December 16, 2013 By Tarif Khalidi

Reflections of a Quran Translator


The following is a transcription of the speech the author delivered at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, for Launch Conference for the Centre for the History of Arabic Studies in Europe (CHASE) which is dedicated to the study of the reception and understanding of Arabic and Islamic culture, science and religion in Europe from the Middle Ages to the modern period. This one-day conference, Translating the Qur’an, is devoted to the European reception and understanding of the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam.


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It is a real privilege to be present at the birth of Chase, a centre which charts a fertile field of research and holds so much intellectual promise and excitement. Regrettably I can’t claim much excitement to my topic. For, I simply want to share with you a few reflections concerning various ordeals that any Quran translator must undergo. It is entirely a personal testament, the one which recycles shamelessly some earlier views found in the introduction to my translation of the Quran plus one or two earlier lectures on this subject, for which my profound apologies.

It is a cliché to say that translation is a lonely job. In fact any sustained piece of writing is a lonely job. Writing a novel, for example, is not exactly a gregarious activity. On the other hand, one couldargue that the dictionaries, commentaries and previous translations one needs for translating the Quran act like companions to make the translator anything but lonely. In a way translating the Quran imposes three distinct burdens on the translator. The first burden is the decision about the translator should make about every single phrasefor the best rendering (We will come to what ‘the best’ might mean later on). The pressure is unrelenting and, in the case of the Quran, daunting.

Ludwig Wittgenstein has this very curious epigram: ‘If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.’ A philosopher once explained to me what that strange epigram meant: if a lion could speak, he would speak ‘lionese’. Now that God speaks, can we really understand him? Can we understand ‘Godese? Nor is understanding Godese made any simpler by the fact that we don’t seem to make enough allowance for the Quran’s often deliberate mystification. The self-referential epithet: mutashabaha enshrines the mystification, in addition to the frequent Quranic references such as how can you know what x,y, and z means or, in other words, its intentional ambiguity. This is the text which, while claiming manifest clarity, is at least partially meant to make the flesh creak-somewhat like the shudder in TS Eliot. Or else we call it the mystery of the Romance-that which causes you to tremble and be odd by the divinely unfathomable. The mystery is the sign which causes shudder. And that shudder is so cultural and language-specific that it often defies translation.

The second burden is that translation in general and the Quran translation in particular is what one might call a Sisyphean activity, which means no matter how close to the top we push, the rock of the language will come tumbling down before you reach the top. No matter however you fancy you captured the meaning, there is always the sense of regret as you surrender the manuscript to the publisher. It is as if having said goodbye to the beloved. You will always regret that your goodbye was not eloquently expressed. This sort of feeling does not happen in other pieces of writing or other translations-at least in the same extent. For, the dominant feeling, when one is through with them, or at least when I am through with them, is generally ‘good riddance or relief’ and ‘good luck.’ But translating the Quran ,however, is a perpetually haunting experience, which can never leave the translator with the sense of fulfillment.

The third burden is philological. In recent years much work has been done on the vocabulary of the Quran and how many terms in the Quran can be better understood if we examine their origins in Syriac, Ethiopic, Greek or whatever. A great deal of studies has been increasingly going on. A biochemist relative of mine argued that the tayran ababeel in Surah 105 means not flocks of birds, but something more like fairy flying objects derived from the Syriac ‘boole’ which still survives in the colloquial Lebanese meaning fire. That means that it was volcanic eruption during the time of the As’hab al feel. Other theory was that wassamau waththaarik of Surah86, watharik was, in fact, Haely’s Comet calculated as having appeared around the year 618, which is a perfect chronological match. As per my friend the late Kamal Salibi’s theory, inna aethaynakal kausar in Surah 108 is best rendered ‘we gave you kosher’ i.e the law of halal and haram which makes better sense in context. The current favorite is that the paradise is full of grapes rather than maidens and virgins in the paradise. I am afraid the funniest of them all is that instead of hitting the wife in 4:34, the phrase means the husband’s departure from wife or having sexual intercourse with the long suffering wife. Iam full of admiration for this kind of ingenuity or some of it. But this is nothing more than exercises in philology or else, polemic-fighting a rearguard against the march of cultural theory. Let me explain the maidens or virgins of paradise had been with us for a thousand years. They have penetrated the deepest layers of what Charles Taylor calls social imaginary, in this case the Muslim social imaginary.

