On the Difficulty of Reading the Quran, Part A: from the Amman Letter to Yusuf Ali

On the Difficulty of Reading the Quran, Part A: from the Amman Letter to Yusuf Ali

I am grateful to the linguist Alton L. Becker for drawing my attention to a principle that language is both exuberant and deficient.  His words sank deep into my consciousness at the time of first reading them over twenty five years ago:

In the fifties, the Spanish Heideggerian philologist, José Ortega y Gasset (1959), began a seminar on Plato’s Symposium with a discussion of “the difficulty of reading”. To read a distant text – distant in space, time, or conceptual world – is a utopian task, he wrote, a task whose “initial intention cannot be fulfilled in the development of its activity and which has to be satisfied with approximations essentially contradictory to the purpose which had started it’ (1959:1).  In that sense, the activity of language is in many particular ways utopian: one can never convey just what one wants to convey, for others will interpret what they hear, and their interpretation will be both exuberant and deficient.  As Ortega (p. 2) put it:

  1. Every utterance is deficient – it says less that it wishes to say.
  2. Every utterance is exuberant – it says more than it plans.

(From Alton L. Becker ‘Beyond Translation: Esthetics and Language Description’ [published in Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology. 1995. University of Michigan Press]. The citations are from Ortega y Gasset’s ‘The Difficulty of Reading.’ Diogenes 28 (Winter 1959).

The problem of exuberance and deficiency in language is particularly apparent and ‘in your face’ for the translator.  Not only is the translator forced to deal with the utopian task of understanding a text in its original language, but the translation itself adds and subtracts meaning in a host of different ways.

The effect is amplified when dealing with what Ortega y Gasset referred to as ‘distant’ texts.  For example, to translate a piece of French journalism into English is to plunge into a veritable sea of exuberance and deficiency, but this pales into insignificance compared to the difficulties which arise when a classical Arabic text such as the Quran is translated into a modern European language.

Viewed through the eyes of the modern Western reader, the faith of Islam is replete with ‘distant’ texts, which are far in time, place and conceptual world from the average Westerner, whose native language is what Benjamin Whorf called ‘Standard Average European’.  A great many of the concepts embedded in Islamic terminology are grounded in cultural practices and worldview of 7th century Arabia.  This distance causes many challenges for understanding.  Extracting even the most important ideas from Islamic texts can require great effort and care.

The discipline which Becker called ‘philology’ provides tools for the reader of distant texts.  A good ‘philologist’ (or ‘linguist’ — Becker used these terms interchangeably) is trained to attend to the realities of difficult reading.  He or she will be mindful, for example, of the utopian nature of translation.  A wide variety of techniques can be used which allow the philologist to identify the many ways in which their own reading is exuberant and deficient, and thus to increase the accuracy of their reading.

One of the most important of these techniques is just to slow down and pay attention to particularities.

An example of the Difficulty of Reading: the Amman Letter

Let us consider as an example a single word from the ‘Amman letter‘, written in English by a group of Muslim scholars to Pope Benedict in response to his controversial Regensburg lecture in 2006.  At the head of the Muslims’ letter a passage from the Quran is quoted.  It reads:

“In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,
Do not contend with people of the Book except in the fairest way …” (29:46)

The ‘slowed down’ reader, who is paying attention to particularities, will notice that word fairest in the second line of this quotation is multiply ambiguous in English.    It could mean ‘impartial, free from bias’, or ‘most beautiful’.  In the context of disputation, the most likely interpretation of ‘fairest’ would be ‘impartial, free from bias’.  But is this what the Arabic means?

The alert reader might then decide to consult other translations to investigate this question.  They would find that most use the word better or best where the Amman letter has fairest.  For example, Marmaduke Pickthall renders the verse “And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in (a way) that is better.” Far from resolving the ambiguity, these comparisons would open the field of interpretation to still more possibilities, and the reader would be alerted that further efforts are called for to reach accurate understanding.  At this point the Arabic original would need to be consulted.

The Arabic word being translated here is aḥsan.  This is an elative form form of the adjective ḥasan ‘good’.  The elative implies preeminence, and it is often translated as comparative or superlative in English, which is why some translations of this verse say ‘better’, and others say ‘best’.   Moreover ḥasan can also mean ‘beautiful’, and in this case aḥsan could be translated as ‘more beautiful’ or ‘most beautiful’.

At this point the ambiguity in the Amman letter can be resolved. The Muslim scholars who drafted this letter must have read aḥsan as ‘most beautiful’, and so they rendered it as fairest.  This is, however, an obscure way to communicate this meaning, for although ‘beautiful’ was the original meaning of fair, this reading is now somewhat archaic and tends to be restricted to specific contents.  The older meaning is still widely understood, from people’s exposure to fairy tales, as in the famous line of Snow White’s step-mother:  ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest [most beautiful] of them all?’

But now that we have resolved the ambiguity inherent in fairest, two others have arisen:  Is this verse about a beautiful manner or a good manner, and should the English translator use a superlative or comparative? In other words, how do we chose between ‘more beautiful’, ‘most beautiful’, ‘bettter’ or ‘best?

At this point, one could slow down the reading process even further, and consult commentaries on the Quran and their translations into English.  There one finds that interpretations in terms of ‘better’ or ‘best’ are preferred.  For example, the eminent commentator Ibn Kathir writes in his commentary (see also here and here for other commentaries translated into English).

