Jun 18, 2015

Picking a Translation

The first thing you notice when sitting down to read "the" Quran is the same thing you notice when sitting down to read "the" Bible: there's no such thing, at least for those of us not sufficiently versed in ancient languages to crack open the original.  I expected to have to choose a translation, but I didn't expect to have 57* translations** to choose from.

When I was on the mission field, it was a common complaint that despite the dozens--hundreds--of translations of the Bible into English, we were wasting resources adding more and more and more when so many languages didn't even have one translation.  These days I'm more inclined to suggest that if not one of a hundred extant translations lives up to your expectations, then perhaps the problem lies with your expectations.  Perfection is a heavy burden for a text to bear.

Still, I want to give this thing a fair shake, not stumble into the Islamic equivalent of The Message.  I called up the local mosque and was directed to The Noble Quran***, a Saudi-backed translation billed as the most widely disseminated.  It's also been slammed as the most extremist, interpolating the text with parenthetical additions consisting of medieval screeds and polemics on modern Middle Eastern politics.  In the very first Surah we find denigration of "those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews)", whose crooked ways are contrasted with the straight ones that we should be following.

Well if I wanted to hear about a people being under God's wrath by virtue of birth, I'd go read Luther.  This is the most widely disseminated version?  The go-to answer for the first Mosque on google that picked up the phone?  Yikes.

Understand, I'm not saying this is any worse for Islam than the "kill the gays" bits of the Bible are for Christians.  But I'm sort of used to the Christian Bible saying kill the gays, and I'm not really used to anyone who's trying for respectability just out and ranting about The Jews in public.  This is part of the problem with Western perception of Islam.  Christianity's sins--textual and practical--have become the wallpaper, whereas the casual Western observer of Islam can find much that, in its newness, still shocks.  This is not an argument for the normalization of Islam, though--it's a call to bring the hammer down on Christianity.  If the gays came out with a book that said to kill the Christians, you'd better believe they'd be taken to task for it, and rightly so--but no such accounting is demanded of those that cleave to the Bible.

At any rate I'll do one better for Islamic PR than it just did for itself and avoid that particular text.

I find myself drawn to the descriptions of two versions: The Holy Qu'ran by Muhammed 'Ali, the favored text of the Nation of Islam, and copiously footnoted, whose anti-miraculism might prove something of a counter-measure to normal dialectic of "The fact that we now know what it says is wrong isn't sufficient grounds to claim that's not what it means."  The other, alleged to be accurate, beautiful, and free of prejudice, is Arberry's The Koran Interpreted.  Both texts are available for free online at the links that I've provided.

I plan, at least at first, to read the text in both translations, and at the very least skim the footnotes, before recording my reactions.  We'll see how it goes.  The whole endeavor is very much a work in progress, so please bear with.

*Counting (and perhaps miscounting) only direct-to-English translations.

**I'm also aware of the Islamic tradition that no true translation of the Quran is actually possible.  This is correct, but trivial--I'm a former professional translator, and I can safely report that no "true" translation of anything is possible.  All translations are paraphrase--though some are more paraphrase than others--and they all make tradeoffs between rhythm, poetry, connotation, references, double-meanings, idiom, readability, and grammatical construction.  Even reading in the original, the translation from the page to the mind is problematic: no two people will come away with exactly the same impressions of a text's "true" meaning.  That said, the text consists of words, and those words have meanings, and anyone who insists otherwise is selling something.

***Text available here.

< Previous

No comments:

Post a Comment