Let us consider the following scenario. A Biblical scholar now discovers that the fishes in Jesus’ miracle of feeding five thousand fishes do not refer to fishes at all but to something more like popcorn; or Joshua’s Trumpet is not really trumpet at all but mangonel. Very interesting, but then what? And my immediate case of translating the Quran is that whether I should examine these philological suggestions and choose the latest or ‘the most convincing alternatives.’ Or do I persuade a western reader what a majority of Muslim scholars down the ages took these words to mean. There is simply no hesitation between the two alternatives.

Finally, there is that widespread view that Arabic is extremely difficult to translate. The reason most often given is that Arabic has contradictory meanings. This is part of the larger attempt to exoticise Arabic or even Islamic civilization and somehow to argue that the language is unique in his ambiguity and difficulty. Arabic shares with all language the characteristic of possessing the multiple meanings. Yes, it has difficult syntax and morphology but no more so than, say, ancient Greek. So the choices a translator has is not only unlimited and even the difficult Arabic in the Quran is not insurable given the huge battery of commentaries accompanied with the text down the ages.

Let me now turn to those companions I had while translating. The first among the Muslim companions is Tabari whom I adopted as my anchor and guru. I need not defend my choice of Tabari before the audience. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about him is that while having many ideological axes to grind-he was anti-Qadarite, anti-Shiite and anti-Hambalite, he nevertheless reproduces with astonishing fidelity a very wide spectrum of ancient views, including those to which he does not subscribe himself. Unlike many contemporary conservative figures, Tabari, or any other pre-modern thinker for that matter, never ever presumes to say that the position of Islam on this and that as per the Quranic phrase is such and such. He says instead that ‘I prefer this and that interpretation.’ He always positions himself inside the wide circle of interpretation, leaving the status of the problem open.

In addition to Tabari I became very attached to Suyuti’s al Itqan fi uloomul Quran – a wonderfully succint and very well organized treasury of opinions and interpretations. My felt guru was ibnQutaibas Ta’wil Mushqilul Quran – a masterpiece of literary erudition. The above three were my constant, immediate companions. Many other classical commentaries and studies were used, especially the very convenient Tafsir al Jalalain.

Many other groups of companions were previous translations. Let me say at the outset, any criticism I have of my predecessors, including the one in the audience, must not be interpreted, God forbid, that I am none the better. It is simply impossible for any Quran translator to ignore those who came before. One is always working under the shadow. At this conference it is unnecessary for me to speak at length about the English translations of the 18th and the 19th centuries. Of the three translations I consulted-Sale, Rodewell and Palmer, Sales’ remains a astonishing achievement, setting standards for accuracy that neither Rodewell nor Palmer were later on to equal.Norman Daniel says that Sale’s translation complained not so much of its lack of accuracy as of it “not being sufficiently lively in expressions and elevated in styles.” Slightly harsh, I think. In any case Sale was a constant companion while Rodewell and Palmer were so abandoned as guides. Rodewell’s translation is often very free and speculative, too intent on Biblicising diction. The Palmer translation twenty year later displaces a strict adherence to literal meaning than Rodewell and so it is less understandable and less readable than his two predecessors in addition to his various mistakes. When one moves to the 20th century one of the most significant developments was the appearance of translations done by the British Indian Muslims often in conjunction with a modernizing agenda. Rodewell and Palmer translation had cast a long shadow over the field. Rodewell, for instance, had made no secret of his view that he was dealing with a Muhammad-made text while at times had described as it as lofty. He nevertheless intermixed with ‘morbid hallucinations, fantastic legends, self-deception and similar mid-Victorian psychological notions. To counter such an opinion the new translations by Muslims had a sense of mission-an urge to present the Quran before the readers in all its pristine grandeur as experienced by ‘qualified Muslims in their own mental and spiritual vision’ as Yusuf Ali phrased it. Pickthall, a British convert, goes even further asserting that “no holy scripture can be presented by one who disbelieves its inspiration.”

