Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1386, (22 - 28 March 2018)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1386, (22 - 28 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Translating the Quran

A new book provides a useful survey of English translations of the Quran, writes David Tresilian

Translating the Quran

The first translations of the Quran into European languages, in this case Latin, took place in the Middle Ages when the intentions of the translators were not always friendly. Islam was widely seen as a competitor to Christianity, and the early European translations were neither accurate nor well-intentioned, having been produced largely for polemical purposes. 

Later translations, now also into the European vernaculars, reflected the circumstances of their time. The first genuinely scholarly translation into Latin, by the Italian translator Ludovico Marracci, appeared in 1698 and used standard Muslim commentaries to help elucidate the Arabic text. André du Ryer’s French translation of 1647, the oldest into any European vernacular, also refers to commentaries by Muslim scholars and incorporates their findings. 

European translations of the Quran thus have a long history behind them going back at least as far as the Middle Ages. However, the intentions behind them have varied as much as their projected readership and the procedures used to produce them. While the intention at first was generally polemical, by the 17th century it had become scholarly or philological, before giving way in the 18th century to a kind of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism. 

By the time of the first scholarly translation to appear in English, by the English orientalist George Sale and published in 1734, the Quran was being introduced to European readers as the primary text of a world religion and as a way into understanding Islamic civilisation. 

Perhaps it is this last motivation that also in part explains the great expansion in Quranic translation into English today. No fewer than 45 separate versions have appeared since the turn of the millennium alone, and, as US scholar Bruce B Lawrence explains in his new guide to translations of the Quran in English, The Koran in English, there are further versions on the Internet. 

“During the past century,” Lawrence writes, “English translations of the Koran proliferated. They numbered sixty… but that total pales in comparison to what lies ahead… In a little more than fifteen years [since 2000], the twenty-first century has been witnessing almost three new translations every year, most original and several available online. It is no longer a question of whether but how, and how well, the Arabic Quran will become the Koran in English.”

Some of the new translations have been recognised as establishing new standards in Quranic translation, including the widely read versions by M A S Abdel-Haleem (2004) and Tarif Khalidi (2008). US scholar Jane McAuliffe, editor of the six-volume Encyclopaedia of the Quran, has published a revision (2017) of the version produced by British scholar Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall in 1930 that for a time almost held the field. 


Translating the Quran

If Lawrence is right and the number of different versions is likely to increase, what should one look for in a translation of the Quran? Theologically, it has long been recognised that the Quran has a unique status that can hardly be transferred into other languages. Especially older translations of the Quran, by non-Muslims as much as by Muslims, often drew attention to the status of the Arabic text by describing themselves as “interpretations” or “versions” of the Quran rather than as foreign-language examples of it. 

This is the case for Pickthall’s version, for example, called “The Meaning of the Glorious Koran”, or of that by the Cambridge scholar A.J. Arberry, whose translation of the Quran, “The Koran Interpreted”, completed in 1955, is still held in high regard by many. 

There are clearly questions about the translator’s choices and overall and more detailed presentation of the English text. Pickthall and Arberry, believing that the Quran deserved the kind of elevated style in English familiar from 17th-century translations of the Bible, chose a kind of Jacobean style for their translations that could not be confused with contemporary English. 

Abdel-Haleem and Khalidi, some generations later, have tried to be less elevated, but perhaps more accessible, at the risk of being less poetic. This is equally true of the version by N J Dawood, first published in 1956, which has been reprinted dozens of times in several editions and is probably still the best-selling English version.

The question of how much guidance English-speaking readers may need when reading the Quran in English has proven divisive. English-speaking Muslims, whether English is their first, second or subsequent language, will not require, or possibly even welcome, the kind of explanatory or interpretative material that might appeal to non-Muslim readers. They are not reading the Quran as a work of literature or a document of civilisation, but as a religious text or scripture, and they may value a dual-language edition containing the Arabic text and English translation rather than a version providing inevitably partial commentary.

Sale introduced his version of the Quran with a long introductory essay, or “Preliminary Discourse”, for example, designed to introduce Islamic civilisation to 17th-century English readers. Subsequent translators have been more circumspect, allowing their versions more or less to speak for themselves even if this may have meant reduced comprehension on the part of certain readers. Commentary on the Quran stops nowhere, and any translator’s notes are bound to do little more than scratch the surface, particularly when fuller comprehension can only come by studying the original Arabic text. 

Lawrence’s book deals with questions of this sort, providing, in addition to a short history of English Quran translation, an overview of presently available Muslim and non-Muslim translations. A main impetus towards the translation of the Quran into English in the last century came, he says, from the Indian sub-continent, which in addition to having a large Muslim population also increasingly used English as a first or second language. 

Translations by Muhammad Ali (1917), Pickthall, and the latter’s contemporary Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1934) were done in India, and in fewer than 40 years, Lawrence says, “seven Indian Muslims, including a British convert who lived in India (Pickthall), produced more Koran translations than all of the British orientalists from the preceding three centuries” put together. 

These men came from different theological horizons — the first was a leader of the Ahmadi Muslim community in Lahore, while the last was from the Ismaili community (the Ahmadis are followers of the late 19th-century religious reformer Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, while Ismailism is a branch of Shia Islam). However, collectively “they helped individual Muslims [non-native speakers of Arabic] engage in personal study of the Quran, at the same time that they created an English-language template for the Noble Book that gave precedence to Muslim sensibilities.”

They also provided the background for another well-known translation, this time by Muhammad Asad, born in Germany as Leopold Weiss, who arrived in what was then British India in 1932 before becoming a citizen of Pakistan on that country’s independence. Asad’s translation (1980), like that by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, was designed for Muslim readers not having easy access to Arabic, and, like his (in its original version), it includes a commentary and facing Arabic text. 

Today, the world’s largest purveyor of translations of the Quran into English is probably the King Fahd Complex for Printing the Holy Quran in Saudi Arabia. Originally, this used a revised version of the translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, but this was replaced in 1993 by a new translation by scholars Muhammad Taqiuddin Al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan that contains extensive excerpts from the Muslim commentaries. 

Perhaps the best strategy is to read several English versions simultaneously, since even for those not able to read the original Arabic this can provide a kind of amplification. The different shades of meaning different translators at different times have found in the Arabic text can be seen by simultaneously comparing their translations. Reading the Quran on the Internet can be useful, as Lawrence points out, since various websites now allow readers to read the Arabic text side by side with multiple translations. Hyperlinks can also take them to various Muslim and other commentaries. 

Altafsir.org hosted by the Royal Aal Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan describes itself as “the largest and greatest online collection of Quranic commentary (tafsir or tafseer), translation, recitation and essential resources in the world,” though according to Lawrence its translations are limited to 10, including those by Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Arberry and Asad. For ease of retrieval and clarity of presentation, he recommends islamawakened.com which allows visitors to view 54 translations of each verse simultaneously on the same page.

“These entries are listed as ‘generally accepted translations of the meaning’, and they are followed by 10 more that are said to be ‘controversial, deprecated, or status undetermined works’, then a further five categorised as ‘non-Muslim and/or orientalist works,’ while a final four are described as ‘new and/or partial translations and works in progress’.”


Bruce B Lawrence, The Koran in English, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017, pp.247.

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