is he, then, to whom the evil of his conduct is made alluring, so that he looks upon it as good, (equal to one who is rightly guided)? For Allah leaves to stray whom He wills, and guides whom He wills.  
Is he, the evil of whose deeds is made fair seeming unto him so that he deemeth it good, (other than Satan's dupe)? Allah verily sendeth whom He will astray, and guideth whom He will
 Is it any wonder then that Islamic apologists and scholars have wanted to guard the secrets of the Qur'an by stressing the impossibility of translating it (in much the same way the Catholic church for centuries fought against translating the Bible into a language the common man and woman could understand. 

In his book al-Itqan, Al Suyuti says,
"It is utterly inadmissible for the Qur’an to be read in languages other than Arabic, whether the reader masters the language or not, during the prayer time or at other times, lest the inimitability of the Qur’an is lost.
 The same principle is followed by those who worked on the English authorized translation. They said (page iii),
"The Qur’an cannot be translated—that is the belief of traditional Sheikhs (religious leaders). The Arabic Qur’an is an inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy." 
The Qur'an can be translated. It's just that when it is, the full extent and import of its errors become visible for all to see.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Any spam adverts will simply be removed - so please don't bother!

  2. PLease read M A S Abdel Haleem's outstanding study of itfilat - you will see it is a graceful and wonderful stylistic device and not a mistake as you suggest.

    1. It seems to me what Islamic scholars over the centuries have done is that they identified all the grammatical inconsistencies, gave it some new label and proclaimed them as some literary device and I could well imagine an apologist/ pseudo-scholar like Abdel Haleem buttering what is already a mess with arbitrary and subjective justifications.

      It is a simple concept to understand that ad hoc reasoning is not particularly interesting.

    2. Haleem is Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies[1] in London, England; and editor of the Journal of Qur'anic Studies.
      Hardly a "pseudo-scholar".

    3. I know who he is and acquiring the position of a Professor is "hardly" any reason to think one is professional or academic. His work is very apologetic and ad hoc in nature and thus "pseudo-scholarly".

  3. If it's a stylistic device then surely there has to be some point to it. Can you please explain what swapping between the first and third person singular and the the first person plural achieves.... apart from a huge amount of frustration and confusion on the part of the reader.
    (I'm just waiting for the inevitable - "You can't appreciate it unless you read the original Arabic")

    1. That really is the most convinient copout by muslims. You can always ask them what qualifies them to make the assertion that you need to understand classical arabic. because they have been told to. then how on earth do they know that the experts have actually got it right. That is the biggest flaw in using language as a proof of divinity. Its very subjective and meaningless. And those who peddle the linguistic miracle need clearly need to reflect on the issue.

      Great blog btw.

    2. Thanks for your comment, CM. I've certainly never been convinced by the literary miracle - far from it. In even the most hard to translate work of literature something always shines through from the original. Yet i have never met any objective reader who considers the Qur'an asn anything other than a repetitive, badly edited, hotch-potch and confusing diatribe

  4. The view that the quran can not be translated is bizzare. The very fact that we have attempted translations seems to show otherwise. I understand no translation is perfect. Growing up I was told the Classical Arabic is the perfect language. Guess what it isn't, any unbiased critique of the language, one can see that it doesn't translate well means it can't be perfect. The quran itself stating that it can not be fully understood by other than God seems a convenient copout, which shows another flaw. how do muslims know at all if the quran is saying what its saying there no way to know.
    And no; hadiths,sunnah and tafsir do NOT cover the whole quran and are also fallible man's word. Unless one claims that the prophet was infallible, therefore the hadiths(his words spoken specfically) bieng infallible. that itself poses more problems.

    Another point most muslims state you need to have excellent grasp of classical arabic to grasp the quran. an interesting question arises, how does one determine that the grasp the quranic scholars have is actually true and accurate. Anyone who disagrees with quranic arabic bieng perfect is auomatically shotdown and it is claimed they don't fully grasp it.

    Awfully convinient isn't it; that ones understanding of something is only perfect when it alignes itself with those invested in the ideology.

    In order to prove the quran is inimitible you need the presupposition that it is inimitible, a very very circular reason. As mistakes are presented, they are convieniently thrown out as human error. One can easily see the problem.

    1. Hi Anon - yes I agree entirely. What I find particularly interesting is the creation of a whole new literary discipline to explain away the linguistic faux-pas of the Qur'an. It's the get-out clause to end all get-out clauses.