I will now consider the twentieth and early twenty first century translation, Maulana Muhammad Ali (1917), and Marmaduk Picktall (1930), Yusuf Ali (1934), Richard Bell, Arberry, Dawood and Fakhri and Abdul Haleem. Some or all of them are likely to remain in wide use well into our present century and almost certainly to remain influential and instructive to future translators. The ambivalence of Rodewell and Palmer regarding content and style is gone and is replaced by a sense of awe among the Muslims and respect among non-Muslim translators. We are now translators who are intent in varying ways upon doing justice to the original Arabic even at the cost of a very large battery of commentaries appended to the translation itself as in the Yusuf Ali version and published separately in the Richard Bell version. Other texts present the text with minimal glosses intending it to speak on its own voice. Now two ancient problems loom large for all these translators. First of all, is it possible to translate Quranic Arabic into understandable, let alone graceful, English? Secondly, what strategy of diction should a modern translator adopt? Earlier translators have struggled with both the problems and expressed varying degrees of hopelessness in their attempt to render the full resonance of the Arabic original. Our translators are no more hopeful than their predecessors. Arberry amongst them is typical. He aims “to produce something that might be accepted as echoing however faintly the sublime rhetoric of the original.”

This is the sentiment shared by almost all translators in the group. The only dissenting voice is that of Yusuf Ali, for whom the challenge is not so much to carry the Arabic successfully to English as to make English itself an Islamic language-a far more ambitious endeavor. The second problem, strategy of diction, is more compelling. With the exception of Dawood, Fakhri and Abdul Haleem, the 2oth century translators adopted a Biblical style derived from the King James revised edition, resulting in a text overlaid with Biblical allusions and parallelisms. Their near archaic diction is by and large indistinguishable from the diction of Rodewell, Palmer and even Sale. In Arberry for example, phrases like haply, unto and verily rubs shoulders with Dawood’s fear, fie,yehaste, unto, remembrance and who forsaketh etc. It appears that in attempting what Pickthall called a ‘not unworthy language’ and Yusuf Ali called ‘an exalted tone’, these translators opted to continue the diction that was fast disappearing even from contemporaneous English translations of Bible, to say nothing of the rapid disappearance of Bible study from British schools in the last quarter century. This awe of the text expressed as the insistence on the Biblical diction results in the translation becoming too literal and incomprehensible and, in the semantic field, archaic.

Consider the idiomatic expression bima kaddamath aydeehim(as in 2:95) most literal translations render it as ‘because of that which their hands sent ahead.’ Muhammad Ali translates: ‘on account of what their hands sent before.’ Picktall: ‘because of what their hands themselves sent before them’ the meaning of which is nebulous without glosses. Arberry: ‘because of that their hands have forwarded,’ introducing his annoying habit of replacing ‘what’ with ‘that’ and making no more sense than Muhammad Ali or Pickthall. Dawood: ‘Because of that which they have done.’ Fakhri follows close behind with ‘because of what they did.’ (both versions completely ignore the idiom). Abdul Haleem: ‘because of what they have stored up with their own hands.’ Yusuf Ali: ‘On account of the sins their hands sent forth before them.’ He glosses the Arabic idiom as referring to the committing of sins which precede us to the Judgment Seat of God and refers the reader to verse 5:24 for parallel reference. This simple example highlights the manner in which these translators by and large dealt with many of the idioms in the Quran. Among them Yusuf Ali strives to go beyond literalism and free paraphrase. And in doing so, he necessarily reveals his own theological attitude and belief that the translation of the Quran should be accompanied by a battery of commentaries. He also desires to bring the text to his own declared taste for English romantic poetry. On the other hand, Dawood and Fakhri opt for contemporary English or simple readable English confining the ambiguities of the original to a few footnotes in order to allow the text to speak for itself. That results in pedestrian translation which fails to convey both the concision of the original and its frequent and abrupt changes of mood and tone. In the case of Dawood especially, the translation is not only flat and prosaic and in its pursuit of contemporary English very beyond the original. He incorporates what should be a gloss into the text itself, resulting in the translation both free-wheeling and high-handed.

