Divergence in Qur’an Translations: Causes and Examples

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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.

After recognising the particularities of interpreting and translating a divine text (too many to expand on here), the role of choice in the work of a translator is a reality that must also be appreciated. The translator may have to select exactly which text to translate (in this case, between the canonical readings, qirā’āt). On the level of vocabulary, a single word may have multiple meanings, more than one of which may be possible in a particular context. Indeed, it is possible that both meanings are intended, but that no single word in the target language will carry them both. There is also the challenge of observing the subtle distinctions between near-synonyms, e.g. the various words conveying senses of “fear”, even in a single verse.[1]

Then, on the phrasal and sentence level, the translator must decide which grammatical interpretation (iʿrāb) to follow. While the recent Qur’anic Corpus project is performing a valuable service in presenting the concept of grammatical parsing more widely, what may not be obvious from it is the scope for diversity of opinion on this matter, as can be readily seen by consulting the books of iʿrāb and tafsīr. Similarly, the translator needs to decide on the referents of pronouns when they are ambiguous (e.g. between “he”, “He” and “it”), and how to incorporate punctuation such as sentence divisions and speech marks. After all this come the stylistic choices such as how to render idioms, and how the text will best flow in the target language.

Accordingly, we can compare between existing translations of the Qur’an to find that the differences between them fall within the following categories:

  • Vocabulary: lexical meanings and subtle distinctions
  • Grammar and sentence structure
  • Pronouns etc.
  • Stylistic choices
  • Multiple readings (qirā’āt) – rarely.[2]

What follows is an analysis of a selection of translations of some verses (or parts of verses, as relevant) from the beginning of Sūrat al-Baqarah in order to apply the above theory and discover the bases of difference between them. The method is to group the translations that are substantially identical (i.e. in all but style), and then identify the cause of divergence wherever it exists. It should be emphasised that this analysis will not indicate all the translations that could exist, because it is applied to a finite group (namely, those currently available on Quran.com); moreover, 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.[3]

As such, what follows is designed to illustrate choice and divergence in translation and enable the reader to appreciate what is involved in the task. It is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment, but contains hints for further study. A subsequent project may be to do the same for the rest of the Qur’an, as well as to look at a greater number of actual translations, and indeed possible translations that were not selected by anyone before. It should also be noted that it is outside our present scope to discuss whether some mistakes were made by the translators, or which of their approaches is best in each case.

Translation Study
(Sūrat al-Baqarah 2:1-20)

2:2       ذَٰلِكَ الْكِتَابُ

Sahih International: This is the Book
Muhsin Khan: This is the Book
Yusuf Ali: This is the Book
Pickthall: This is the Scripture

Ghali: That is the Book

Shakir: This Book

Causes of divergence:

  • Whether to render literally the demonstrative pronoun usually reserved for distant things (“that”) or consider the distance here as indicating greatness of “this” book.
  • Whether to interpret the two words as being a complete nominal sentence (thus with “is”), or together as the subject (“This book”) which is then followed by the predicate.
  • Choice between general “book” and the more contextual “scripture”.

2:2       لا رَيْبَ فِيهِ

Sahih International: about which there is no doubt
Ghali: there is no suspicion about it
Muhsin Khan: whereof there is no doubt
Pickthall: whereof there is no doubt

Shakir: there is no doubt in it

Yusuf Ali: This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt

Causes of divergence:

  • Whether to render it literally as “in” or understand it as “about”/“whereof”.
  • Different sentence structures depending on stopping place. Yusuf Ali’s rendering depends on reading it as ذَٰلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لا رَيْبَ followed by فِيهِ هُدًى لِّلْمُتَّقِين – resulting in the Book containing guidance, rather than being guidance. He has adjusted the phrasal order for flow in English.

2:2       هُدًى لِّلْمُتَّقِينَ

Yusuf Ali: in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah

Sahih International: a guidance for those conscious of Allah

Ghali: a guidance to the pious

Pickthall: a guidance unto those who ward off (evil)
Shakir: a guide to those who guard (against evil)

Muhsin Khan: a guidance to those who are Al-Muttaqun

Causes of divergence:

  • Different approaches to rendering the concept of taqwā, including the strategy of retaining the Arabic term.
  • The literal “guidance” (verbal noun) or a more contextual “guide” (active participle).
  • The different sentence structure used by Yusuf Ali, as explained previously.

