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Conveying the meaning of the Holy Quran in another language

Religious texts - problems of translation
By Ali Viacheslav Polosin | Assalam | 12 Apr 2012

It is obvious that any translation of a literary work may only approximately convey its meaning and the emotional impact of the original. Translation of religious works is even more complicated for many reasons:  

The main purpose of a literary work is the disclosure of the inner world of the hero – and thus the author’s - or, simply, a means to help the author share his feelings with the reader. On the contrary, a religious text of whatever genre demands from the reader to comply with its prescriptions in his private and social life. The main purpose of creating religious texts is always the formation of ethic and/or legal norms in the mind of the readers (listeners) according to the God’s will.

For this reason any religious text, be it the Holy Scripture or hagiographic accounts, is a prescriptive echic or legal document containing demands of the Creator towards the humans. These demands may be expressed directly or indirectly. A true believer regards these demands of God as absolute and binding for himself and other people. He cannot regard them as legends and myths which lost their connection to today’s reality. Now, such a text must be considered in a certain relation to the existing order of things (unwritten laws and traditions - adat in Arabic), public opinion and the laws of the state.

Social life becomes a melting pot of religious prescriptions and social and cultural customs in a certain historical period. Under these circumstances the commands of God are interpreted in a certain way. For even the word of God himself has been sent into a certain social and cultural milieu, and its real meaning should be extracted from underneith the layers of signs, symbols, realities and idioms of that milieu.
When translating the word of God into another language a new question arises: how to achieve adequacy in conveying the word of God into another social context ruled by different adats and filled with different idioms?

Is it possible to translate the Quran into another language?

Many Muslims discuss how and if the noble Quran can be conveyed in other languages.
A renowned alim Kuramuhammad-Hadji Ramazanov (may God have mercy upon him) writes: “A special quality of the Quran is that each ayah (verse) may have one, two or ten different unambiguous meanings.” For more information on this issue one might be advised to consult Anwar at-Tanzil by Bayzawi or a similar work.
Another trait of the Quran is the frequent occurrence of polysemy (words with multiple meanings).

The Quran contains many ayahs about daily life that have been revealed as the answers to certain issues in certain situations. Ignoring the time, the place or the situation of the revealation may lead to misinterpretation of the text. Quran also contains ayahs concerning natural sciences, law, history, ethics, faith, the religion of Islam, the attributes of Allah and the elloquency of the Arabic language. If an alim failed to comment the scientific information contained in an ayah then he would have missed to explain the full meaning of this ayah. For all these reasons, a literal translation of the Quran is impermissible whereas all translations which nowdays exist in Russian are literal.

Further I would like to explain the importance of historical and cultural milieau which is the “background” of a recorded or a pronounced religious text, and this background is connected through invisible cords with each word and idiom of the text; it defines its literal meaning, its nuances, its subtle word play, its implications, its metaphors, the hidden archaic prototypes and new paradygmes, the emotional world of a man of that time.
For example, the sentence “This is the biggest road.” would rather be expressed by an Arab using an idiom: “This is the mother of roads.” He would not say: “This man has a big beard,” but instead rather: “This is the father of beards.” A short Arabic phrase “Mariam is a sister of Harun” would must be understood by a European: “The holy Maria in her rightiousness is equal to Aaron (Haroon)”. In the Arabic language one would avoid abstract definitions like “This is the main scripture” but say rather “This is the mother of scriptures.

Sometimes it is possible to find an equivalent for conveying the word play and the nuances of the meaning in the target language, but mostly this cannot be done, especially when translating from ancient languages. Ancient languages have the minimum of terms to denote abstract concepts; these terms existed in a very limited quantity and mostly coincide with the names of common objects without having their own separate designations; these common names get in the colloquial language and literature new abstract meanings so that there is no need to use new words to denote abstract objects. To find the meaning implied by the author and then to find a Russian equivalent is not a simple task. The more centuries pass between the source text and the translation process the more complicated becomes this task. For translation of religious texts such technique may only be applied by a translator who already has a solid knowledge of this religion and both the religious and the mundane vocabulary.
To support this thesis I would like to use some arguments from scientific disciplines which deal with translations.

What is a translation?

Difficulties related to the translation of Islamic literature, including Quran translations, emerge even before one gets to work with the source text. I mean the difficulty of interpretation of the concept translation itself. I have always found it hard to bear to hear the collocation “translation of the meaning of the Quran”. A Quran translator told me that his sponsors asked him to use this term to denote that since it is not possible to translate the Quran then its meanings are to be translated.

