Difficulties in translating and understanding the Qur’an as a result of stylistic features and their development from earlier to later Suras

Posted in Other | 31-May-04 | Author: Knut Bültemeier

An understanding of the Qur’an is essential if one wants to understand the principles of Islam and the cultures and political movements that are linked to it. However, the understanding of Islam in the west is limited at the best of times and the Qur’an by no means easy to understand or to translate.

The Qur'anic style has been characterised by Theodor Nöldeke as incoherent and the whole text by Gibbon as a "rhapsody of fable". At the same time Muslims see it as the word of God that is characterised by "...inimitable symphoney, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy." and perfect Arabic in terms of grammar and style. These perspectives are irreconcilable; even a separation of theology and literary criticism is impossible since a critical evaluation along the lines of the 19th century study of the Bible would challenge the dogma that the Qur'an is the word of God rather than a creation of Mohammed and his followers that evolved over centuries. This also poses difficulties for translators since the communicative as well as the cognitive approach require a full understanding of the text and the semantic approach, which would at least partially preserve the enigmatic aura of the Qur’an, would be of virtually no use to most readers.

This enigmatic aura has surely facilitated the spread of the Qur'an and eased its acceptance as word of a higher being. The occurrence of new words or words which are new to the Arabic language in the Qur'an has to be seen in this context. Only the initiated could understand the texts and Mohammed could create a clear dividing line between the new religion and the older forms of worship. The most prominent example for this is the word Allah which, according to Islamic theology, emerged with the revelation of the Qur'an. Other examples are the word Sura, which Nöldeke traces back to the Hebrew word for row and the word qrA (Sura 96) which he traces back to the Aramaic and Syriac for shout. The inclusion of foreign and entirely new vocabulary is a significant feature of Qur'anic style that seems to intentionally serve the enigmatic aura that was needed to make divine creation of the book plausible and to rectify the deficits of the Arabic of the time; as Arthur Jeffery phrased it "not only the greater part of the religious vocabulary, but also most of the cultural vocabulary of the Qur'an is of non-Arabic origin.". However, most of the unclear phrases are found in the earlier parts of the Qur’an that are mostly concerned with pure divine revelation. The foreign vocabulary causes significant difficulties in translation since the meaning of certain phrases is not clear and different interpretations are possible. An example for this are the huris mentioned in Sura 44/52. Conventionally, the feminine plural for white, Abkarun, has been understood and translated as virgins, however, Christoph Luxenberg has recently suggested the meaning "white crystal clear grapes" after consulting the Lisan as well as Tabari's Tafsir and finally Aramaic sources. This textual criticism follows the work that culminated in the 19th works that used the resources of philology and epigraphy to understand the biblical texts. It is, however, still in its infancy and cannot yet facilitate a translation that would lead to a true understanding of the meaning of all passages. A translator would nevertheless need to have a good working knowledge of the languages of the region, such as Aramaic, Hebrew and the cultural context contemporary to the revelation and the later compilation of the Qur'an to create a meaningful target text. An example for this is the fact that the cities Sodom and Gomorrha are called Al-moutfka. Furthermore, since the enigma is a significant part of the religious, persuasive power of the Qur'an, the loss of all uncertainties would result in a very different effect on the reader. However, a semantic translation which was recommended by Peter Newmark for texts …where the specific language of the speaker ..is as important as the content would be of little use for readers without specialist knowledge.

