Essay – Theory – An Initial Typology of Translations

Most quranists, if not most Muslims themselves, begin their reading of Quran by reading translations. These translations tend to be very standardised in terms of overall meaning. If one sees a comparative translation website, chances are the translations would be very obviously similar. Some words maybe different for one or two translations. Words like ‘salat’ for example are overwhelmingly translated as ‘prayers’ referring to the Traditional Islamic ritual prayers. The translations exceptional to these tend to be those which reject the ritual prayers but still keep some semblance of a spiritual activity.

At no point are we saying that Arabic-literate Quran readers are exempt from this process. Rather, they have to translate Quran in their minds when processing their own readings. At best, they already have a visual perception of Quranic words (like ‘salat’ casts a picture of someone praying in their minds) of Quranic words. So really, this is about all of us, not just non-Arabic-literate folks.

How should a translation of Quran be? I do not believe there is a single answer to this question. Rather, we need to look at the purpose of a translation itself. The purpose will determine the methodology and thus the outcome.

I see three possible types of translations which can help the elucidate the Quranic message. The first is what I call a ‘Verbatim’ translation whose whole purpose is to economise words and let the Reader come to his own epiphany. The second type is what I call a ‘Footnoted’ translation which, as the name would suggest, a set of footnotes would be needed to augment the delivery of the translation. Thirdly and finally is what I call an ‘Expositionary’ translation in which a full understanding of the Translator would be presented in the text itself (not the footnotes if they exist at all)

The Verbatim translation is perhaps the most common. As mentioned above, the overwhelming percentage of translations into English are Verbatim translations with very few footnotes. However, the terms used are highly influenced by Traditional meanings (salat is prayers). The Verbatim translation is good to allow the Reader to achieve some kind of internal chemistry of meaning. It is light and easily digested. However, the problem arises when the word proffered as a translation is less accurate than what would actually convey the message (again, like salat is prayers).

To make up for the shortcomings of the Verbatim translation, we have the Footnoted translation. Like the name suggests, Footnoted translations give footnotes for the meanings proposed by the actual translation. In that sense, they are advantageous for the Translator to convey to the Reader what he thinks are the implications of the verbatim meanings of the words or verses or even passages (Yusuf Ali’s footnotes are the most common). On the other hand, it may (and in my experience most often would) distract the Reader from the ‘flow’ of the chapter. This would impede his reading experience as he needs to look back and forth between text and footnote instead of allowing the text to be internalised.

Lastly, we have the Expositionary translation. To my knowledge, only one exists in the market at the moment – Exposition of the Holy Quran by G.A. Parwez (a stellar quranist scholar). Mr Parwez gave  his understanding in a lengthy, verbose translation which fully exposes his view and makes the Reader aware of his understanding of the text. This is a very informative translation to say the least but I doubt it has the rhythm to convey the epiphany-centred nature of Quranic discourse.  It is useful for an academic study if one agree with Mr Parwez’s approach.

Let us analyse a very early (textually speaking, not chronologically as QG believes Quran came down as a book) verse in Quran:

Those who believe in the unseen and keep up prayer and spend out of what We have given them. (2/3)

This is a verbatim translation from Shakir. It is a standard translation and there is not much controversy to it, if any.

If QG were to produce a Verbatim translation, it would be:

Those who believe in the unwitnessable, continuously establish the connection and from what We provide them, they continuously spend.

This is unfortunately as economical as QG can get without actually compromising what it believes to be the best translation of the verse. ‘Unwitnessable’ isn’t even an English word (at present anyway)  but as Quran uses ‘ghaib’ (which is normally translated as ‘unseen’ as Shakir did above) to be the opposite of ‘shahadat’ (which is normally understood as ‘what can be witnessed’), we have chosen to use this word ‘unwitnessable’

For the phrase ‘the connection’ , what we actually meant was to say was the connection inferred by the context (that is the connection of ‘the book’ mentioned in 2/2). The Reader may not be able to detect this from a Verbatim translation but will require footnotes thus a Footnoted translation is better. On the other hand, this would detract him/her from the  flow of the reading.

You may also notice that we use the phrase ‘continuously’ in our translation. This is our inference from the state of the words ‘yuqimoo’ and ‘yunfiqoon’. Both these words are in present continuous form. One may even infer that their passive state (yuqimoo and not ‘yaqimoo’) gives another meaning but that would further detract from the flow of the translation (‘they continuously and passively establish the connection’ instead of simply ‘they continuously establish the connection’).

In QG’s translation, the above three paragraphs would constitute a footnote of sorts for Ch 2 Vs 3. This would be tedious reading for those who seek a more spiritual experience rather than an intellectual reading. It would be even more tedious for the Expostionary Reading, QG’s rendition would be as follows:

Those who continuously believe and are reliant with the outcome of Questioning, Focussing and Enacting, they continuously establish an unconscious connection with this process and out of what We provide for them as a result of this, they continuously maintain an unconscious flow.

This rendition would surely require a footnote (or several!) but not aid understanding. Rather, it would be to justify the choices made. We will make an attempt here:

For QG, context is of primary importance. The contextual theme and tone is obviously decided at the outset of the chapter. Even before the translating the first verse of any chapter, we will consider that the first verse is exegetically tied to Aya Zero (what QG calls the ‘basmalah’ formula). Aya Zero is the overarching theme of Quran itself (which will be discussed in a future essay). The first verses of Chapter 2 is ‘Alif Laam Meem’. Our understanding of ‘Alif Laam Meem’ must be concordant with Aya Zero and we feel it is. Questioning, Focussing and Enacting is what brings about Allah’s attributes outlined in the Basmalah. Next in 2/2, Alif Laam Meem is called ‘that book in which there is no doubt’ which QG infers as the system which one employs to remove doubt. 2/2 continues that this system is a means of progress for those who have internalised awareness and a sense of self-preservation (hudan lil muttaqeen). Therefore at this point, the process of ‘Alif Laam Meem’ becomes the fulcrum of the our understanding.

At the verse in question, 2/3, we are still on the description of Alif Laam Meem. Therefore, ‘al-ghaib’ here refers to the unpresent outcome of this process rather than any situation which requires metaphysical perception. These people described in 2/2 have faith in this process. They establish a connection (yuqimoona as-salat) with this process and whatever the gain from it, they spend. Therefore, context is our pivotal tool in determining meaning. The flow of the text may be quite heavy going but it conveys to the Reader exactly what we think, if that’s of any worth.

As you can appreciate, there are several issues to consider in a translation project. It all depends on what you hope to present to the Reader. Even more so, it also depends on what the Reader seeks from his/her Quranic experience.


About Farouk A. Peru

I am a human being in the world, blogging my existence. My thought systems may be found in my website:
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