A new translation of the Qur’an is a magnificent achievement, writes Ziaudauddin Sardar.
We look for two things in any new translation of the Qur’an. How close does it get to communicating the meaning of the original, that inimitable oral text, the very sounds of which move men and women to tears and ecstasy? And does it offer something more: a new perspective, perhaps; or an innovative rendering?
Tarif Khalidi, a professor of Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut, scores high on both these criteria in his The Qur’an: A New Translation (Penguin Classics). He manages to capture the allusiveness of the text, as well as something of its tone and texture. While being faithful to the original, he succeeds in conveying linguistic shifts, from narrative to mnemonic, sermons to parables. And there is an innovative component: it is the first translation that tries to capture both the rhythms and the structure of the Qur’an.
The best way to demonstrate its newness and how close it is to the original text is to compare it with an old translation. The translation I have in mind is Khalidi’s predecessor in the Penguin Classics: The Koran, translated with notes by NJ Dawood. First published in 1956, Dawood’s translation was republished in numerous editions. It has been a great source of discomfort for Muslims, who see in it deliberate distortions that give the Qur’an violent and sexist overtones. It is the one most non-Muslims cite when they tell me with great conviction what the Qur’an says.
The change can be detected with the name of the sacred text itself: we move from “Koran”, the older anglicised form, to the new “Qur’an”, which is now accepted as the correct Arabic transliteration and pronunciation of the word. This is not just a trivial matter of linguistics; it signals a shift from the old Oriental way of presenting the Qur’an in English to a new inclusive way that takes Muslims’ appreciation of their sacred text into account.
Subtle differences in chapter headings signal significant change. The opening chapter of the Qur’an in Dawood is “The Exordium”. In Khalidi, and indeed universally among other translations, it is “The Opening”. Dawood translates Az-Zumar (chapter 39) as “The Hordes”, suggesting bands of barbarian mobs; Khalidi renders it “The Groups”.
While Dawood’s translation presents the Qur’an as a patriarchal, sexist text, Khalidi brings out the gender-neutral language of the original. A good example is provided by 2:21. In Dawood we read: “Men, serve your Lord.” In Khalidi it becomes: “O People! Worship your Lord.” Dawood’s translation of the famous verse 2:25, frequently quoted, is largely responsible for the current misconception that Muslim paradise is full of “virgins” — despite the fact that the Qur’an explicitly denies any carnal pleasures in paradise. This is because we find “men” in Dawood’s translation in the garden of paradise who are “wedded to chaste virgins”.
Khalidi renders it correctly: “In these gardens they have immaculate spouses.”
The old Penguin translation uses rather obscure images throughout to give the impression that the Qur’an is full of demons and witches. For example, in 31:1 Dawood has God swearing “by those who cast out demons”.
Khalidi translates the same verse as: “Behold the revelations of the Wise Book.”
So this translation is a quantum leap ahead of the old Penguin version. But it also has a rather special character. Khalidi is not interested in providing the context of the verses of the Qur’an. We therefore do not always know who the Qur’an is addressing at various junctures or who is speaking to whom in its internal dialogues. Here M Abdel-Haleem’s translation (OUP), published in 2004, is more useful. Neither is Khalidi all that concerned with providing the reader with help. Footnotes, for example, would have been useful for occasional explanation of what is happening in a particular passage. Instead he takes a rather unusual attitude to the Qur’an. It is “a bearer of diverse interpretation”, he says and its ambiguities are deliberately designed to stimulate thinking.
Let the reader be “patient of interpretation” and read at will. All that is needed is to approach the text with sympathy.
Khalidi wants the reader to enjoy the experience of reading the Qur’an.
Of course he wants to communicate the majesty of its language, the beauty of its style and the “eternal present tense” of its grammar. But he also wants the reader to appreciate the Qur’an’s unique structure, how the language changes with the subject matter, how it swirls around and makes rhythmic connections. He wishes to show how each of the seven tropes of the Qur’an (command, prohibition, glad tidings, warnings, sermons, parables and narratives) registers a change in the style of its language. A lofty ambition, but one he pulls off with some success. The shifts in style are presented in two ways. Linguistically Khalidi moves from literal translation, rendered in clear prose, using heightened language and deeply poetic renderings.
Physically, the layout of the passage changes, so each style looks different on the page. The narrative passages, or sections dealing with social and legislative affairs, appear in a prose format. The dramatic and metaphysical sections are arranged in poetic style.
This translation manages to give a glimpse of the grandeur of the original. Khalidi’s poetic sections will be compared with AJ Arberry’s The Koran Interpreted (OUP, 1964), widely considered to be the most poetic of all translations. While I still prefer Arberry, Khalidi compares very favourably.
But, for the life of me, I cannot see why poetic translations cannot number the verses consistently and consecutively. Like Arberry, Khalidi provides verse numbers on the side margins non-consecutively. There are a couple of other unforgivable omissions. In the main text the chapters have no numbers. While there is a short glossary, there is no index. I found the translation very difficult to navigate.
These omissions notwithstanding, this is a magnificent achievement. And Penguin, which had a rotten image among Muslims thanks to Dawood’s translation, has redeemed itself.–