Translation stories: The Qur’an

The translation of the Qur’an has always been a subject for discussion in the heart of Islam. What are the difficulties of translating this work?

The translation of the Qur’an has always been a problematic issue for Islamic theology, for the essence of the Qur’an is considered to be untranslatable. However, the text must also be accessible to those who do not speak Arabic… Below we have gathered together some key linguistic and historical references.

Is Translating the Qur’an “Mission Impossible”?

The translation of the Qur’an has always been a subject of discussion within Islam due to three reasons:

The process of transposing the Qur’an into another language has the result of separating the text from its true form, i.e., the Arabic language. The Qur’an is considered miraculous and inimitable; therefore removing it from its original form thus means stripping it of one of its essential attributes.

Another reason that Islamic theology has always been opposed to the translation of the Qur’an is due to the very nature of the Arabic language. Like other Semitic languages, such as Hebrew or Aramaic, the semantic value of an Arabic word (meaning) depends largely on the context (unlike what happens in the Anglo-Saxon and Latin languages, which are more analytical). This feature makes the translation particularly delicate, and therefore dangerous.

Modern Islamic theology holds that the revelation of the Qur’an should be carried out specifically in Arabic. Therefore, the holy book of Islam may only be recited in Arabic. As translation into other languages is strictly the work of human beings, the translation process thus strips the original text of its sanctity.

Translating or Interpreting the Qur’an?

For all these reasons, the translations of the Qur’an are generally called “interpretations” or “translations of meanings”. The ambiguity of the latter allows for the following:

  • References to the meanings of the different parts of the text;
  • An emphasis on the strong polysemic features of the Arabic language;
  • An announcement that this translation is only one of many possible interpretations of the original text.

Translating the Qur’an Presents Three Difficulties

The difficulties inherent to translating the Qur’an are numerous and due to many different factors:

  • The polysemy peculiar to Semitic languages, including Arabic;
  • The distance and differences between classical and modern Arabic;
  • The historical and religious context of the original text,which the translator must understand in order to be able to make sense of it, and this means, in turn, a thorough knowledge of the Hafiz (the traditions built around the actions and sayings of Muhammad and his companions) and the Sirah (the biography of the Prophet).

The First Attempts of Translation

According to Islamic tradition, the Qur’an was not translated during Muhammad’s lifetime.

The first translation of the Qur’an was the work of Salman the Persian, one of the first non-Arab Muslims and Muhammad’s companion. In the early eighth century, he translated parts of the Qur’an into Persian.

The second translation is the one used by Nicetas Choniates between 855 and 870 to write his controversial text aimed at refuting the “false Bible forged by Muhammad the Arab”. It is not known who carried out this translation and the text is lost, but the extracts quoted by Nicetas and the flawless knowledge of the Qur’an shown are a clear indication of its excellent quality.

The first complete and certified translations of the Qur’an were produced between the tenth and twelfth centuries: the manuscripts of these translations of the Qur’an and of the Tafsir have survived and have since been the subject of several publication.

The first translation into Latin of this text was undertaken at the behest of Peter the Venerable who recruited a team of translators, including Herman Dalmatin (Herman of Carinthia). The work, entitled Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete (“Law of Muhammad the false prophet”), although biased and inaccurate, was nonetheless a reference text for Renaissance Europe.

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