August 23, 2007

The Difference Between the Qur'an and Its Translations

How do you describe a rainbow to someone who has been blind since birth? Wikipedia's defintion says:

Rainbows are optical and meteorological phenomena that cause a spectrum of light to appear in the sky when the Sun shines onto droplets of moisture in the Earth's atmosphere. They take the form of a multicoloured arc, with red on the outer part of the arch and violet on the inner section of the arch. More rarely, a double rainbow is seen, which includes a second, fainter arc with colours in the opposite order, that is, with violet on the outside and red on the inside.

Does that really satisfy? How do I describe the colors? By the frequency of their wavelengths? Red is any of a number of similar colors evoked by light consisting predominantly of the longest wavelengths of light discernible by the human eye, in the wavelength range of roughly 625–750 nm. Does that really satisfy?

Does the translation of the Qur'an into English really satisfy? If you know any bit of the Qur'an in its original Arabic, you realize immediately that the Qur'an is somewhat poetic in its nature. Rhymes and near-rhymes. Rhythms and meter to the ayat (verses). Does this come out in the English translations? Not really. The translations tell you what the Qur'an says, but it provides little of the wonder and beauty of the spoken language. Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall knew this when he wrote the introduction to his translation of the Qur'an:

"The book is here rendered almost literally and every effort has been made to choose befitting language. But the result is not the Glorious Qur'an, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Qur'an-and peradventure something of the charm in English. It can never take the place of the Qur'an in Arabic, nor is it meant to do so..."

The Qur'an is not a book of poetry; the Prophet (pbuh) was not a poet. "We have not instructed the (Prophet) in poetry, nor is it meet for him: this is no less than a Message and a Qur'an making things clear:" (36:69) "It is not the word of a poet: little it is ye believe!" (69:41) But the Qur'an is poetic and reveals its divine nature through its organization and construction: revealed over 23 years, ayat being revealed now and then, gaps being filled like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle until the Qur'an stands revealed in its complete, comprehensive whole. (And let's not forget that the process was done not just once, but seven times, for seven Arabic dialects.)

The Qur'an is a wonderful book; I came to Islam without even having heard the Qur'an recited in Arabic. But to rely solely on a translation without hearing and understanding the Qur'an in Arabic is like trying to grasp the beauty of a rainbow when you've been blind all your life.

The painting is by John Everett Millais and is entitled "The Blind Girl." It was painted in 1856, and is located at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, Birmingham, England.

4 comments:

khaled said...

I love art.
kahled

Andy Ternay said...

Thank you for this post. Is it worthwhile then, to attempt to read the Qur'an in English? I don't foresee taking up Arabic anytime soon.

I did try to read the Qur'an once, I don't know what translation or version. I gave up because it was so choppy and clunky, hard to read.

JDsg said...

Andy: You're welcome.

Is it worthwhile then, to attempt to read the Qur'an in English? I don't foresee taking up Arabic anytime soon.

Oh, it's always worthwhile, regardless of whether one's a Muslim or not! :) I wouldn't expect a non-Muslim to learn Arabic just to read the Qur'an unless they were motivated for whatever reason. Many Muslims who don't read Arabic will use several different translations, cross-referencing verses to get a fuller understanding of the original. Of course, many of us (including me) try to learn Arabic to understand the original Qur'an.


I did try to read the Qur'an once, I don't know what translation or version. I gave up because it was so choppy and clunky, hard to read.

The Qur'an seems that way for many non-Muslims (and new Muslims) who are unfamiliar with the Qur'an. However, there is a reason for the "choppy and clunky" feel, and it becomes quite natural once one is used to it. One of the more "linear" (and familiar) chapters in the Qur'an is Yusuf (Joseph). You might find that one easier to digest.

andy ternay said...

I think I am going to have to force myself back to school. I really would like to read the Bible, the Qur'an and the works that inform other faiths, but I think I will do best in an environment with structure and guidance.

Thank you.