Tense Discussions… About Tense!

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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.

The other two critiques both happened to concern the use of tense in specific verses. The first speaker was an accomplished academic of Arabic studies who was arguing against the very possibility of translating the Qur’an due to its novel and unique linguistic style. He took the following verse (Q 27:88) as a case study:


The speaker’s contention was that all the translators mistakenly used the future tense to translate the imperfect verb tamurru, upon the assumption that the shifting of the mountains will take place on the Day of Judgement. He insisted that this verse is concerning natural phenomena which exist at the present time, and that the verbs should be taken at face value as referring to the present time, i.e. the mountains are moving as the clouds move: an allusion to the revolution of the globe.

While declaring them – not only translators (with the exception of Richard Bell!), but exegetes too – as completely wrong, he did make one excuse for them: that they were relying on the knowledge of their day, whereas modern science reveals the “correct” interpretation of the verse. Strangely, he did not acknowledge the following crucial points in his analysis: first, that an imperfect verb may very plausibly refer to the future, even without the particle which designates it to the future exclusively.

Second: that the previous interpreters had a much stronger “excuse”, in the shape of context! The verse immediately prior to 27:88 refers explicitly to the Day of Judgement: {On the day that the Trumpet will be sounded…}, as does the verse immediately following: {…they will be secure from terror on that day}. One would have to make a detailed argument in order to override this context and relocate the intervening verse in the present, as indeed the modern exegete Ibn ‘Ashur (d. 1973) has done. However, simply pointing to the imperfect verb and insisting on interpretation in the light of modern science cannot suffice; when I raised this with the speaker, I was surprised that he seemed not to have thought about context at all.

The second speaker is a specialist in apologetics, with a strong personal interest in reflection upon the Qur’an. In a lecture delivered to a room full of academics, he made an argument for sticking to “literal” translations of its verses – at least in certain places, which he did not define clearly – in order to allow the reader to reflect on the way the Qur’an has expressed the matter. The main example he gave was Q 39:71:

The speaker suggested that we should be “angry” that the translators have unanimously translated these past tense verbs in a way that makes them pertain to the future (except Pickthall, who rendered them into the present). Instead, he argued, it should be translated as follows: “Those who disbelieved were driven to Hell in groups until, when they reached it, its gates were opened and its keepers said…”. He went so far as to back-translate the popular translation into Arabic (for the largely Arabic-speaking audience), to claim that the translators had arrogated unto themselves to change the Quranic verbs into: سيساق , سيجيئون , ستفتح , سيقول.

I have some sympathy for this argument, at least as it pertains to the first verb (سيق), which in fact follows a number of past-tense verbs in the preceding verses; the fact that the temporal setting is the Day of Judgement (which is certainly in the future) is immediately obvious, and made explicit in verse 67, which opens this sequence of verses. It is well known that the use of the past tense to refer to future events is a frequent occurrence in the Qur’an, and exegetes consider this to have the effect of underlining the certainty of those events (tahqiq). It is taken to be a familiar feature in the Arabic language, which is certainly something on which to ponder; one implication being that past and future are equal in the sight of the Almighty.

However, as the speaker himself acknowledged, the translators will “excuse” themselves by saying that the reader would not understand if the verbs were rendered in the past tense in English. This is a very reasonable consideration, since any competent translator knows that it is necessary to keep in mind the respective specialities of the source and target languages. Something which is normal in Arabic may be strange and incomprehensible in English. This is why translation always involves loss. Perhaps this speaker could, if he ever translates the Qur’an himself, adopt his chosen methodology; but I suggest that he would quickly discover its limitations, and may soon violate his own stipulations without realising. It is one thing to translate a verse for the purpose of a talk or reflection, and quite another to place it within a printed book, in context.

For me, the problem of such objections and critiques stems from the very idea that there is a single “correct” translation in such circumstances, whereas each does have that which recommends it, as well as its limitations by necessity. A simple solution is to provide the translation which is most likely to be understood by the reader, and provide relevant notes at the foot of the page, e.g. “These verbs are in the perfect tense to indicate the certainty of their occurrence. One may also understand that the arrow of time does not apply to the Creator of time.”

A more thorough solution would be to present multiple possibilities side-by-side, and to take this as a key aspect of translation methodology. Such an extensive project does not yet exist, and would take many years of effort to achieve. However, I believe that this is the future. In the meantime, the reader should be encouraged to compare multiple translations if he is not in a position to study a work of tafsir. Indeed, any translator of the Qur’an should probably have this expectation of his readers, as he will never be capable of covering all aspects.

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