According to the dictionary of a renowned Russian scientist Vladimir Dal, the noun translation, or more exactly translation of a book, means conveying into another language. “The work of a translator is to convey the speech [from one language to another] clearly and truly”, that is considering the relation between the words and their meaning, the idioms and the cultural and historical context.
Summing up and simplifying the definitions of translation given by the modern science, one might say that translation is an activity aimed at conveyting the content of a text by the means of another language and the product (target text) of this activity.

According to the main purpose of a translation it can be classified as:
a) literal translation which produces metaphrase (also called pony translation);
b) word-by-word translation called grammatical translation;
c) philological translation also called “documentary” translation;
d) full translation [translation in the full sense of the word], conveying the content of the text in its context.

In a metaphrase the text is a consiquence of separate words and each word has it own independent meaning. In such translation the consequence of the words in the source text is the same as in the target text. The fact that target text produced by such translation may be completely confusing but it is not regarded as a failure because the literal translation has a different purpose: this translation type is often used as an instrument in linguistics, for instance in syntactical classification. Metaphrase is also used in poetry: a translator first may prepare a pony translation and then convert it into a poetic form.” [1, 3].  

Literal translation is also used for linguistic experiments. A literal Quran translation has been done by a renowned Soviet arabist I. Krachkovski. This translation was found on his desk after his death.  It becomes quite clear why many new converts do not understand Krachkovski’s translation although it is highly appreciated by professional arabists who use this translation for further work with the corpus of the Holy Quran.
“Word-by-word translation, compared to literal translation, regards the text not as a sequence of words, but a sequence of sentences. Producing a coherent and a logical target text, conveying the impact of the source text, adapting metaphors and any considering the peculiarities of the source language are all not the task of a literal translation. This type of translation is used for learning foreign languages: in a certain stage a student might find it useful to learn to reprodruce grammatically correct and adequate sentenses. [2]. This skill is developed by preparing literal translations.
It is commendable that sponsors of Quran translations demand from translators deep knowledge of Arabic but nevertheless this does not end up in a good translation in case of literal translations. A literal translation implies repeating formal and semantic components of the source text in the target text. As a result:
- the target text does not comply with the rules and the standard usage of the target language;
- the content of original is distorted;

What is then the comprehensive, clear and true translation that conveys the source text as a whole and not as a sequence of single sentences out of context? “Translation in the truest sense of the word - is not a set of separate language pair equivalents but a deep understanding of the source text followed by the production of a new text in the target language. In other words, this means two consecutive translations: first into a hypothetical language of concepts (the understanding of source text) and then a translation from this hypothetical language into the target language [creating a new text]. During the process of transaltion the translator uses his linguistic knowledge as well as his knowledge about nature, society, culture and the situations in which the source text appeared and the target text shall be perceived. The stages of understand the source text and producing a text in the target language are completely different” [4].
Kuramuhammad-Hadji notes that: “A Quran translator should... have a deep knowledge of the target language. To understand the Quran is one task and to translate it - another one. That is why one should be fluent in both languages.The translator should first copy the Quran in Arabic, then copy its tafseer (exegesis). Then the meaning of exegesis. Through this procedure the reader would know that this is tafseer and not a literal transaltion. It is impossible to translate the Quran literally... it can not be translated otherwise than through tafseer.”

Tafseer acts as a mediator or as a intermediary language, a semantic matrix, which contains all meanings extracted by alims. These meanings should be then conveyed into another language keeping in mind the \ socio-cultural peculiarities of the text without sticking to the grammatical structure of the Arabic.

Mistakes in tafseer lead to mistakes in Quran translations

Not following this method may result in crucial mistakes.
As for instance, some ayahs of the Quran mention the throne of Allah and the hands of Allah. This all lead to discussions about how this is to be understood: literally or metaphorically? Kharijite and Zahirite sects demanded to follow the literal meaning which resulted in a terrible sacriledge.

Imam Malik, the founder of one of the four main schools of Islamic thought (mazhabs), has prohibited to explain anything literally just for the reason there is not enough knowledge to explain it otherwise. Most believers agreed with him. In fact, how can a sentence like “the clouds float in the firmanent” or “the sun raises in the east” be understood verbally?

