Article 8: A summary of translations of the Qur’an into English
Translation from one language to another is a labour that can be very fulfilling, but also very challenging. Whenever considering such a feat, the translator is presented with the question of how to translate. There are, in general, three ways to translate, from which one can choose when considering how to convey certain meanings and meaningful phrases to an audience in another language, country and time period. We shall briefly summarise the three approaches:
This is using formal or literal translation when resorting to translating phrases a word at a time, independent of the whole phrase or sentence.
Academics of every stripe have made it their business to translate the Qur’an literally in an attempt to somehow render each and every word into English, irrespective of the flow of the original language (that being Arabic). There was the 1917 translation of the Qur’an by Ahmadiyyah theologian Muhammad `Ali (AD 1874-1951), which became one of the most popular translations of its time due to its accessible nature and also a large number of notes.
Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s (AD 1875-1936) is a literal translation, known as the English Meanings of the Glorious Qur’an. A concern with its King James English rendering is the fixation with translating religious items along the same lines as the King James Bible. This presents issues as the King James English, which more rightly should be known as Elizabethan English, was already in decline by the time James I of Stewart commissioned the 1611 Authorised Version.
This “King Jamesing” continued into 1934, when `Abdullah Yusuf `Ali (AD 1872-1953), a Dawoodi Bohra Isma`ili Shi`a from India, released a translation in the same manner but with 6,000 notes to guide the reader along his or her reading.
The first translation to not engage in ‘King Jamesing’ was that of N.J. Dawood in 1956, published by Penguin under the title, The Koran. Many writers still makes reference to this translation to date due to the fact that the translator, an Arab Christian, was more acquainted with the Arabic than any of the aforementioned.
In spite of this fact, Dawood’s setbacks were numerous. When unable to find a direct translation of a word in Arabic, he used approximations. This was an attempt to limit the number of notes and eliminate the possibility of any lengthy notes.
A glaring example is the translation of the Arabic expression, ma malakat aymanukum. The theological, cultural and jurisprudential significance of this phrase could not be realised without a note and no single English word or set of words could accurately capture what was being expressed.
The end result was that he chose an approximation. The Arabic was thus rendered as “concubines,” far from literal or even approximate. This was the most unfortunate point of all as it has led to a succession of lopsided understandings and utter misuse of the phrase.
Though we will go into the benefits of Brother El Hady’s translation in more detail shortly, it is worth mentioning that this phrase is precisely the type of area where his rendition is more fitting, accurate and contextualised. ‘Ma malakat aymanukum’ becomes the following:
(Men i and women ii both had wardsregarded as of the 'possession of their right hand'
The ward is due good treatment iii by a believing woman iv or man v)
The relevance of gender of those who fall under ‘what right hands posses’ and the importance of the responsibility towards them and treating them well, as outlined in the Qur’an is made apparent. This offers a far more accurate picture of the meaning. The commonly rendered ‘slaves’ and ‘concubines’ is very short-sighted in its offering of the contextual meaning.
Returning to the issues of literalism, a second and far less weighty slip concerned events and conditions in Paradise. The Arabic expression, azwaj – rather than being offered as “spouses” – was given as “maidens,” which would have been more accurate if this was being used for the Arabic fatayat.
Besides these and perhaps a few other points, Dawood’s translation was sound, strong and engaging enough to pull the reader in and have him or her reading attentively.
This method is not as much translating as it is attempting to bring the reader the original flow and cadence of the Arabic.
Arthur Arberry (AD 1905-1969) in 1955 made The Koran Interpreted, it was and still remains popula.
We then have the text, The Message of the Qur’an: Presented in Perspective (1974) by Hashim `Ali (AD 1903-1987). This has more or less followed the same formula as Arberry and those in between.
This is translating according to what the author intended, while using contemporary speech in the language of the audience being addressed. Rather than translating a sentence word for word, which would render the work Arabish (a composite of Arabic and English that would read mechanically), the translator seeks to bring the thoughts of the writer into contemporary speech that would be understood by English readers.
Many authors favour one of the three ways of translating mentioned above. But in my own translatory work, I use them in combination, always taking careful counsel beforehand. The reason is that the use of one in every circumstance will neglect the necessary use of another method. Very few texts translated are completely literal, solely interpretation-based, or entirely in need of dynamic equivalency.
What occurs more often than not is that translated texts are a tapestry with various currents and patterns of speech within them. It must be the translator’s duty to bring forward the text in a responsible way, while conveying it to the audience in a fashion that ensures coherence and readability.