Another difficulty would be the rhyme patterns that run sporadically through the Qur'an. Nöldeke wrote that the style of the Qur'an varies greatly with the time of revelation ; the difference being that earlier parts are characterised by a superior and occasionally excited use of language and later parts employ a broader more prosaic type of style. This is refelected by the rhyme patterns. In early parts the rhyme patterns follow the sajaa construction; meaning that two or more parts are pronounced according to the rules of common Pausa or Waqf, showing a free verse-rhyme or Qafiya. In earlier parts this followed the pattern that was originally employed by the pre-Islamic fortune-tellers. Freer than the poetry of the time that already followed patterns with a clearly defined rhyme and meter but clearly influenced by it. In later Suras Mohammed no longer followed the older pattern and lengthened the verses. It has therefore been prohibited to call the Qur'an Qafia since it does not follow the Shaar rules. Other derivations from the establihed patterns are the dropping of the final Alif, Sura 58/2, 90/6,74/33 and the rhyme of later Suras that develops into a mere assonance; rarely found in earlier Suras such as 106/1,2,3. A difference between earlier and later Suras can also be found in the rhyme endings; most end in un, in, im, ad, ar etc. but in earlier Suras a rhyme ending consistently in Alif or Ya can frequently be found, Suras 17/18/19/20/25 /53/ 71/72/73/76/78/79/80/87/91/ 92/93/99. In later Suras this is only present in 33/48/65. Another difference is that 16 Suras show a rhyme that consists of a closed syllable with a short vowel. All of these except one, are from the earlier, Meccan part of the Qur'an but even within the Meccan part differences can be seen. An example for this is the rhyme based on a which can be found in the old-Meccan Suras 69/75/79/80/88/ 101/104. Later Meccan and Medinean Suras are dominated by two grammatical endings and common words such as Qrim, Rhim. Out of the six rhyme patterns identified by Nöldeke two only exist in the earlier part and the others are used far less frequentlyin later parts. The assumption is that a more or less strict rhyme pattern is not suitable for the later more prosaic Suras that are concerned with legal and administrative matters. Euphony and assonance would inevitably be lost in translation into English since both are largely based on features specific to the semitic group or even specific to Arabic even if a translator choses the semantic approach.

However, rhyme patterns are only one of numerous stylistic features of the Qur’an and can be seen as a tool of rhetoric that supports the overall effect. One of these features of rhetoric is the play with words. These seem to divide a verse into separate parts and also capture the attention of the audience; an example is Sura 10/62. The letters that occur in from of certain Suras, 10/11/12/14/15 etc. have also been explained as tools of rhetoric, whether as vocative particles or as additions to strengthen the enigmatic, persuasive power of the book. Ibn Abbas put forward the vocative particle theory among others although Nöldeke seems to favour the theory that the letters are initials of those who wrote or transmitted the following texts. They are in any case features of the Qur'anic style and serve the enigmatic appeal of the Qur'an. A translation would lose this appeal since the reader would be unable to speculate even if annotations are provided by the translator. Another feature of rhetoric is the repetition of words such as hatta idha which is mentioned eight times in Sura 18 and the oaths that feature at the beginning of some Suras. Similarly, the frequent change of speaker in some Suras and the imperatives such as Iqra (Sura 96), which are again tools of rhetoric have to be translated carefully since they form a significant part of the persuasive power and effectively capture the attention of the audience. The tools of rhetoric become more significant in Medinean and late Meccan Suras, which are according to Ibn Warraq "pure prose enriched by rhetoric "(4) since rhyme loses its initial significance.

The changes in style can roughly be divided into three categories. Firstly, there is divine revelation in the early Meccan Suras that started with Sura 96; a short Sura that marks the beginning of the revelation and has a purely theological content and vocabulary. The style is characterised by a form of rhyme that remains in some proximity to traditional patterns and the message is almost purely prophetical and religious. The second part of the Qur'an is concerned with storytelling. Charles Cutter Torrey called these "pretentious attempts at story-telling" that fall into a brief period between the last year in Mecca and the first in Medina .One of these Suras is the Sura of Mary. Finally, the last parts of the Qur'an are concerned with legal and administrative matters. An example for this is Sura 4. It is longer than the majority of Suras, the language is prosaic and it is clearly concerned with administrative matters such as dowries (verse 4) and inheritance laws (verse 7). The length of Suras increases over time. The first revelations are short, religious revelations, the Suras concerned with storytelling are of varying length and the last Suras are long, legal treatises. The language used for different parts varies with the subject and the intention. Rhyme diminishes and rhetorical features become more prominent.

This means that all variants of Qur’anic style pose significant difficulties for the translator into English and all parts require different translation techniques. The communicative translation approach, which seeks to preserve mainly the effect rather than the meaning, is suitable for the unclear, religious Suras that were revealed at the beginning of Muhammads Prophethood. The Suras that are concerned with storytelling require an approach based on a mixture of the cognitive approach, an approach that focuses on the target language, and the communicative approach to preserve some of its religious and mystical appeal. Finally, the last Suras wich are concerned with legal matters should be translated according to the cognitive approach since the main function of these Suras seems to be the practical application and the Arabic used in the source texts is relatively clear and prosaic.


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