“What is meant here is that anyone who wants to find out about religion from them should argue with them in a manner that is better, as this will be more effective.” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)   [Ibn Kathir then goes on to say that for non-Muslims who ‘turn a blind eye to clear evidence’ and stubbornly reject Islam, Muslims should ‘progress from debate to combat’, and strike them with the sword.]

This example illustrates both the exuberance and deficiency of translation, and also the difficulty of reading.  The Amman scholars’ translation of Sura 29:46 is deficient in that it obliterates the usual interpretation of ‘better/best’, and it is exuberant because it suggests the meaning of ‘impartial, free from bias’ to the unwary English reader.   A ‘slowed down reader’ can mitigate these problems by paying attention first of all to the fact that fairest is ambiguous, and this could then give them reason to investigate the original Arabic, as well as to ask how commentators and translators have dealt with the word, and thus, step by step, they can work their way towards a better understanding.

This exercise in reading also raises questions about the intent of the eminent Muslims scholars who composed the Amman letter.   Why did they chose the word fairest, given that other translations such as better or best are available which seem clearer, are preferred in published translations, and which better match the commentaries?  This is an entirely valid question if one wants to have a proper understanding of the meaning of the letter.  Was this is a case of sloppy translation? Or should the reader consult a wider variety of commentaries to check whether ‘fairest’ has any supporters among the scholars?

Perhaps there was an intention to deceive or simply to present the ‘best face’ of Islam? (In this case the whole text could reasonably be examined for other evidence of ‘spin’: ‘fairest’ does seem more gracious than telling the Pope that Muslims should argue in a ‘better’ way, even if it obscures the original by introducing a possibility of misinterpretation.) Or, perhaps more charitably, one might explore whether this was this a rhetorical device, a misleading impression which the reader is meant to figure out.  Consider for example what the commentator As-Suyuti says of the device of tauriyat in his discussion of Quranic rhetoric (in Al-Itqan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an):

The Deception or Double Entendre (al-tauriyat) is to use a word with two meanings concurrently… one being immediate and the other, more distant to comprehension; that it is the latter meaning which is intended is implied by the former, more immediate meaning. Because of this, the listener too, harbors doubts, from the very outset.

Thus the efforts of the reader go on and on, as the task of reading grows ever more complex.  Interrogating even a single word in a text can be like pulling on a piece of string – the more one looks into things, the more drawn out the whole exercise of interpretation becomes.

The Quran is difficult reading material

Reading the Quran presents many challenges.  One is that the Arabic of the Quran is often just hard to understand.  It contains many opaque words and expressions, and the mode of expression is often highly elliptical, leaving out material which the reader must infer.

Muslims can be reluctant to speak of translating the Quran itself.  Instead they will use an expression like ‘translation of the meanings’, which are the literal words in the sub-title of the Saudi-sponsored Noble Qur’an.  Some may put this down to Muslims having a very high regard for the Quran in its original Arabic form, as a kind of pious claim that the text is uniquely untranslatable because of its supposed divine origins.

However there is another reason speak of ‘translating the meanings’, which is that translators of the Quran do not so much translate the Arabic text, as the meaning of the text as it is explained by the commentaries.  In other words, the translator reads the commentaries and translates what they say the text means.  Thus Yusuf Ali states in the introduction to his translation ‘In translating the Text, I have aired no views of my own, but followed the received Commentators.’

The result of this process of translation is a ‘smoothed’ text, which has lost a whole host of ambiguities and particularities, and bears a very complex relationship to the Arabic original.  Similar ‘smoothing’ can also apply in Bible translations, however the challenge this presents for readers is — in my admittedly subjective impression – much greater for the Quran.

A further complication in Quranic translations is the value of the text for da’wa, or ‘calling’ people to Islam.  There is pressure to make the translation more attractive and this influences translators’ choices.

Such pressure seems to be behind Yusuf Ali’s translation of iḍribūhunna as ‘chastise them’ in a passage from Sura 4:34 discussing how to maintain marital harmony.  Although Yusuf Ali’s footnote explains that what is meant is ‘mild corporal punishment’ (of the wife), the English word chastise can mean either ‘punish by beating’ or ‘scold’ (i.e. a verbal rebuke).  This ambiguity does not exist in the Arabic: the Arabic root -r-b simply means ‘beat, strike, hit’.   

Muhammad Shakir’s ‘beat them’, although an obvious and clear translation of what the Arabic actuallys says, was presumably avoided by Yusuf Ali because it was too confronting.  The use of chastise, which offers an alternative interpretation – however misleading –  softens the text, and makes it more appealing (or less unappealing) for the Western reader. Such considerations must be taken into account by the careful reader of Quran translations.

Or course bias in translation is not unique to the Quran.  A passage in the book of Isaiah has been translated ‘a young woman shall conceive’ (Isaiah 7:14).  However Christian translators have often preferred the inaccurate rendering ‘a virgin shall conceive’ (following the Greek Septuagint), because this strengthens the prophetic reference to the doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth.  Modern translators of the Bible have tried to eliminate theologically-driven translation choices, and thus the New Revised Standard Version reads ‘a young woman’.

All this brings me round to a discussion of fighting and killing in the Quran, which will be the subject of my next post, and illustrates the considerable cultural complexities of translation.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.

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