Difficulties of Koranic Translation and Untranslatability. A Criticism on So-Called Koran Translations

Term Paper, 2015

20 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Ibra Him

An Introduction to Translation Theory

24 August 2015

Criticism on so-called Koran translations

For Muslims, the Koran is the most important book in the world. One can find it in every Muslim household, stored at a particular place where it is honoured every day by kissing it. The Islamic tradition teaches that the Koran was verbally handed down through the Angel Gabriel from Allah to the prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years. The Koran is written in Arabic letters and points to the incomparable speaking of God which has neither a beginning nor an ending (cf. Lambert 2013: 287). In the general education of Muslim countries, pupils and students are used to learning this book by heart. They start to memorize certain verses (ar. ayah), followed by chapters (ar. surah). There are 114 chapters in the Koran which tell either the stories of ancient prophets like Adam, Noah, Abraham or Moses or explanations concerning the Islamic law, worldly wisdom etc. (cf. Nigosian 2004: 65-70). The Arabic language is a really important element in the Koran. Many companions of Muhammad followed him due to the beauty of the language that is used in the holy book. Islamic scholars regard the Koran as the most impressive miracle of Muhammad. In Muslim countries where Arabic is not the native language like Turkey, Bosnia, Iran or Pakistan, people learn the Arabic language in order to read the most honoured book (cf. Krusters 2003: 93-96). They start early to learn to read and write Arabic. However, there are certain translators or arabists who tried to translate the Koran and their results are successfully sold in bookshops and read by Muslims and Non-Muslims in order to deepen one’s knowledge about the Islamic World and its culture. Islamic scholars, however, take the position that it is not valid to translate the Koran into another language because most human beings commit errors during the translation process. Therefore they say that a true translation of the meaning would be valid, provided that the translator pays attention to stylistic devices and the vastness of the Arabic language (cf. Ineichen 1997: 71). I agree with these scholars because I have discovered several fatal mistakes made by translators which change the whole message of the Islam, and there are certain sects that base their faith on a wrong translation of the holy book.

The aim of this term paper is to provide evidence that the Koran is untranslatable and how incorrectly translated verses are abused by sects to manipulate their audience and to gain more members. However, I will concentrate only on the linguistic level and not on the political effects of incorrect translations. For that, I will refer to Maulawî Sher ^Ali’s translation from 2004 that is also available as a pdf document online. At the beginning, I am going to present the idea of untranslatability and reasons why Islamic scholars think that the Koran is untranslatable. In relation to that, I will also refer to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In the second part of this paper, I would like to criticize some incorrectly translated verses by some guidelines based on Gerzymisch-Arbogast’s Ü bersetzungswissenschaftliches Prop ä deutikum.

DIFFICULTIES OF KORANIC TRANSLATION AND UNTRANSLATABILITY Translation has always played an important role in Islamic tradition. During the time of Arabic colonization, Arabs translated their books on the Islamic faith and legislation and even Arabic grammars into languages like Urdu, Spanish or Farsi. While Arab countries were colonized by western colonial powers, a lot of language contact occured e.g. French literature into Arabic (cf. Ineichen 1997:58-64). But since the celestial book is revealed in Arabic, this language is regarded by Muslims as the best of all languages, and it represents the revealed speech of God (cf. Kusters 2003: 93-96). Moreover, a quotation from Mohammed provides reasons why you should love the Arabs: “Love the Arabs for three reasons, because I am an Arab, [the Koran] is Arabic and the speech of the inhabitants of Paradise is Arabic”1. This is the reason why this language is learned by non-Arab Muslims and converts. There is consensus that the Koran must not be translated into another language, not even a cognate language like Hebrew, because God revealed it in Arabic (cf. Fatani 2006: 657-660). However, according to Fatani, one can translate only its interpretation or the meaning of the chapters of the Koran with a lot of caution and attention, because even then the translator risks translating passages incorrectly or just partially (cf. 2006: 660-669). Even for non- Muslim Arabs, the Koran is the book that best represents the Arabic language, because the whole Arabic grammar is based on it, and in order to see its impressive stylistic devices, both orthographically and phonologically, like rhymes, alliterations, metaphors, and metonymies and to feel their effects it is necessary to understand the Arabic language. For a reader who does not do so, the translator can only transfer the essence of the Koran ’ s message into the target language, but not imitate the original’s stylistic particularities (cf. Krusters 2003: 95).

