Sunday, March 25, 2007

Translating the Koran

According to an article in the New York Times, Laleh Bakhtiar spent seven years on a new translation of the Koran from Arabic to English. The article discusses some of the translatorial decisions and difficulties she faced, including the fact that she had to spend three months on the Arabic word “daraba” alone. According to the article, “[s]ome analysts hold that the verse [i.e. the one containing “daraba”] cannot be rendered meaningfully into English because it reflects social and legal practices of Muhammad’s time.” In other words, some people consider it untranslatable. However, many translations involve significant barriers – linguistic, cultural, and temporal among them – and most translators do find ways of solving them. So though such issues are difficult, a translator can’t merely claim something is untranslatable and then give up.

Eventually, after research, Ms. Bakhtiar came to understand the word “daraba” in a way other than the traditional interpretation and she decided to use that understanding in her translation. As the article points out, “[d]ebates over translations of the Koran — considered God’s eternal words — revolve around religious tradition and Arabic grammar.” Obviously, this is a problem for nearly all religious texts, and translators of holy books have been challenged, threatened, and even killed because of their work. “Ms. Bakhtiar said she expected opposition, not least because she is not an Islamic scholar. Men in the Muslim world, she said, will also oppose the idea of an American, especially a woman, reinterpreting the prevailing translation.”

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