Nevertheless, the Kharijite and the Zahirite sects reappeared on the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century forming a single group which can be described as the sect of antropomorphists (that is, they ascribed to God human qualities, including having a body). The sect emphasized the principal of literal understanding of Quran to a ridiculous extent. Unlike Imam Malik, this sect affirmed that God had a body with two right hands and this body was located in a certain space.

As a result, Elmir Kuliev, a Quran translator, who is using as intermediary commentary the works of the antropomorfist and literalist Abdurrahman Saadi who is saying that “Allah is the best of all plotters” (surah “Al Imran”, 54, surah “Al-Anfal”, 30), which is a rude mistake, because Quran is not saying “plotters”, but “plotting ones” (arab. al-makirin) and the grammar shows that plotter is not a name of Allah, or even his quality but his response to those who plot an evel thing (an attempt to kill Isa, peace be upon him).

Also the Russian language differentiates between a plotter and a plotting one, a plotting one might be in fact an honest person who plots something under certain circumstances but it is not his usual quality. The word plotter means on the contrary somebody who has such quality and it is a part of his nature.

Krachkovski translated the passage in surah al-Anfal as of the cunning which is hardly written in a good style in Russian but at least it does not ascribe to Allah wrong qualities.
Let us take a look at some other frequent mistakes in tafseer which were then reflected in Russian translations:
Muslims must believe that Allah has a visage [a face]” [5].
Muslims must believe that Allah has two hands” [6].
“...the belief that Allah has two eyes is a true Islamic belief” [7].
It is true that the Quran uses idiomatic or metaphorical expressions with these words but it does not state the fact that Allah really has body parts.

Anthropomorphizing Allah through literalist exegesis has lead to an attempt to draw his picture, nearly a verbal icon, which is strictly prohibited by Quran.  These wrong affirmations that are reflected in the work of E. Kuliev abase the description of Allah and give space to islamophobs to critisize such primitive ideas about God.

The anthropomorphist sect started the tradition of blocking adequate translations into other languages through their rediculous exegesis. Literalism might only be useful for exegesis in the language of the original where the reader already knows the etymology, the simbols, its occurence in literature; that is when the word with its word field and all related simbols and connections appears in one’s mind as an image which does not need further interpretation.

But when translated into another language all these subtle connections and symbols get cut off all at once, the word becomes a narrow term delimited by the context of the source language because this term’s etimology and its connections would be normally quite different from its equivalant in the original.


In its fullness the word of God cannot be conveyed into any other language as it cannot be  understood fully even by native speakers of Arabic because the word of God carries more meaning than a man’s mind can ever bear. A comprehensive understanding of the Quran can be to a certain extent achieved by studying classical tafseer works.  

The Quran has not only deep theological sense but is partially written in rhymed prose and its unique meter cannot be rendered in Russian or any other language.  From that point of view one can only try to maintain its beauty in the translation by rendering it by the means of the target language. There is a translation by Iman Valeria Porohova who used the Russian classical style of the famous Russian poet Pushkin. But this is not a translation in the full sense of the word but rather a poetical invitation to Islam and a sermon popularizing separate statements of the Quran.

Comprehending the Quran theologically needs not only random introspection into the holy text but as well getting acquainted with the tafseers of the recognized alims, following not the sequence of the ayahs in the Quran, but the logic of the mission of Muhammad (Peace be upon him) and the sequence of the ayahs as they were revealed.

Today we may see that the attempts to translate Quran literally and to translate its theological meaning word by word disregarding its content as a whole and ignoring its beauty have not succeeded.  An adequate and a comprehensive translation may only be done based on recognized tafseers which serve us as an intermediary language and allows us understand the original based on the knowledge of the traditions of the Prophet (ahadith), only then we can try to create our own translation.  

Creating a short comprehensive tafseer can only be done by its native speaker who is familiar with the prophetic traditions. That is why we need a group of people, a council (arab. shura) including specialtists in tafseer, ahadith, classical Arabic and Russian religious vocabulary. We cannot allow ourselves to expect from one person to be a specialist in all these disciplines and if we wait for such a person to appear he might never come...

[1] Encyclopedia “Krugosvet”
[2] Encyclopedia “Krugosvet”  
[3] Dictionary of Social Sciences.
[4] Encyclopedia “Krugosvet”.
[5] Elmir Kuliev, “Na puti k Koranu” [On the way to Quran]. - Moscow, Umma, 2006, p. 385
[6] ibid., p.387
[7] ibid., p.394


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