2:3       الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْغَيْبِ وَيُقِيمُونَ الصَّلاةَ

Sahih International: Who believe in the unseen, establish prayer…
Pickthall: Who believe in the Unseen, and establish worship…
Yusuf Ali: Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer…
Shakir: Those who believe in the unseen and keep up prayer…
Ghali: Who believe in the Unseen, and keep up the prayer…

Muhsin Khan: Who believe in the Ghaib and perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat)…

Cause of divergence:

  • Rendering certain Arabic terms as they are. As this is a regular occurrence in Muhsin Khan’s translation (as well as its excessive glosses), it will not be mentioned further.

2:5       أُولَٰئِكَ عَلَىٰ هُدًى مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ

Sahih International: Those are upon [right] guidance from their Lord
Muhsin Khan: They are on (true) guidance from their Lord
Yusuf Ali: They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord
Ghali: Those are upon guidance from their Lord

Shakir: These are on a right course from their Lord

Pickthall: These depend on guidance from their Lord

Causes of divergence:

  • Renderings of the word hudā, with Shakir perhaps being influenced by its being indefinite here.
  • Interpretations of the metaphor of being “upon” guidance. Pickthall has apparently understood that a word was left unmentioned; perhaps this ought to have been placed in parenthesis.

2:5       وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

Sahih International: and it is those who are the successful
Muhsin Khan: and they are the successful
Pickthall: These are the successful
Ghali: and those are they who are the prosperers

Yusuf Ali: and it is these who will prosper
Shakir: and these it is that shall be successful

Cause of divergence:

  • Reading the active participle as indicating the present or the future.

2:6       لا يُؤْمِنُونَ

Sahih International: they will not believe
Muhsin Khan: they will not believe
Yusuf Ali: they will not believe
Shakir: …will not believe

Pickthall: they believe not
Ghali: they do not believe

Cause of divergence:

  • Reading the imperfect verb as indicating the present or the future.

2:8       وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يَقُولُ آمَنَّا بِاللهِ وَبِالْيَوْمِ الآخِرِ

Sahih International: And of the people are some who say, “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”
Yusuf Ali: Of the people there are some who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”
Shakir: And there are some people who say: We believe in Allah and the last day

Muhsin Khan: And of mankind, there are some (hypocrites) who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”
Pickthall: And of mankind are some who say: We believe in Allah and the Last Day
Ghali: And of mankind (there) are some who say, “We have believed in Allah and in the Last Day”

Cause of divergence:

  • Whether to consider al-nās as referring to a specific number of people, or all mankind. This distinction is significant in certain other verses.
  • Here and elsewhere: approaches to the past-tense verb “believed”, often rendered in the present to suit the meaning.

2:10     وَلَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ بِمَا كَانُوا يَكْذِبُونَ

Sahih International: and for them is a painful punishment because they [habitually] used to lie
Muhsin Khan: A painful torment is theirs because they used to tell lies
Pickthall: A painful doom is theirs because they lie
Shakir: and they shall have a painful chastisement because they lied
Ghali: and for them is a painful torment for (that) they used to lie

Yusuf Ali: And grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves)

Cause of divergence:

  • Taking the verb to apply to the act of lying, or as a mode of behaviour which is the opposite of being true (i.e. sincere).

2:11     قَالُوا إِنَّمَا نَحْنُ مُصْلِحُونَ

Sahih International: they say, “We are but reformers”

Muhsin Khan: they say: “We are only peacemakers”
Pickthall: they say: We are peacemakers only
Yusuf Ali: they say: “Why, we only want to make peace!”
Shakir: they say: We are but peace-makers

Ghali: they say, “Surely we are only doers of righteousness” (i.e. reformers, peacemakers)

Cause of divergence:

  • Meanings of the term iṣlāḥ

2:12     أَلا إِنَّهُمْ هُمُ الْمُفْسِدُونَ وَلَٰكِن لا يَشْعُرُونَ

Sahih International: Unquestionably, it is they who are the corrupters, but they perceive [it] not
Muhsin Khan: Verily! They are the ones who make mischief, but they perceive not
Yusuf Ali: Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realise (it) not
Shakir: Now surely they themselves are the mischief makers, but they do not perceive
Ghali: Verily, they, (only) they, are surely the corruptors, but they are not aware

Pickthall: Are not they indeed the mischief-makers? But they perceive not

Cause of divergence:

  • Interpretation of the opening particle as being interrogative (its origin), rather than emphatic. Similarly in the following verse: “Are not they indeed the foolish?”