Now I come to discuss what I call the figurative challenges. Tabari has popularized the view that all figures of speech such as simile, metaphor, allusion, concision, antithesis, alliteration and so forth were to be found in the Quran. Later, a body of some 20 or so phrases were singled by literary critics as totally original idioms. This regarded as part of more general cases that classical Muslim literary scholarship made for rhetorical or God-ordained inimitability or ijaz of the Quran. In assessing the literary quality of the Quran, it may be of some interest to compare modern translations with what the modern literary tradition itself regarded as surpassing the divine, figurative expressions. Among these twenty or so tropes, two in particular are almost often cited by the classical theorists – vasththaghala rausu shaybanin verse 19:4 and wa’hfidh lahuma janahaddulli minaalrahma in verse 17:24.

The first phrase is part of the prayer of Zacharia, rendered by our translators:

Vasththaghala rausu shayban

·         The hair of my head doth glisten with grey-Yusuf Ali

·         My head is shining with grey-Picktall

·         My head flares with hoariness-Muhammad Ali

·         My head is all aflame with hoariness-Arberry

·         My head glows silver with age-Dawood

·         My hair is ashen grey-Abdul Haleem


Of these versions Arberry closely followed by Fakhry reproduces most literally the impact of the metaphor. Dawood’s version is at the furthest remove and the freest. Regarding the second phrase which enjoins submission and kindness to parents we have the following translations

·         Out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility-Yusuf Ali

·         And lower unto them the wing of submission through mercy-Pickthall

·         And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy-Muhammad Ali

·         Lower to them the wing of humbleness out of mercy-Arberry

·         Treat them with humility and tenderness-Dawood

·         lower your wing in humility towards them in kindness-Abdul Haleem

Here most versions retain the metaphor of lowering wing but Dawood totally ignores it while Yusuf Ali needlessly changes the word order. Once again the Arberry version comes to the closest of the idiom.

Now if one places the twentieth century translations in kindered(?) groups, one might argue that Muhammad Ali and Pickthall belong to one group; Dawood, Fakhry and Abdul Haleem to another group; Bell, Yusuf Ali and Arberry to a third. Suffusing them all, however, is an excellent sense of awe to the original as if even for non-Muslims the divine speech remains forever beyond the reach of truly faithful translation. But the Quran translators who address the Arabic with the diction of King James or Wordsworth opted for what they thought a graceful, English equivalent revealing what Mathew Reynolds calls a specially incisive relationship to time. And for modern reader it emphasizes not so much its foreignness as its archaic hybridity. Should the language of the Quran preserve its current identity or should it allow that language to be powerfully affected by the original so that the result will be read precisely as translation. This is a debate in contemporary translation theory recently and lucidly arrived by Susan Sontag which has important implication for the Quran translation.

Among translations reviewed here Dawood, Fakhry and Abdul Haleem attempt what one might describe as current English but the result is often contionous prose. All other translators stick to a diction no longer familar to modern readers. Even Arberry, someways the most sensitive translator, produces on every page translation so literal that it becomes incomprehensible. And his English is already quite archaic when compared to the English even of his day. Between these two poles,i.e preserving the alienness of the text versus bringing out the familiarity, there should be space for translation that achieves a diction which is advanced, modern, and measured.

