An article was published by The National on June 21, 2013 on the recent publication of Talal Itani’s translation of the Qur’an; a press release from February 2013 announces the publication.
The Itani translation is not the issue of this blogpost, rather Dubai’s Chief Mufti Ahmad Abdulaziz Alhaddad’s comments are. The article included comments from him regarding Qur’an translations in general. They seemed to me cautious and slightly discouraging: that Itani’s commendable intentions were misplaced, and he should seek approval from an Islamic authority before publication.
Approval from an authority is not the only issue though, the Chief Mufti (CM) gives three points on translating the Qur’an “accurately” (for clarity, quotation marks for the rest of this post exist because I consider the concepts within them questionable):
- Have a “clear understanding” of each verse.
- Be an expert in the target language, know grammar and structure to convey a “correct meaning”.
- Be a part of a committee, perhaps to share the burden of translating a holy text.
The problems are various in these comments, though they aren’t new problems at all. These issues present themselves everywhere, and they become an important issue in sensitive texts, like scripture, legislation, and contracts. Religious institutions have always tried to play a role (actively or passively) in the translation of scripture: The Vatican hierarchy was restrictive of translating the Bible, the Protestants were ever-translating. Islamic religious institutions based in Arabic-speaking societies avoided (or disparaged) the idea of translating the Qur’an, often overlooking the traditions that one of the Prophet’s Companions is said to have translated the Qur’an.
Religious institutions that do involve themselves in the act of translations often seek to authorize translation projects or endorse existing translations. The CM’s warned against “unauthorized translations” that have not been “approved by a specialized committee”, and Itani’s plan for “review and endorsement” by Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment and Egypt’s Azhar. The distinction of authorization and endorsement is not major, I only see it as a degree of power. The higher degree of power goes to authorization, that is before and during the act of translation, endorsement occurs after the act of translation.
Authorization can be quite restrictive and more controlling, I don’t see a purpose for it except in acts of standardization and official uses: the Vatican officially used the fourth-century translation known as the Vulgate after it was authorized by Pope Damasus I and translated by St Jerome in the fourth century. The King James Bible (actually called the Authorized Bible by some) was one of the three official Bible translations used by the Church of England, which they’ve used almost ever since. The English language wouldn’t be the same without the standardizing influence of the King James translation.
Endorsement is a bit less exclusive as an organization considered an authority might not restrict itself to using an endorsed translation. These things are more like an approval for the general public to use, in order to add a marketing value on a particular translation. The problem with both authorization and endorsement is not that they exist, but it is who endorses and authorizes these translations.
The three points are laced with problems. How can a “clear understanding” of the Qur’anic verses exist if the exegetes differed on what the verses meant? These differences come into existence by how exegetes used different criteria to extract meaning. Did exegetes focus on linguistic issues alone? Historical issues, particular through the use of hadith? How about the modern theological focus on (pseudo)science? How about the goals, such as the production of law? If you need to see how vast and varied tafsirs can get, take a look at Anthology of Qur’anic Commenaries, there’s plenty of examples where tafsirs (even within the same theological school) can differ greatly.
Translators and their translations are almost exactly the same as exegetes. They are influenced by a variety of factors when translating a text. The goals of the translator can influence the way the translator reads a text. The theological background, choices of tafsir, etc. Most translations with translator’s notes detail what theological references they relied on when working.
The second point stresses grammar and structure too much. It’s almost as if the CM’s impression of language is nothing but grammar and structure. A text carries much more than simply cohesion (grammar) and coherence (structure). If we were to take Beaugrande and Dressler’s seven standards of textuality as a general guide on language (through text), then there are five more standards that are missing in this point: intentionality, informativity, acceptability, situationality, and intertextuality. (See a summary here and the detailed Introduction to Text Linguistics for more). Assuming that those two are the only things when writing (and translating) a text, is a bit outdated, linguistically speaking. Granted, you could argue the B&D is a bit old too but compared to this comment it doesn’t seem so.
A factor that you could argue is a part of situationality is how power (and of course centers of power) can influence the meaning that a reader sees in a text, since no text exists in a vacuum. It was not in a vacuum when it was written, and it is not in a vacuum when read. The contexts during the writing and reading all influences the meanings. It defines “correct meaning”. Correct meaning almost always comes from centers of power. As an example we could take a look at the Jabriyyah doctrine and Mu‘tazilah doctrine that were spread during the Umayyad and Abbasid reigns which was spread by the regime’s religious establishment, the Jabriyyah doctrine was to establish a divinely-destined attribute to the Umayyad dynasty, while the second doctrine was a theo-political requirement, and theologians who didn’t subscribe to them were subjected to prosecution.
The last issue is of the committee translations. There’s not much that I see problematic about this. Collaborative translations occur everywhere, just like collaborative writing and research. The problem is that collaborative committees often require the adherence to a certain strategy or standard in order to produce the translation. It may be stricter as the committee grows, lesser as the committee is smaller.
Of course, when it is a case of an individual translator, then there’s a lot of space to explore marginal and innovative translation strategies. The only thing that the translator risks is failure. Failure is cheaper for an individual than for an organization or a committee.
Examples of innovative translations produced by individual translators or duos are William Tyndale who dared to produce a Bible translation that used different terms than the ones used by the Roman Catholics, such as “congregation” instead of “Church” or “overseer” instead of “bishop”, therefore taking away the basis for the Vatican’s hierarchy, he was punished, rather than rewarded by being strangled then burnt for the translation. Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation too attempted a different reading of the Qur’an. Or perhaps the poetic rendering of the translations, such as Fazlolah Nikayin. Or perhaps to serve smaller sects or theologies such as the Qur’anist translations of Rashad Khalifa and Edip Yüksel.
Individual translations are not only a way to produce innovative translations, but also serve lesser-know and lesser-taught languages. Think of minority languages, or those spoken by less than a few million people: Hawai’ian, Fiji Hindi, Gullah, Kven, and so on. Just try establishing a committee of translators and editors who can work with those languages and Qur’anic Arabic.
I’m not condemning committee translations, there’s plenty of successful ones out there. You know, like the King James Bible translation and the Luther Bible, like Qur’an translation known as the Saheeh International, the heavily critiqued Hilali-Khan translation (successful, I think, because of the official support it has been given), or like the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible, the Septuagint, which has a mythical legend about how it was translated in order to make it a holy translation too. These translations work well in denominational or institutional settings. They could help maintain a certain uniformity, particular doctrinal uniformity to the theological leanings of a religious authority.
I can imagine that there would be many who would heed the CM’s warning about unauthorized or unapproved translations, however I see more than a minority who wouldn’t know, or care, or be interested in the warning. Perhaps even many of those who take reading translations of religious texts seriously often end up reading (and exploring) a variety of translations.