Why a new translation of the Qurân is needed.
The first translation of the Qurân into English was done in 1649 by Alexander Ross. Since that first translation, many more attempts have been made to penetrate the work from an outside, academic point of view, but it wasn’t until 1905 that Dr. M. Abdul Hakim Khan became the first Muslim to translate the Qurân into English. It would be another thirty years until Yusuf Ali would produce one of the most widely circulated versions to date.
Aside from concerns about academia and orientalism, translating the Qurân can be an enormous task even for the sincere of heart. Arabic, as a Semitic language, has words that have meanings and shades of meanings which do not easily move over into English, and total mastery of both languages is needed before any truly satisfactory translation can be put forward. Translators also struggle to render what they believe to be the right meaning into a foreign language—knowing that it is almost impossible to reflect the Arabic style, rhythms, and figures of speech, while also struggling with different interpretations of the original Arabic words.
The development of linguistics, current events, and the gradual drift of the English language puts us in an important time to move forward in Qurânic translations. For the most part, a lack of understanding Arabic can be seen in older, less popular works from European scholars, however mistakes and errors are persistent in more modern copies, and blunders can even be found in the likes of Yusuf Ali when he writes, “those who believe not in the hereafter name the angels with female names.” (53:27) A brief survey of names such as Gabriel, Michael, and Mâlik offers no female names whatsoever. Keeping in mind that some pagan Arabs believed that the angels were God’s daughters, the true translation can be rendered, “those who do not believe in the Hereafter label the angels as female.”
The failure to understand the complex forms of Classical Arabic found in the Qurân, and sometimes found only in the Qurân, can be a stumbling block for many scholars, but even those with a strong understanding of Arabic need to have their intelligence backed with the wisdom found in a sound theological background. Without understanding the religious context of the Qurân, such mistakes can be made as when Muhsin Khan & Muhammad al-Hilali write, “Allah will never lead a people astray after He has guided them until He makes clear to them as to what they should avoid.” (9:115)
Surely it cannot be said that God “leads people astray,” even if that is a rough approximation of what the Arabic words say. Furthermore, what would be the point of making clear what they should avoid if God plans to lead His followers astray anyway? The meaning is clearly, “God would never consider a people deviant after He has guided them, until He makes clear to them what they must avoid.”
For these reasons it is clear that any translation of the Qurân must be led by scholars with a profound understanding of the theological context of the Qurân, as well as a native understanding of Arabic, but also considerable training in the meaning of the Classical Arabic particular to the Qurân. These three things enable a scholar to truly understand the Qurân, and a profound understanding is the first step towards a good translation.
Of course, a firm understanding of Arabic is not all that is needed in order to translate the Qurân effectively. The Qurân states repeatedly that it is accessible, clear, and easy to understand, so it would be an error to translate it into dense or inaccessible language. Naturally, the academic traditions that first dealt with translating the Qurân value language density, and the religious and scholarly traditions of the English language assume a correlation between complexity of language and truth. This correlation has been carried over into translations of the Qurân despite complexity, density, and inaccessibility being tenants far from Islamic scholarly tradition. What we are left with are translations that, though they may be technically correct, miss the simplicity, vigour, or eloquence of the original in favour of a contrived sense of divinity.
Two striking examples of overinflated, though accurate, English translations come to mind. First, M.M. Pickthall writes, “Be modest in thy bearing and subdue thy voice. Lo! the harshest of all voices is the voice of the ass.” (31:19) In today’s English, this can only be read as a rather vulgar statement, especially by non-academic readers and should instead be rendered, “Be moderate in your pace and lower your voice, for the ugliest of all voices is certainly the braying of donkeys.” Second, T.B. Irving writes of 44:16, “Some day We will kidnap everyone in the greatest operation; We shall be Avenged!” Giving God a distinctly immature, vindictive, and even rueful voice where a more appropriate translation is, “˹On˺ the Day We will deal ˹you˺ the fiercest blow, We will surely inflict punishment.”