2:15     اللَّهُ يَسْتَهْزِئُ بِهِمْ

Sahih International: [But] Allah mocks them…
Muhsin Khan: Allah mocks at them…
Pickthall: Allah (Himself) doth mock them…
Ghali: Allah mocks them…

Shakir: Allah shall pay them back their mockery…
Yusuf Ali: Allah will throw back their mockery on them…

Cause of divergence:

  • Taking the verb as being a direct action in the present, or as an expression of the punishment which God will enact on the hypocrites, described with a verb that matches their wicked behaviour to indicate that the punishment will fit the crime in perfect justice and wisdom.

2:17     وَتَرَكَهُمْ فِي ظُلُمَاتٍ لَّا يُبْصِرُونَ

Sahih International: and left them in darkness [so] they could not see
Muhsin Khan: and left them in darkness. (So) they could not see
Pickthall: and leaveth them in darkness, where they cannot see

Yusuf Ali: and left them in utter darkness. So they could not see
Shakir: and left them in utter darkness– they do not see

Ghali: and left them in darkness(es) (where) they do not behold (anything)

Cause of divergence:

  • The plural form of “darkness” being ignored, treated as an emphasis (“utter”) or rendered literally (“darknesses”) as a new coinage in English.

2:19     أَوْ كَصَيِّبٍ مِّنَ السَّمَاءِ

Sahih International: Or [it is] like a rainstorm from the sky
Muhsin Khan: Or like a rainstorm from the sky
Pickthall: Or like a rainstorm from the sky
Yusuf Ali: Or (another similitude) is that of a rain-laden cloud from the sky
Ghali: Or as a cloudburst from the heaven

Shakir: Or like abundant rain from the cloud

Cause of divergence:

  • How they understood these two terms and their meanings and relation in the context.

2:20     وَلَوْ شَاءَ اللهُ لَذَهَبَ بِسَمْعِهِمْ وَأَبْصَارِهِمْ

Sahih International: And if Allah had willed, He could have taken away their hearing and their sight
Muhsin Khan: And if Allah willed, He could have taken away their hearing and their sight
Pickthall: If Allah willed, He could destroy their hearing and their sight
Yusuf Ali: And if Allah willed, He could take away their faculty of hearing and seeing
Shakir: and if Allah had pleased He would certainly have taken away their hearing and their sight

Ghali: and if Allah had so decided, He would indeed have gone away with (i.e., taken away) their hearing and their beholdings (Literally: eyesights)

Causes of divergence:

  • The latter translator’s understanding of the literal meaning of the transitive construction dhahaba bihi.
  • His attempt to convey the plural nature of abṣār, because the word for hearing (samʿ) occurs in the singular.

 To be continued (God willing)…


[1] See Q 4:9. This example is interesting, because the generally precise translators of Saheeh International have simply written “fear” three times. Yusuf Ali and Muhsin Khan have even combined the first two and called them “the same fear”! Dr. M.M. Ghali (who pays particular attention to synonymy) has perhaps done the best job of distinguishing between their senses in the verse; likewise Pickthall.

[2] The vast majority of translators have relied solely on the reading of Ḥafṣ ʿan ʿĀṣim, being the preponderant narration throughout the Muslim world since the era of publishing and indeed earlier. However, ten canonical readings (qirā’āt) are recognised as being equally authentic and authoritative. While most differences between them pertain to pronunciation only, some affect meaning and thus translation. The Bewley translation (1999) is based on the reading of Warsh ʿan Nāfiʿ. In addition, there are instances where translators deviate from the reading of Ḥafṣ, whether knowingly or unwittingly. These issues will receive a detailed treatment in the future, God willing.

[3] The books of tafsīr also contain divergence based on their stances concerning certain creedal and juristic matters, and so on. It is unclear to what extent many translators have relied on works of tafsīr to develop their interpretations; one could imagine that a linguistic treatment would be enough. We know that some, such as Muhsin Khan, make explicit reference to works of tafsīr; such can be seen in Yusuf Ali’s footnotes too. Unfortunately, most translators make little to no use of footnotes, and those who do write footnotes tend not to use them to explain their choices in translation.


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Tafsir and Translation | Quranica

1 October, 2014 at 8:36 am

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