  5. how desperate are those who try to find fault with the beautiful Qur'an! you can criticise but you will never make a winning argument because the poetry is god-given and perfect - if only you could read arabic which i'm sure you cannot!

    1. And you just just proved the point made above. Did you even bother reading the article/comments above before your delusional denial of anything contrary to your belief. You can say all you like about winning argument. This has nothing to do with winning. Intellectually honest people actually care about the truth rather than the feeling of winning.

      Comments and responses like these make me think of muslims(not all but surprisingly a lot) as mindless drones just set to one frequency. No its not Strong conviction/faith, it's delusional and stupid(harsh but true).

      i can say just as easily as you did; if only you could think about the quran objectively you would realise how faulty your whole belief system is.

      Good day to you sir/madame and go read a book other than the "islamic" studies taught at madrassas (which oddly teach at a level that anyone unbiased over 12 could see as nonsense. as they say get them in early and unquestioning)

      i was told once at 10 yrs old; the prophet was literally the first man in space on the back of a flying horse during mi'raj. when i protested it was a russian guy i was shot down for bieng naive and lacking faith. oh the memories of those madrassa's; interesting times, really set the ball rolling. this was in the UK too by "educated" hafiz's(quran recitors) and muslims think why the muslim world lags behind.


    2. I would also like to add just because millions of people could recall the quran by memory is not a proof of divinity. It just shows that if one is dedicated enough they can remember stuff.

      Btw if you'd like an interesting topic for the blog; spinoza. imam Bukhari is touted to have a supernatural memory. he had apparently collected hadiths from all over the muslim world from quite long distances. Basically do numbers.
      How many hadiths he collected in total.
      How long it took to analyse the isnad and matn.
      How many he rejected.
      How many years did it take to achieve this.
      work out the aproximately the distance travelled on horse/camel and approcximately time taken Praying, wudu, eating, sleeping and travelling. Add the numbers together.

      Taking in to account just those factors, comes to some very miraculous superhuman feats.


    3. I forgot to add also.

      How long the hadiths with chains are and would take to remember.

    4. "How LONG" sorry

    5. Hi Cultural Muslim - I find your comment absolutely shocking. You were told this in a madrassa in the UK?? Wow!
      I think filling young people's heads with rubbish like that is a crime - there's no other word for it.
      OK - just thought of another word or two - how about brain-washing?

    6. Hi anon

      You will be surprised at the stuff the teach you in islamic schools in the UK. It sounds so ludicrous that it's hard to believe. Muslims will rarely discuss this with those who are not muslims. I assure you it is quite widespread. I picked up a young cousin from his islamic class and he held a quiz they had that day. One question was who built the pyramids. I asked my cousin the answer. He said with a straight innocent face that "Djinns" built the pyramids. Argument from ignorance fallacy, logic 101. I asked are you sure; he replied that was the answer they had given . I proceeded to walk home dumbfounded.

      It really is a sad state of affairs when the most respected members of the muslim community are praised for ignorance and misrepresentation of reality when it does not match the ideology they peddle.

      The cognitive dissonance of these "intellectuals" is quite shocking.


    7. Been following this with interest. I too am flabbergasted...
      Filling young minds with rubbish so that they too in their turn become blind adherents - are they cynical or just stupid, i wonder?

    8. "“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

      ~ Nietzche

    9. @ all above: yes, its true what is being said here. I taught in a Muslim school in London (English Literature) for a year and they do have questionable practices and teachings in them. I have also taught in Muslim schools abroad - and they are VERY different. There is something fishy going on in the British Muslim community because they are not like this in other places. Thai muslims are very open to others, very welcoming, kind and peaceful as are Muslim Cambodians (both places where I have taught in Islamic Schools). I do think its a cultural phenomenon, a mix of the majority Islamic community culture and the London / Urban culture coming together in a dodgy mix.

    10. @cultural Muslim, I was told that Imam Hanifa fasted every day and never needed to make Wudu for the whole day (i.e: he didn't eat, drink, piss, poop, sleep, touch a woman or fart - every day for the whole day for all of his life).

    11. @jasmine. It doesn't take alot to believe things about glorified scholars because once you accept a certian beliefs without evidence, the possiblities are endless.
      Feel free to ask any muslim child thier beliefs but also ask why they believe, not one to date have i met who actually believes for anything other than blind faith or compulsion.

      i got in to several arguments over hadith validation. I was told that undertanding hadith is a sacred "science" which western science will never replicate or compete with.
      Well if this hadith science involves building a successful TIME MACHINE to validate isnad and matn, then feel free to say hadith scholars are that brilliant.