The question to be answered by any new translator must be thus if your translation brings you insight. Otherwise why is there the translation? Among the Arabists and the Islamists no Quran translation has acquired iconic or canonical or exemplary status. There is no King James or Revised Standard Version or even a Jerusalem Bible where the Quran is concerned. All one can say is that x or y’s translation is the least bad among them. So there is a fairly widespread Arberry’s translation is the most sensitive, graceful, and poetic among them.

I have held these views for so many years. With the appearance of new translations in the late 1990’s I felt that these newer translations were not in any sense improvements on Arberry. They held on to the tradition of prose translation where no account was taken of the frequent changes in mood and register of the original. So about nine or ten years I decided to see if I could do something a little different. I thought Arberry’s version needed to be improved on because, as I argued above, Arberry’s language is literal and pretty archaic bearing absolutely no relationship to the English even of his own time? So bowing in the direction of Arberry and dissatisfied with the prose translations I decided to try myself.

When I began this translation, there were several issues of various import to be considered. For many ancient and modern readers the Quran progresses through what one might call bursts of revelation. Some classical scholars like Suyuti argued that revelation descended according to the need, with five or ten verses at a time and more and less, while ancient authority Ikrima stated that the Quran was revealed in installments with three, four or five verses at a time. So it seemed to me that any translation of the Quran must come to some sort of decision as to where these bursts of revelation begin and end and reflect these in the arrangement of the text. So it became evident to me that a straightforward, monotone prose rendering was really not an accurate reflection of the Quranic structure. By dividing my translation into paragraphs, my hope was to highlight the periscopes upon which the text is built without, of course, any claim of authority as to the exact boundary of these periscopes.

More complex is the issue of translating the many voices in which the Quran speaks to us. For here the reader will doubtlessly notice that register of the Quran is constantly in a state of shifting- from narrative to exhortation, from homily to hymn of praise, from strict law to tender mercies, from fear and trembling to invitation to reflection. These, I decided, had to look different. Hence, the horizontal and vertical disposition of my translation. By and large whether the Quran is narrating or legislating I opted for horizontal prose format, where it is, in any sense of the term, dramatic, I arranged it in a vertical and poetic order. Here too, I don’t claim anything other than highlighting a translation problem and offering a tentative solution to it. Equally substantial is the question of glossing the Quranic text. It seemed to me from the very beginning that to gloss the text in any way other than identifying proper names here and there is to exercises the force of authority, giving the translation a peculiar spin that reflects the translator’s own juridical or theological position. The ambiguous, the mysterious, the unfathomable should not be explained away and should be left exactly as it is allowing the readers to interpreting them as they wish. The translator should, in my view,aim to capture what the text may have meant to its earlier listeners. That of course is a tall order. But it is not helped in the least by commentary or glosses.

Most pressing of all is the issue of language that one chooses to render the Quranic Arabic. Without rushing to engagewith many of the fertile theories of translation on offer today or the raging controversies over the familiarity verses alienation of the foreign text I unconsciously slip into what I like to think of a measured modern English. At the same time it appears to me to be highly desirable to imitate the sentence structure of the Arabic so long as this does not obscure the sense. In other ways I attempted a balance between the familiar modern and the alienating archaic but preferring at all times as literal rendering as possible.

In his translation of Beowulf Seamus Heaney expresses the translator’s dilemma as follows: ‘It is one thing to find lexical meanings for the words and to have some feel for how the metre might go, but it is quite another thing to find the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch for the overall music of the work.’

In my search for that tuning fork I was painfully aware that the cadence of the Arabic could never be truly reproduced.Nevertheless, I strove for what Heaney calls the directness of utterance in order to convey something of the power of juxtaposition, rhythmic recurrence, sonority, verbal energy and rhymed endings of the original.

So all these amount to answers to the questions posed above about a new translation bringing a new understanding. That itself might be a worthwhile endeavor.

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