This text, The Qur’an, a rhyming, English rendition, is a rendering of the translation from the Arabic to the English, relying on both the dynamic and idiomatic forms of expression but most heavily on the dynamic.
El Hady began the task after seeing a need for accessibility amongst young and new Muslims. This came on the back of a discussion that he and myself had regarding the readability, quality and style of the translations of the Qur’an currently in circulation.
It was during these discussions that we came to the conclusion that one of the greatest reasons for English speaking Muslims’ alienation from the Qur’an was based around the inability of the readers to relate to archaic translations, excessive prosaical and formulaic notes and a complete lack of contemporary speech. Moreover, reducing the Qur’an in English to a reading exercise, considering the muilti-sensory way information and entertainment are normally communicated to young people, was an area El Hady tried to overcome.
El Hady sought to bridge this gap by doing a rendition of the text and making the accompanying sound and image-based representations. A large amount of effort went into just making the endeavour readable and pleasant on the eye when readers gazed upon the finished product. All those who examined the work have come from an English speaking background; they have been able to engage with many parts of the text and have a fulfilling encounter with the Speech of Allah that has been rendered. The rhyming functionality has also allowed for eloquence to support the meaning at times, in a bid to make sections memorable.
We hope the book allows the Qur’an to become accessible to a new generation of Muslims who might not have read it at all while at the same time claiming allegiance to the faith that came out of the text.
The advantages to El Hady’s work are plentiful, but we will suffice with five:
a. The fact that the text is geared towards readers in a contemporary standpoint. The language used in the rendition is simple and straightforward.
b. There is no attempt being made in the text to force the readers mind towards any group or sect. The well-known understanding of the text and the commentary literature is all that is used.
c. There is reference to a large number of commentaries that El-Hady chose for ease of access and introductory insight. I undertook more detailed review through commentaries such as Al-Qurtubi and otherwise; but El Hady and I both thought it necessary to use some commentators that could be indicated in the text, through hyperlinks, for the interested e-reader, and also Arabic references of classic texts for those with wider knowledge that might want to research further on certain topics.
The expansive commentary that I have depended upon when annotating the text is Imam Ibn Al-Jawzi’s (d. 597 AH) Zad ul-Masir fi `Ilm al-Tafsir, (Dar ul-Hazm 4 vols. in 1 edition) Beirut (1423 AH/AD 2002). Brother El Hady has used the following tafsirs: Tanwir al Miqbas, Jalalayn and on occasion, a handful of times, in very few instances, Ibn Kathir.
d. Much of the Qur’an has internal commentary, where some verses make reference to others. This ‘Qur’an-by-Qur’an’ commentary needed special attention. The text chosen to accurately source these matters, along with the understanding used by brother El Hady, was Imam Muhammad Al-Amin Ash-Shanqiti’s (d. 1391 AH) seminal work, Adwa’ ul-Bayan fi Aydah al-Qur’ani bil-Qur’an, (Dar ul-Kutub al-`Ilmiyyah 1st edition) Beirut (1417 AH/AD 1996), which is some 11 volumes in number.
e. The text is free of troublesome notes, unsolicited commentary bias and also obscure details that are often included by other translators. The reader is able to concentrate on digesting the rendered message of the Qur’an and scholars of Qu’ran above anything else. This is the greatest and most obvious benefit that has come from the work on this worthy endeavour.
We should always be sincere in prayer in asking for the Help of Allah and His Safety from going astray. When we approach the Qur’an, we should do so in a state of reverence, hoping to understand the revelation at a more spiritual level.
By no means have brother El Hady and I assumed that this will be the only work of its type in the genre to come. Rather, we understand and fully acknowledge that in the years to come, this rendition may no longer be considered contemporary or as useful and may require either an update or a fresh effort to re-engage the minds of readers in a new environment.
This understanding is based upon the fact that languages do indeed undergo change through the course of time and language that was ‘everyday‘ can easily become archaic as new modes of expression come into vogue.
I hope and believe, however, that this rendition will hold up just as long before any new treatment is required by either ourselves (if Allah should bless us with such a long life) or our posterity. I have put my full trust and faith that this rendition is sound and meets the requirements of an accurate representation (within the best efforts at our disposal) of a translation of what Allah revealed to the human race in His Final Book.
May Allah make us of those who truly implement His Word.