Difficulties in translation of the qur'an

Written by jared lewis
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Difficulties in translation of the qur'an
The Qur'an is the holy text of Islam. (Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images)

When translating from one language to another, it is often said that something gets lost in the translation. This can be true for just about any translation of one language to another. When it comes to religious texts like the Bible and the Qur'an, the difficulties are amplified for various reasons. The importance of religious texts like the Qur'an to a vast portion of the world's population makes the translation effort all the more important.

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Cultural Difficulties

One of the most evident problems in the translation of any religious text, including the Qur'an, is the differences in cultural practices between the culture of the original text and the new culture for which the text has been translated. Idiomatic phrases found in the Qur'an that were specific to Muslims living during the time of Muhammad will not make sense to Americans living in the 21st century. Idioms are figures of speech that people often use to say one thing which, if translated literally, would make no sense. For instance, in English if you say someone "kicked the bucket," this means that they died. They did not literally swing their leg forward into a bucket to send it flying. Idiomatic phrases like these can be found in all cultures and can be difficult to translate into a modern language far removed from the original text.

Interfaith Challenges

Another problem in the translation of the Qur'an is the competing voices within the Muslim faith regarding which translation should be considered correct. Translation is not a straightforward world-for-word movement from one language to the next. Instead, each translator or group of translators selects the best meaning of the words and the phrasing of translation based on what they believe is the most accurate meaning of the original. In cases where you have doctrinal differences among groups within the faith, competing translations of ambiguous passages tend to arise. In an article published by the Lahore Ahmadiyya Islamic Movement , Dr. A. Nihamathullah points out that each of the major Islamic sects believes its translation to be superior to other versions. These groups include the Sunnis, Shiites, and other groups like the Ahmadi Qadiyanis, the Salafis and the Ahmadi Lahoris, among others. With so many competing voices, coming to an agreement on one translation may prove to be impossible.

Language Challenges

Aside from the inability of one culture to understand the idioms of another, there are significant linguistic differences in translating the Qur'an into English or any other language for that matter. For instance, as Mohammad Abdelwali points out in a 2007 article in "Translation Journal," lexical differences make translation extremely difficult. In English some words are more specific in their meaning whereas in Arabic the meaning of a word may be more broadly construed and vice versa. For instance, English usage of the words for 'shelling' and 'bombardment' indicate very specific military actions, whereas the equivalent in Arabic would make no distinction between the two unless several words were added to the root word thus changing the meaning and making it more specific. The implication of more difficult passages like Qur'an 4.34 make it clear that political and social norms often dictate how a word is translated. As an article on the Braneis University website points out, three words in that verse determine how men and women are viewed in Islam in relation to one another. Translating into another language, however, requires the translator to take a stand based on their own belief about this relationship. The matter is not as simple as replacing the Arabic word with an English one.

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