Tafsir and Translation

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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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