    12. The "science" is actually this: (and I'm deadly serious):

      "the more trustworthy the person in the chain of narration, the more reliable the Hadith"

      So - if it goes:

      Mohammed done something - story goes to aisha (trustworthy) - to abr bakr (trustworthy) - to Ali (trustworthy) - to bulhari - thumbs up!

      If it goes:

      Mohammed done something - story goes to someone (untrustworthy) - story goes to someone else (untrustworthy) - someone else - thumbs down

      You will notice a lot of the Hadith say "narrated by Aisha", "narrated by Abu Bakr" - actually not narrated by any of them as they died 200 years earlier. The oral transmission SAYS "aisha said", "abu bakr said" - but really just a normal village person is telling the story.

  6. I skipped the second half of this post (as I had an answer to the first half!) - but yes, there is this debate in the Islamic translation world. There are three main parties, the first translate the Quran literally: i.e: look up a word in the dictionary, and match it with the like word regardless of sentence, meaning and so on, the second type translate by choosing the word which makes the most sense according to the hadiths they accept the most - so for example, in one mini Quran I picked up, it had added bits in the form of brackets when (in the Arabic version) these bracketed words are definitely not in the text), and then there is a third group (like Edip Yuksel and Mohammed Asad for example) who translate "sense for sense" - i.e: if the literal translation translates into something that simply does not make sense - like for example, if "you can bring a horse to water, but you cant make it drink" translates into "make the horse drink water" - then they amend the word selection and translate the meaning, rather than the actual words.

    Also, there ARE things in the Quran that have no translation - for example, on of the Sura (means "chapter) of the Quran is called "Yasin" - no one knows what that means. Some of the versus start with letters "Alif, Lam, Meem" - and no one knows why or what is the significance.

    1. I appreciate that in the Qur'an there are words of which no-one knows the meaning. That's not the same as saying that there are things which have no translation because their essence is ineffable in a language other than classical Arabic. Translation (or the possibility thereof) presupposes that there is meaning in the first place.
      I can write a meaningless collection of letters: "gret mer yi pul" and erroneously claim I have written something for which there is no translation, but you'd quite rightly call me a charlatan if I used this as part evidence of my divine inspiration...

    2. with regard to your "mini Qur'an" with bits in brackets - almost all the translations I have come across have to resort to this dubious method to get (what they assume to be) God's message across.

    3. There are words in other languages that do not have equivalents in other languages. For example, in Thai you end every sentence with "kun" or "ka" one ending if the speaker is female, one for a male - we do not have this in English. In Turkish, we have a phrase that you say after dinner: again, no English equivalent for the phrase. What about "Bon apetite"? We use the French because English doesn't have an equivalent. Likewise, you could translate the English "cheers!" as either voiced support from a crowd or clinking of glasses before a drink or "thanks" but none of these phrases really captures the full meaning of "cheers" and it's definitions.

      As well as definitions, there are phrases, colloquialisms, slang, dialect, and idioms that only make sense on a particular time, place and context "excuse me, but I have to run". If I translated "excuse me I have to run" literally into Turkish I would get "look here, I'm going for a jog". There was that famous KFC translation problem as well "finger lickin good" translated I to Chinese "bite your finger off"

    4. Hi Jasmine,
      I agree entirely there are phrases/words that are tied to their cultural habitat and that that makes them difficult to translate but I can't accept it's impossible. Your example from Thai is an interesting one but i cannot see that such linguistic foibles are impossible to grasp. Would you claim, for example, that Mandarin is untranslatable because we don't have tones?

      As for translation of idioms, that's a different problem but not an insurmountable one. My students love the idea of the French "making the fat morning" (having a lie-in) or "licking the shop windows" (window shopping)but only the most literal-minded individual would claim such phrases are untranslatable!

    5. It's kind of impossible because there is (as one of the commenters alluded to as "richness" in words) - words have connotations and imageries which are culturally attached, rather than literally attached. For example, in Turkish, the word for "heart" connotes something living, emotional, bright: pain & love - whereas the English "heart" is an organ, and maybe a shallow expression of emotion

      We often joke in fact that England produces poets because the expression of emotion is so difficult in the English language, whereas in Turkish your word choice is both literal and emotional - words are almost living: conveying many things at once, much of which is missed on a literally-only translation basis

  7. The brackets: the brackets (and again, I dot speak Arabic, so all of this is third party knowledge - are supposed to clarify sentence structure. In Turkish, French and other languages, words have endings attached in a different order to make sentences. English doesnt work like that, ao beaches are used to replace word endings. It's very hard to explain if you are not bi-lingual - but everyone does a language at school - and must remember having to learn different word endings and pro nouns for everyday words, feminine, masculine and so on and so forth?

