Translation as an Art
Finally we need some reflections on the art of translation: how does one use language, especially when it is the elevated expression of the Quran? Is it possible to render such lofty style into foreign tongue?
This new version of The Noble Reading which I am presenting has a serious purpose, which is to make its clear message available for the Englishspeaking world at the end of the twentieth Christian, or the beginning of the Islamic fifteenth century, which started in the last weeks Of 1980 A.D. This task is comparable to translating any great classic like Homer, Virgil, Quijote or Faust, since it involves a transfer of true literature into the medium of a parallel culture. It is a problem more for the quality which must be matched in English than for any inherent difficulty or obscurity in the text itself.
This present version is not addressed so much to scholars as to godly minds and especially to those who are growing up speaking English, and thus need a simple, clear text of the historic writ to guide them. The Qur)an itself says: “We have not sent any messenger unless he was to explain to them in his folk’s own tongue” (14:i). For this reason, any attempt at translation has validity if each nation is to receive its message in its own language. It should be a document one can read, and it also, if possible, must offer a basis for ongoing research. We should respect the sacred text, yet interpret it accurately and reverently. This is not an intellectual game but has a serious purpose.
The Quran could be considered untranslatable, because each time one returns to the Arabic text, he finds new meanings and fresh ways of interpreting it. It is a living document. I have at all times tried to find the simplest word so the Muslim child can understand it easily, and thereby feel strengthened by it. Any translation which is to have a use in divine worship must be simple yet noble, and not overladen with higher criticism. No translation should confuse, but teach and make things holy; we do not need criticism so much as constructive explanation. I myself must remember to act as a Westerner before this document in order to keep its meaning from being blurred. It must be translated respectfully for our own worship, and so that we and others can understand its message. The forms of piety are important, as well as the thought and mood which they engender. In our faith this leads to direct contact with God, with no need of any intercession, a condition achieved through literal and moral purification, and through prayer.
The Islamic world is growing again, its centre is widening, and Muslims everywhere, especially throughout the Englishspeaking part of it, need a version of their Scripture they can confidently give to their children as well as to friends who have not yet captured the full message of Islam. Our aim is to give pride to young Englishspeaking Muslims in North America especially, and also in Britain, the West Indies like Trinidad and Guyana, and the Englishspeaking parts of Africa. It can also be used b y college students and interested nonMuslims who want a contemporary translation of this great world classic.
I have tried to be as objective as possible, but yet to provide the basis for evaluation by Englishspeaking readers who know no Arabic. This should make it usable so the intelligent person engaged in research can quote the Quran in today’s English. There is a necessity for an American version in contemporary English, to help in the revival of the Quranic sciences during the coming fifteenth century of the Hijra, and this must occur in the Englishspeaking world. If my translation has any merit, it will simply be that it is intended for North Americans, so young American and Canadian Muslims can understand, when they are still teenagers or younger, what God told Muhammad fourteen hundred years ago in Arabia, with no artifice or bombast, but in clear, simple and I hope beautiful English. Otherwise our message will be lost here in America. The nex t generation will speak English, and few of them will take the time or the trouble to learn Arabic properly, so someone has to put it into the language of the next two or three hundred years.
It would be a waste of time at present to do any work on Sunday school materials until we have a good copy of the Quran we can trust. For this reason, several years ago I decided to dedicate time at the beginning of each morning to accomplishing this, so it would be done properly. This is the basic need for any propaganda in Islam on this continent, and until we have a version in good English, we will continue to read translations which evoke no reverence or beauty in the minds of the listeners.
We also need a good chapbook on prayers. Young American Muslims simply do not know their prayers, and that is the need in any “programmed learning” for Islam. But it must be done in Arabic, with the original text, in Romanized Arabic so those who cannot read the script can approximate the sound (and especially, avoid the dialectal variants one gets from Egyptian, Lebanese or Pakistani material), and again, a decent translation of the same into good English. This should be done with photos of the positions of prayer, and a tape recording of each of the individual prayers, not done in a hurry, but by a trained teacher with proper voicing of the material in Arabic, by a native speaker who reads the Quran and recites prayers well, at slow speed, then at normal speed, and chanted if that is necessary; but all done so that Sunday school students can learn from them, and even an untrained Sunday school teacher would be able to handle the tapes. The chapbook should be published in a dignified way.
Some direct problems of translation might bear discussion at this point. Through the original Arabic we learn what Muhammad was striving to express to his followers, but our problem is to catch how he might want this expressed for the people of today who speak English, and to translate it so that an intelligent and reverent American, especially in the teenage group, can grasp the message which the Prophet received fourteen centuries ago in Arabia. Most versions give one the sensation of being thrust upon the reader through the translator’s own mentality and purpose, a failing I cannot avoid completely. However, anything translated must lie close to the heart of future generations of Englishspeaking Muslims. I do not want to render a traditional paraphrase, nor to make a display of erudition with so many notes that they will confuse the younger student; notes must be such that they will help even the random reader. One’s language should be meaningful above all, and its beauty come forth from the meaning, using the English of today in all of its richness, with both our Germanic and Latin roots. Our texts have been vitiated, and higher criticism has not led many to the faith. However if the Arabic is clear (16:xiv, 26:xl), then why does it need to be worried over so intensely?
Most renditions have been so antiquated that they make the Quran and Islam appear to have little connection with living circumstances. Thus I have tried to avoid strictly Christian terms like ‘infidel,” “piety,” “sin,” etc., except where such are unavoidable. The Quran possesses a definite language and style which becomes clearer as one works along with it. One English word if possible should be chosen in all of its range of meaning for each Arabic concept, using roots that can be turned into adjectives, verbs, nouns or other grammatical forms based on it. This in fact is not a translation but a version, a modest tafsir for the Englishspeaking Muslim who has not been able to rely on Arabic for his meanings, and for sincere enquirers, those modern Hanifs who are tired of the trinity, or of chaos and confusion in matters religious. The carper should look elsewhere.
Let us hope therefore that this enterprise will lead us on into the triumphant fifteenth century of Islam, which is now upon us. Our religion is once more resurgent, and its message can be stated with full clarity. Muslims everywhere hold their fate in their own hands now, and it is their will that in the end will prevail. Once we have trained our children.
I would like to thank Professor Thomas A. Lathrop of the University of Delaware for his work in typesetting the book. And lastly, I wish to thank my wife, Dr. Evelyn Uhrhan Irving, for her support in this project over more than twenty three years, including typing of the final manuscript, and proof reading at many stages of the document.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Originally published in a 1989 print issue of TAM