Can the Quran be translated?

According to Muslim scholars, the Quran is not translatable. This view contradicts the Christian view about the Bible, which they believe is the Bible no matter what language it is written in. Professor Murata and Chittick stated “it is an Islamic dogma that the Quran cannot be translated. This is to say that Allah revealed it in Arabic, and the Arabic language itself is the body of his words. As scholars have pointed out, in Islam one cannot talk about the incarnation that is the enfleshment of the word but rather of the inliberation that is the embookment of the word. The word did not become flesh in Islam; it became a book and the book was then expanded into uncounted libraries. However, this spirited book was not written, it was recited and a recited book is a book that is embodied within human beings. The sounds and the rhythms of the recitation have a direct influence on the human body” (p177: The vision of Islam: IB Taurus).

In 1930 when Marmaduke Pickthall presented his translation of the Quran to the rector of the University of Al Azhar in Egypt, Shaykh Al-Marghenani corrected him and said: “This is the interpretation of the meanings of the Quran”. So, the book of Allah is not translatable into any language, therefore the Arabic Quran is the Quran and any translation is merely an interpretation or an attempt to understand the message of the book of Allah. Professor Hussein Abdul Raof stated “every Quran translation proclaims its own inadequacy… and is no more than an approximation of the meaning of the Quran” (Quran translation: Curzon).

This does not mean that we should not translate the message, the meanings and the Divine Will into other languages. All the early Tafasir, the commentaries of the Quran were a sincere attempt by scholars to understand the meanings of the Quran, as they were understood by the Messenger (peace be upon him) and his disciples. Many of the commentaries of the Quran were paraphrasing the verses of the Quran in their own simple-contemporary Arabic.

The first full translation of the Quran in Persian was by the famous scholar Shah Wali Allah of Dehli (d.1763). He effectively kickstarted the translation movement of the Quran into other languages and subsequently his grandsons translated into Urdu in the 19th century.

The translation of the Quran into Latin was undertaken by Robertus Retenesis in 1143, the same Latin translation was then translated into other European languages and into English by Alexander Ross in 1649. Perhaps the most famous English translation was by George Sale in 1734 according to Professor Haleem “his italicised commentaries, embedded in the text, help to make the Quran more understandable to an English-speaking audience.”

The first British Muslim translation was done by Marmaduke Pickthall in 1930. The genre of Quran translations is now common, so common that there is no language read and spoken by Muslims without a translation. Urdu has nearly 500 different translations of the Quran, Persian has a similar number and English has nearly 100 translations of the Quran.

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