By Sohaib Saeed
Anyone who takes on the task of translating the Qur’an (or indeed any lofty and complex literary text) will be faced with innumerable challenges, and throughout the process, he or she will have to make all kinds of choices. On some points, they will diverge widely, and on others, they may agree (or imitate each other), yet not be safe from the critics.
There are some who seem to take great pleasure in pointing to a particular verse or form of expression in the Qur’an, then declare that all the translators got it wrong. This would be acceptable if they had undertaken the following steps:
- Surveying those translations comprehensively;
- Giving weight to their consensus, and considering their reasoning carefully;
- Considering whether both could be said to be correct;
- Checking that their proposed amendment is safe from critique – for example, does its underlying method work for all such junctures in the Qur’an?
In the past year, I have attended three lectures in which the speaker declared all the translators wrong on a certain point. One of them is himself an acclaimed translator of the Qur’an, so it may be said simply that he was arguing for his own methodology and preference. He emphasised the significance of Quranic polysemy (wujuh), such that the word kitab, for example, has as many as ten different meanings, yet the translators have generally stuck to writing “book”. I would simply point out here that this English word can also handle various metaphorical usages, and that there is a good argument to use the single word as the Qur’an did – at most junctures, if not all – and allow the reader to exercise his mind.