Translating Between Cultures

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    Translating the Words of the Lord - On the Translatability of the Koran

    El Corán. Spanish Translation by Julio Cortes. Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, 2003.
    El Corán. Spanish Translation by Julio Cortes. Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, 2003.

    Ever since Mohammed proclaimed the Koran, and throughout the history of this Holy Book, Muslims have constantly asserted that it cannot be either truly translated or retold in prose. ‘The choice of beautiful words,’ says Iranian scholar Muhammed Taqi Shariati, expressing a consensus among Muslim Koran teachers almost everywhere and at all times, ‘means that not a single word of the Koran can be replaced by a synonym or an analogy without reducing the beauty of its phrases or the specificity of its meaning.’ This author also points to ‘the constellation of words, the sentence structure, the characteristic expressions, and finally the style and linguistic shaping’, which verify the divinity of the Koran and cannot possibly be altered.

    No matter how great a part one may believe apologetics to have played in such a declaration, it is supported by the special nature of the Koran’s style, testifying to a fundamental understanding of poetic language. ‘The writer’s idea is realised in a specific artistic structure,’ wrote Yuri M. Lotman, the Russian semiotician. ‘The approach which views “ideas” and “special artistic characteristics” separately, and which constitutes a rigid aspect of educational practice’ is based on a false view of literature, ‘as if this were a way and means of presenting, at length and in embellished form, the same thoughts as could be expressed briefly and simply’. One would like to use Lotman’s words against those experts who these days avail themselves of the Koran as if it were a quarry: ‘The idea is not contained in some quotation or other, no matter how well this may have been chosen. It receives expression in the overall artistic structure.’

    Der Koran. German Translation by Max Henning. Reclam UB.
    Der Koran. German Translation by Max Henning. Reclam UB.

    The truth of Lotman’s thesis can be demonstrated in the comparison of two translations of a freely chosen Sura. In Sura 112, ‘al-Ichlâs’, the proclamation of oneness is intensified in a formulation of great linguistic elegance: Qul huwa allâhu ahad / Allâhu samad / lam yalid wa-lam yûlad / wa-lam yakun lahû kufûwan ahad. In the poet Friedrich Rückert’s 19th century translation this runs: ‘Sprich: Gott ist Einer, / Ein ewig reiner, / Hat nicht gezeugt / und ihn gezeugt hat keiner’. [A.J. Arberry’s 1955 version in English is as follows: ‘Say: He is God, One / God, the Everlasting Refuge / who has not begotten, and has not been begotten, / and equal to Him is not any one’.] In his translation [‘rein’, or ‘pure’] of the concept samad, the meaning of which is difficult to determine, Rückert makes clear that in case of doubt he deviates from the word’s literal meaning so as to adhere to the literary character of the original. That may not gain the approval of theologians or scholars, but the fact is that Rückert is the only German translator to succeed in preserving the poetry of the Koran. What happens when the Sura is reduced to its contextual communication is revealed in the version by Rudi Paret, which is regarded today as the standard translation: ‘Sag: Er ist Gott, ein Einziger, Gott, durch und durch (er selbst)(?) (w. der Kompakte) (oder: der Nothelfer[?], w. der, an den man sich [mit seinen Nöten und Sorgen] wendet, genauer: den man angeht?). Er hat weder gezeugt, noch ist er gezeugt worden. Und keiner ist ihm ebenbürtig’. [A literal English translation of this would run: ‘Say: He is God, a One and Only, God, (himself)(?) through and through (w. the Compact) (or: the Helper in time of need[?] , w. the one to whom one turns [with one’s problems and worries], more precisely: whom one approaches?). He has neither begotten, nor was begotten. And none is his equal’.]

    What Jakobsen said about poetry also applies to the Koran: it is ‘untranslatable’; at most ‘creative rendering’ is possible. A Sura like ‘Ichlâs’ cannot be represented in everyday speech without its structure being destroyed. However, in doing so it is not just the elegance of the verse, its aesthetic charm, that are eradicated, as people readily concede; the message itself, what Lotman calls the ‘idea’, is also extinguished. It is a mistake to think, like Paret, that a translator could deliberately disregard the form so as to reproduce the meaning faithfully. In its ostentatious accuracy, his translation is not simply bad, it is wrong; it transmits a false idea of the Koran. The reader of Paret’s translation in no way receives the same information-content as is contained in the original verse. The view that information is only mediated through the subject-matter of the communication, and poetic form is only the external apparel – this is the glass, that the wine - is based on a lack of understanding regarding the essence of poetic language. If that were the case, poetic language would lose its justification for existence. ‘But it operates differently,’ writes Lotman. ‘The complex artistic structure created out of the material of (natural) language allows the transmission of an amount of information which could not be mediated using the habitual elementary linguistic structure.’

    The exegete Ar-Razi had already emphasised in the 12th century that the amount of information contained in a poetically structured communication like the Koran could never be transmitted in everyday speech, that this information is condensed in a special way, and that (at least at first sight) translation seems excluded. In his extended reflections on the translatability of the Koran he writes that it may be correct that much of the contents of the Torah and the Bible correspond to those of the Koran, such as the glorifications of God and statements about the world to come, but nevertheless when praying one should not recite similar passages from the other holy scriptures. So the exegete does not locate the additional significance of which he is thinking at the level of transmission, since in many cases declarations in the Koran, Bible, and Torah amount to the same thing. His statement can be interpreted today as meaning that he views this surplus as involving an increase in aesthetic, i.e. not discursively comprehensible, information. Ar-Razi thus rejects the arguments of those who wish to allow non-Arabs to say prayers in Persian so as to be able to understand their meaning. He holds that there is a great difference between knowing the Koran only in terms of its contents and reciting these in prayer, and using the actual expressions.

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    Navid Kermani, born in 1967, is the author of “Gott ist schön – Das ästhetische Erleben des Korans“. He has studied Orientalism at the University of Bonn and now works as a writer and journalist. A shorter version of this article was published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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