6.04.2007

The Qur'an in Translation

Irshad Manji, in her book The Trouble With Islam Today, makes an interesting point about two widely held beliefs about the Qur'an: on the one hand, many Muslims insist that the Qur'an cannot be translated, per se, and that any attempt inevitably corrupts the meaning of the text. On the other hand, the teachings of the Qur'an are often thought to be particularly clear. Manji asks, "if the Quran is as straightforward as the purists tell us, then aren't its teachings easily translated into a thousand tongues?" (24). I hadn't thought about it before, but there is a real contradiction here.

Obviously the problem with any translation is that the source text might have a range of possible meanings, and one might argue that no translation can capture the full range. Additionally, there is the possibility that the translation might suggest meanings that are not suggested by the source text. This is why it is important for scholars to be able to read texts in their original language. I've come across numerous interpretations of passages from the New Testament that might have sounded plausible to someone who had only read it in English translation, but which could not be supported by the original Greek text.

In reality, though, there are limits to the number of plausible interpretations a text can yield. One can look at a dozen different translations of a particular passage, and while there might be significant differences in the wording, it is essentially the same meaning conveyed by all of them. When the meaning of one appears to be quite different, it is very often a bad translation. At least, that is my experience of interpreting the New Testament, in the original Greek, as well as in English and Latin translation.

In the Catholic tradition, the Greek text of the New Testament has been far less important than the Latin translation, particularly the Vulgate of St. Jerome. One might think that the prejudice against translation found in the Islam would find no parallel in the Catholic tradition. Of course, the opposite it true. Translations into vernacular languages were stringently suppressed until relatively recent times.

It's difficult to shake the suspicion that this stigma against translation is nothing more than an authoritarian attempt to control how the people understand their own tradition. Contrary to what one might think, the large majority of Muslims do not read Arabic. Like a lot of Catholics who pray in Latin, most Muslims don't really understand the words they are saying when they pray. Unless, of course, those words have been translated for them.

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