The tone of the Qurân, as a revelation for all humanity, relies heavily on a number of emotions as well, and a poor understanding of English can lead even great scholars of Arabic into error with translation. There are numerous instances in the Qurân of sarcasm and wit, which are often lost entirely in complicated and fragile grammar structures. Elegance and prose are also usually cast out of translations, especially when scholars use a rigid word-for-word replacement technique to encode Arabic into a mock-English cypher that sometimes gives the opposite meaning of what is intended in the verse. The problem with ignoring the subtleties and intricacies of human language can be underlined by examining the work of Dr. M. Mahmoud Ghali. He translates 4:105, “and do not be a constant adversary of the treacherous.” The true translation of this verse is, “so do not be an advocate for the deceitful.” A similar example can be found in his translation of 100:8, “And surely he is indeed constantly (passionate) in his love for charity,” where “love for charity” in fact refers to “greed for ˹worldly˺ gains.”
In respecting the order and particulars of the Arabic words being used, the meaning of dozens of idioms are lost in translation, hundreds of sentences become a tangled mess of improper grammar, and the flow and ease of reading is entirely lost. It is better to respect the meaning and power of the Qurân than the language it happened to be revealed in, otherwise one might end up with the near blasphemous statement found in the Ṣaḥeeḥ International translation, “They have forgotten Allah, so He has forgotten them.” (9:67) Surely God does not ‘forget’ anything or anyone. Google Translate might give up a similar translation, but the meaning is poetic, it is much closer to ‘neglect.’ Both parties are aware of each other, but when humans neglect their duties to God, He neglects them in the Fire: “They neglected God, so He neglected them.”
Aside from these more theologically problematic translation issues, there are dozens of simple grammar structures in the Qurân that are easy, clear, or beautiful in Arabic, but entirely untranslatable. Rather than try to fit the English structures and words into a foreign context, it is much better to accept English for what it has to offer and use its own native poetry and balance to create a translation that carries the real meaning and power of the Perfect Book.
One example of vexing grammar is the ‘rotation of pronouns’ (iltifât) found throughout the Qurân. Alternating between first person, second person, and third person is commonplace in the stories and warnings of the Final Revelation, but if it is rendered verbatim into English it becomes entirely useless, as this poetic style is rarely found in any Indo-European language at all, and almost never in English.
A similar issue is found in the referential nature of pronouns in either language. In Classical Arabic, especially in the Qurân, the repeated use of a single pronoun (such as ‘he’) rotates in reference, which is to say it first speaks of the first speaker, then the next use speaks of the second speaker, then back to the first. In this way, repeatedly using “he said” would indicate a dialogue, whereas a direct translation of the conversation would be rendered as a monologue in English. The same can be said of other pronouns such as ‘they.’
With grammar and the particularities of translating aside, a considerable understanding of the context of the Qurânic revelation itself as well as the stories found within is needed in order to render a proper English translation. For example, the word ‘corn’ is no longer used to describe all forms of grain, yet many translations still use this word to describe the fields in the dream of the King in the story of Joseph (12:43 and 46). When Yusuf Ali first wrote this in 1934, it may have been acceptable to refer to wheat as a kind of corn, but in modern vocabulary this is totally unheard of, yet many translations simply erroneously copy that word into their own works.
It is clear that the modern age demands not only a great scholar of Arabic and the Qurân to come to the table, but also a modern, adaptable scholar of the English language, as well as someone with native fluency who knows how the translation will be received.
The reception of the Qurân by English audiences now indicates a third stage in the historical development of Qurân translation. At first it was an academic exercise, a curious study of the ‘other.’ Next, Muslims translated the Qurân as a matter of love or pride, and they shared it among themselves. With this long history and background, and a team of experts in the Qurân and in the English language, the struggle we now face is transmitting the real beauty and message of the Qurân to Muslims and non-Muslims alike who are interested in it and who also know and love English.
The Alcoran of Ross was the first small step forward, and Yusuf Ali’s The Holy Qur’an was a turning point in the history of the Qurân in English. The next step is to overcome the obstacles outlined here and to deliver God’s Final Testament to English speaking audiences like never before. The next step is The Clear Qurân.