Below we display a local
copy of the article taken from this link at the
website islamic-paths.org. It is no longer at the Islamic-Paths website but can be found at the well-known website scribd.com at this link.
Translating the Holy Qur'an
Is There An Ultimate Translation Of The Qur’an?
by DR. A. Nihamathullah
The proliferation of translations of the Qur’an in English is remarkable.
Generally, no single translation suffices any great work. "Every great
book demands to be translated once in a century, to suit the change
in standards and taste of new generation, which will differ radically
from those of the past" (J.M. Cohen, 1962). The same point is reiterated
by Andre Lefevere (1977): "Different ages need different adjustments
and translations." These views however do not explain the flood of
English translations of the Qur’an in the 20th century. Mary Snell-Hornby
(1988) emphasizes the dynamic role of the text and the translator
thus: "Furthermore, the text cannot be considered a static specimen
of language (an idea still dominant in practical translation classes),
but essentially as the verbalized expression of an author's intention
as understood by the translator as reader, who then recreates this
whole for another readership in another culture. This dynamic process
explains why new translations of literary works are constantly in
demand, and why the perfect translation does not exist."
Sunnis and Shiites, Salafis and Barelvis, Ahmadi Lahoris and Ahmadi
Qadiyanis, Christian clerics and Western Orientalists have vied
with one another for translating the Qur’an into English. F.V. Griefenhagen
(1992:284), in an incisive analysis of the history of English translations
of the Qur’an, observes, "Thus, by the 20th century, the translation
of the Qur’an into English became the locus of power struggles,
not only between Islam and West, but also between orthodox groups
within Islam and heterodox offshoots." A bio-bibliographic study
of Dr. M. H. Khan (1986) lists 41 English translations of the Qur’an
of which 31 are complete ones; Dr. A.R. Kidwais (1988) annotated
bibliography contains 35 complete translations of the Qur’an. Significantly,
the Indian sub-continental contribution (26 translations in M.H.
Khans count) is impressive (see Metcalf 1982:98-216 for reasons).
A few more translations have since been added. Paradoxically, despite
the multiplicity of Qur’an translations, no translation has attained
universal acceptance. In Kidwais opinion, "The Muslim Scripture
is yet to find a dignified and faithful expression in English language
that matches the majesty and grandeur of the original."
Reviews of specific translations, compilations of translation-errors
and articles on general aspects of Qur’an translation (e.g. AL.
Tibawi 1962; Daud Raghbar 1963; T.B. Irving 1979; A.R. Kidwai 1985,
1988; Maurice Bucaille 1986; Muhammad Shikhani 1988; Mushirul Haq
1989) constitute the bulk of the Qur’an translation criticism available
as of now. Apart from reviews that appear in journals and periodicals
(e.g. Hafiz 1930; M.W. Mirza 1962; S.A.W. Bukhari 1979; Arafaque
Malik 1980; Mir Najbat Ali 1980; A.R. Kidwai 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989,
1992, 1993, 1994; Asghar Ali Engineer 1998; Abdullah Abbas Nadvi
1989; Khushwant Singh 1987, 1990, 1993 etc), most of the translators
make a rapid review of the previous translations (e.g. Hafiz Ghulam
Sarwar 1980: vii - xlii, Yusuf Ali 1983: xii-xiii, Arberry 1981;
7-24). Most of these reviews, because of constraints of space and
the limited purpose, tend to be somewhat scanty, or sketchy or introductory.
Any penetrative and sustained critical analysis is beyond their
scope. Moreover, the comments and conclusions are mostly impressionistic
and subjective. One comes across warm eulogies like those of Maryam
Jameelah (1982:5), "The sweep of eloquence, the virility and dignity
of the language (of Pickthall) is unsurpassed in any other translation,"
or out rightly dismissive statements like "we may more justifiably
call his (Palmers) translation careless and slipshod" (Yusuf Ali
( 1983:xiii). Not much supportive evidence is given.
A.R. Nykl (1936) lists some errors of Palmer, while A.R. Kidwai
(1988) lists those of Arberry. A Discussion of Errors of Yusuf Ali
(n.d: iii) by Majlisul Ulama of South Africa is more a critique
of "The serious defects contained in the commentary of Yusuf Ali"
than of the translation errors as such. In the absence of any standard
framework for analyzing the errors, this type of criticism tends
to degenerate into mere error-hunting and fault-finding often on
arbitrary and flimsy grounds. For instance, A.R. Kidwai (1992:14)
points out that Q. Arafats Incorrect Equivalents chosen by Yusuf
Ali in His translation of the Qur’an "sets out to find fault" and
that "of four hundred alleged incorrect equivalents there is literally
not one worthy of serious consideration." Similarly, of Iqbal Hussain
Ansaris locating errors in Pickthall, A.R. Kidwai remarks, "On closer
examination, neither the number nor the kind of errors is significant:
of the 248 alleged errors very few are substantial."
Basim Muftin Badrs critical comparison of six English translations
is a step in the right direction, though of single small surah of
the Qur’an. It is then clear that not much help is forthcoming for
an ordinary reader who has to sift through a maze of translations.
No systematic comparative study of the translations in the background
of some standard theory of translation has yet been attempted. As
A.R. Kidwai has pertinently remarked, "Although there is a spate
of volumes on the multi-faceted dimensions of the Qur’an, no substantial
work has so far been done to critically examine the mass of existing
English translations of the Qur’an."
