Category Archives: Translation

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Interpretive Issues in “Solomon and the Queen”

By Sohaib Saeed

Quranica’s feature film Solomon and the Queen is, first and foremost, a showcase of the beauty of the Qur’an’s message and narrative style, through a masterful recitation by the renowned Egyptian qari, Hajjaj Ramadan al-Hindawi. When we gave him the stage on the last day of his Scotland tour in 2006, we did not tell him what to recite. He recited those verses from Surat al-Naml, and the rest is history.

When the time came to edit it to coincide with Quranica’s ten-year anniversary and re-launch, it was clear that the beauty of that original event deserved a fresh approach to editing and production. And so the idea to weave in commentary (as well as providing real-time translation, as we had done in most live events) was born.

Read: The Making of “Solomon and the Queen”

Here I shall provide some insight into the process of research and selection of opinions. I consulted a large number of works of tafsir, as well as a few which fall outside that genre but discussed, for example, female personalities in the Qur’an (including Bilqis). I knew that what we needed in this film was not a full tafsir, but a simple commentary which would aid reflection. Although I needed to answer all the questions in my own mind, I did not wish to impose those answers on the viewers.

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Tense Discussions… About Tense!

Category : Translation

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:

  1. Surveying those translations comprehensively;
  2. Giving weight to their consensus, and considering their reasoning carefully;
  3. Considering whether both could be said to be correct;
  4. 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.

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Tafsir and Translation

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By Sohaib Saeed

I was interested to read a paper by Scott Lucas entitled “Is the Qur’an Wise? Is God the Outward? Two Exegetical Debates Lost in English Translations of the Qur’an“, in which the author illustrates the disconnect between the multiplicity of interpretations offered by the tafsir tradition, and what translators end up selecting for a particular verse. The latter may not reflect the predominant view(s) of the commentators, and may – as a collection – ignore and eliminate legitimate meanings.

I touched on this in my article on translator choice and Divergence in Qur’an Translations, saying:

…it is possible that translators tended to see things the same way, or indeed were influenced by each other. Indeed, there might be more diversity if they were to rely more pronouncedly on the books of iʿrāb and tafsīr, which present obscure interpretations alongside the more obvious

Interestingly, Lucas argues that “the Anglophone world would benefit far more from the partial or complete translation of Qur’anic commentaries than it would from yet another translation of the Qur’an itself” (p. 3).

Speaking as a translator of tafsir (presently completing Vol. 1 of Al-Razi’s), I agree in part. One has to consider what would be of most assistance to a modern reader, and perhaps guide him or her to the various possibilities and the reasoning behind them. If by “partial”, he means summarised, then I would tend to agree, as there are many (e.g. grammatical) discussions that would be lost in translation, or if not, then useless to English readers. This has already been done to the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir, although the abridgement process has not kept the author’s points clear and intact in all cases, and requires specialisation in tafsir, not Arabic language alone.

Helpful works along the lines of Lucas’ suggestion are those of Helmut Gatje and Mahmoud Ayoub. A more thematic approach has been taken by Hamza, Rizvi and Mayer. It would be wonderful to see a series of books adopting something like the thematic tafsir methodology which can present Qur’anic approaches and draw out subtleties by means of internal Qur’anic reflection.

Thinking again about the modern reader, alternative modes of presentation must be considered. I had pointed out that the Qur’anic Corpus project would be much richer if it could represent the diversity of grammatical analyses and exegetical interpretations. From a recent conversation with its founder, I understand that this is a hope for the future, and thus it could become a most effective tool for the layman and the specialist (including translators).


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Divergence in Qur’an Translations: Causes and Examples

Category : Translation

By Sohaib Saeed

The translation of the Arabic Qur’an into the languages of the world has received the broad acceptance of Muslim scholars since the middle of last century, though the practice of translating the whole Qur’an extends back to the sixteenth century or earlier. The original missionary goals were replaced by academic research and the efforts of Muslims to clarify the teachings of their faith, not only for non-Muslims, but also for new generations of believers of foreign tongues. Translation is a particular method of explaining the Quranic text, and can serve as a succinct way of expressing the meanings of its words and sentences.

For a number of pertinent reasons, Muslims make a fundamental distinction between the Qur’an – revealed verbatim in Arabic as a divine challenge – and translations, human renderings of its meanings into other languages. Any product of the human mind is subject not only to the possibility of error, but also the capacity for difference of opinion. Translation of any complex and highly literary text must necessarily be a difficult task, and one in which expert opinions can diverge at various points.

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