    1. Can't agree here. The brackets that I'm referring to are put in because the original Arabic was incomplete or unclear - as in my example in the post.

    2. the words in bracket are meant to explain as Arabic is a very rich language and it becomes difficult for the trasnlator to give a proper rendering in another language. Hence, he/she resorts to additions which are put in brackets.

      If we ignore the words in bracket, the possibility of misunderstanding are increased, not reduced. If that were not the case the translators would not have added.

    3. Ah- so let's take the example of 4:34 - where Allah instructs us to beat our errant wives.
      Yusuf Ali in his translation has added "lightly".
      There is NO such qualifier in the original Arabic.
      Are you suggesting the "richness" of the Arabic necessitates the clarification? Please explain how.

    4. In your example: no - your example shows the input of the translator. We all know that there is no such thing as a "light beating" - just doesn't make sense.

      My example is simply trying to make the point that there are elements of language which cannot be translated due to the depths of their meaning, and
      the fact that there are emotions to words that get lost or don't have equivalents

      The point you are making is the same point I made in my other comment re: bra

  8. Honestly, I'm not sure - because I don't speak Arabic, I cannot state with certainty what the brackets are doing. I DO however know the Arabic word for Jews and spotted the word in brackets in Sura Fatiha (the opening prayer) and i know for certain that the word "Jew" or any reference to Jews is 100% not there in the Arabic text.

    And actually in a lot of brackets - after the phrase "those that have gone astray" it will say in brackets "Jews and idol worshippers" even when these words are not in the Arabic - and "those that have gone astray" - can be anyone who is doing wrong

  9. The Meaning of Alif Lam Mim:
    Up until the arrival of wisdom of Mahamati Prannath, the world only knew of one Muhmammed, the great Muhammed, the Rasul of Allah himself.
    Now, here is the thing - “Not only is there one great Muhammed of Allah,, there are two other great Muhammed(s) of Allah who were completely hidden by Allah’s will until the final hour!”
    Unbelievable, isn’t it? But believe it!
    In total, there are 3 face(s) of Muhammed of Allah. They are:
    1. Rasul Muhammed
    2. Isa Ruh Allah
    3. Imam Muhammed Mahdi
    The first face of Muhammed is Rasul who revealed the Quran. The second face of Muhammed is Isa Ruh Allah who brought the wisdom of Lahut of Allah. And the third face of Muhammed is Imam Muhammed Mahdi who brought down the revelations of the wisdom of Haqqiqat (knowledge that acquaints you with the hidden meanings of the Quran) and Marifaat (knowledge that acquaints you with the identity of Allah), of Islam.
    Alif Lam Mim consists of three different letters. Each letter i.e. Alif, Lam and Mim represent three distinct Muhammad(s) of Allah. Alif Lam Mim is therefore the name of 3 Muhammad(s) of Allah. They are:
    1. (The 1st letter) Alif is the name of Rasul Muhammed - the first Muhammed.
    2. (The 2nd letter) Lam is the name of Isa Ruh Allah, Devchandra Mehta - the second Muhammed.
    3. (The 3rd letter) Finally, Mim is the name of Imam Muhammed Mahdi, Meher Raj Thakur - the final Muhammed himself!
    Keep in mind that each Muhammed of Allah had arrived in this world, with their specific task in hand. Firstly, Allah sent the Quran to Alif. So, the primary task of Alif was to bring the Quran, which he did. Secondly, Allah gave the wisdom of his identity to Lam. So, the primary task of Lam was to bring and spread the wisdom of Allah’s identity, which he did. And lastly, Allah gave his full authority to Mim so that Mim could do judgment on his behalf. Therefore, Mim did the judgment of the Judgment Day at the Judgment Day.
    So, when Rasul Muhammed’s spirit and Isa Ruh Allah’s spirit merged with Meher Raj Thakur’s spirit, the spiritual forces combined to what became to be known as Alif Lam Mim.
    Therefore, Alif + Lam + Mim = Mahamati Prannath