As it would not be possible to include all the English translations
in a comprehensive research work, many translations may be excluded
on the basis of the following criteria:
- All incomplete
translations e.g. Muhammad Abdur Rahman (1926), Dr. S.N.A. Jafari
- All selections
from the Qur’an e.g. Stanley Lane-Pool (1979 rpt), Thomas
Cleary (1993) etc.
- All translations
not done directly from the Arabic original i.e. translations of
translations e.g. Alexander Ross (1649), Muhammad Muradpuri (1980)
- All revisions
carried out by anyone other than the translator (e.g. M.Y. Zayid).
of commentaries e.g. Taq-ul-din al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin
Khan (1978) which is "a summarized version of Ibn Kathir, supplemented
- Works which
are conceived primarily as commentaries in English of which the
translation is merely incidental e.g. Abdul Majid Daryabadi (see
which are of just historical interest e.g. Abdul Hakim Khan (1905),
Mirza Abdul Fadl (1915) etc.
thought to have drawn heavily from other translations and lacking
in originality, e.g. M.H. Shakir (1982), the Zidans (1991).
Criteria (1) and (2) ensure equal footing; (3)-(5) emphasize the
individual responsibility of translator by eliminating any intervening
hand or language; (6) ensures that the translation of the text remains
the focal point even without the complement of commentary; (7) helps
in dropping inconsequential translations; (8) is useful to leave
out duplicating material. A.R. Kidwai opines that M.H. Shakirs translation
is "an example of blatant plagiarism in that about 90% of this English
translation has been verbatim copied from Muhammed Ali Lahoris English
translation of the Qur’an." Similarly, according to A.R. Kidwai,
in the Zidans translation, "passage after passage appears with a
sprinkling of adaptation, to have been lifted from Abdullah Yusuf
Ali’s translation of the Qur’an".
The number of translations that remain even after the application
of the above criteria is still too large to handle. Therefore, some
more translations e.g. A.R. Tariq and Z. Gilani, H.A. Ali, M.M.
Ahmad, which are unlikely to contribute substantially to a detailed
discussion of the subject, may also be dropped. The following 13
translations may however serve the basis for such a detailed discussion:
Translators Name, Year of publication
J. M. Rodwell, 1861
H. Palmer, 1880
Muhammad Ali, 1917
M. Pickthall, 1930
Yusuf Ali, 1934-37
J. Arberry, 1955
J. Dawood, 1956
B. Irving, 1985
M. Khatib, 1986
It is true that the potential for the production of translation
is virtually unlimited; yet, there are restrictions which limit
the basic types of translations. As Andre Lefevere remarks, "After
all, if one is faced with an original work of literary art, one
can translate it, because of the very nature of linguistic and literary
conventions, only in a limited number of ways." The selected translations
can therefore be expected to be sufficiently representative of the
different trends in the field of the Qur’an translation.
Is the study to be conducted from an exclusively literary angle
or purely linguistic angle or from both? As Roman Jakabson observes,
"A linguist deaf to the poetic function of language and a literary
scholar indifferent to linguistic problems and non-conversant with
linguistic methods are equally flagrant anachronisms." Nida espouses
the valid stand that translation is both an art and a science: "Though
no one will deny the artistic elements in good translating, linguists
and philologists have become increasingly aware that the processes
of translation are amenable to rigorous description." A comprehensive
study then should include both the linguistic and the literary aspects
When the source text (i.e., the Qur’an) is one and same, hypothetically
speaking, there should not be much room for variations either between
a particular translation and the original or between the different
translations except for minor changes of no great importance. Yet
it is found that there are significant and momentous differences,
which cannot be accounted for without referring to the role of the
translator, the problems of translation, the principles and procedures
of translating and the issues of style. The suitable theory of translation
in the light of which such a penetrative investigation can be conducted
is to be chosen from among the various theories of translation.
The study should make a critical comparison of the selected English
translations of the Qur’an, firstly, with the Qur’an in Arabic and,
secondly, among the English translations themselves. The object
of the study should not, however, be to arrive at any hierarchical
ranking according to some perceived merits of the chosen translations.
The real aim is to examine the adequacy of a translation, to answer
the basic question: "What is a good translation?" Andre Lefevere
states that this question "can only be answered if one compares
as many types of translations as possible: the descriptive approach
is, indeed, a valuable starting-point, but it should be complemented
by a critical evaluation." The same method should be adopted in
such a study.
Some of the specific issues to be addressed are:
- Whether the
translation is done on sound principles and procedures of translating.
- Whether the
translation is manipulative, biased or interested.
- Whether the
translation reflects the grammatical, referential and connotative
meanings of the source text.
- Whether the
translation is designed to perform the informative, expressive
and imperative functions of the source text effectively.
- Whether the
additions, omissions, and alterations, if any, are obligatory
or optional, justified or unjustified.
- Whether there
are any errors, and if so, of what kind.
- Whether the
translation takes care of the stylistic concerns at the levels
of diction, syntax, discourse and rhetoric.
To sum up, the study should propose
describe, analyze and examine the principles, methods and procedures
of translating the Qur’an.
identify, describe and explain the problems of translating the
Qur’an into English.
identify, describe and account for the differences in the translations.
identify, describe and account for the errors of translations.
examine the role of the translator.
Dr. A. NIHAMATHULLAH, who teaches English at Sadakathullah Appa
College, Tirunelveli, was recently awarded Ph.D. on his monumental
work entitled "A Critical Study Of Selected English Translations
Of The Holy Qur’an".
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English translation of the Quran.
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