As is it the case in other Semitic languages such as Hebrew or Aramaic, “the Arabic verb consists of a skeleton, or root, of usually three consonants ‘1.2.3’ […] and this skeleton can be augmented by affixes and by consonants and vowel lengthening” to conjugate the verb or to form new lexemes (ibidem: 113). If we have for example the verb or root “^.l.m” (^alima eng. to learn) we can apply up to 12 affixation models to this verb to create words of different word classes, like “”, which is the model to create nouns. If we put the verb “^.l.m” into this model we get the word “to teach” (cf. ibidem: 114). These word-formation processes provide the opportunity to let the language flourish and to create a lot of phonological stylistic devices such as rhymes. assonances or alliterations. Hence you cannot translate the verses literally, because phonological stylistic devices cannot be transferred from the Arabic original into the English text when they still shall provide the same meaning. Thus the translator has to decide whether the content or the form is more important and surely the content is more essential than the style. A verse in the Koran contains sometimes more than 15 rhetorical devices, which evidently cannot all be translated into the target language. To illustrate that, I would like to present a translated verse in the untranslatability of assonance resulted in the loss of an important fact:


a. “^Allâma l-Insâna Mâ Lam Ya^lam” (The Koran 96, 6)
b. “Taught man what he knew not” (Transl. by Sher ‘Alî 2004: 753)

Sher ‘Ali translated this verse correctly regarding its meaning, but in the original Arabic version provides an assonance between the words ‘to teach’ “^allâma” and ‘to know’ “ya^lam”, because both words are derived from the same root, and this phenomenon cannot be translated into the target language. Many people do not read the Koran, but they listen to it due to its beautiful melody and its phonological stylistic devices and rhymes, and these effects cannot be translated because the Arabic language system has some features that cannot be recreated in a literal English translation without diverging too far from the exact content of the original (cf. Ineichen 1997: 71-75). Furthermore, there are stylistic devices that are typical for Arabic, but they do not exist in English or other Indo-Germanic languages. I have illustrated in 2 one verse that often causes ambiguity in translations:


a. “Qâla Hâdha Rabbî“ (Koran 6, 77)
b. “He said: This is my God.” (Transl. by Sher ‘Ali: 161)

The presented verse shows a common stylistic device in Arabic. Imagine someone affirms that X is a very gentle person. Then, when you get associated with this person, you think that he is ill-mannered and vulgar. By posing the question: “And you think this person is gentle?!” the speaker clearly means to express say that the reprehensive person is the opposite (Basit 2006). Hence the meaning of this verse is that Abraham denied the deity of the moon by a saying that means: This should be my God?! The intonation in this verse is at the beginning of the sentence, but the translator translated it literally and put a full stop so that the reader thinks that this is a declarative sentence (cf. Huddleston 2005: 174-175). To believe that a prophet like Abraham worshipped the moon is blasphemy and is rejected by all Islamic schools and scholars (Al-Harariyy 2014: 30). Another characteristic of the Arabic language is its rich vocabulary and its polysemy, which means that sometimes a word can have more than 25 meanings and 25 words refer to the same meaning (cf. Kästner & Waldmann 1992: 45). The Prophet Muhammad thought koranic interpretation despite this polysemy.


1 Trans lated by Majmoo’ al-Fataawa: Original: ﻲﺑﺮﻋ ﺔﻨﺠﻟﺍ ﻞﻫﺃ ﻡﻼﻛﻭ ﻲﺑﺮﻋ ﻥﺁﺮﻘﻟﺍﻭ ﻲﺑﺮﻋ ﻲﻧﻷ :ﺙﻼﺜﻟ ﺏ ﺮﻌﻟﺍ ﺍﻮﺒﺣﺃ، (Al-Jami` as-Saghir, 3666)

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Difficulties of Koranic Translation and Untranslatability. A Criticism on So-Called Koran Translations
University of Siegen  (Philosophische Fakultät)
An Introduction to Translation Theory
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ISBN (Book)
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1244 KB
Translation, islam, Koran, Careful, translation theory, equivalence, arbogast
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Ibra Him (Author), 2015, Difficulties of Koranic Translation and Untranslatability. A Criticism on So-Called Koran Translations, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/371235


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