Translating or Interpreting?
A Lexical Approach to Translating the Qur’an
Ahmad A. A. El-Ezabi, PhD in Linguistics
Al-Azhar University, Cairo
Published at the Faculty of Arts Journal, Zagazig University, Special Studies Issue, April 2005. 1. Abstract
In the present research paper, it is proposed that, perhaps unlike the case with most other types of texts, the most precise approach to translating the Qur’an is a lexical one.1 It is argued that this is a guarantee to keep the loss of intended meaning in the SL text to a minimum in a translated version and leave the latter as flexible as it can be within the limits of the target language. Distinction is made here between translating and interpreting through the analysis of the difference between lexical meanings of some key words in the Qur'an and the conceptual meaning they have once gained in the history of Muslim thought and since then been associated with in practice. It is suggested that translators of the Qur’an should be committed to the lexical meaning, in a necessary attempt to avoid interpreting (and possibly also misinterpreting), and therefore consciously refrain from delimiting the likely readings the allegedly flexible language of the Qur’an can offer. Analysis is conducted of relevant examples from some renowned translations of the Qur’an to show how it is that disregarding such distinction can result in damaging, or at best limiting, the meanings a reader of the Arabic text can obtain from the original Arabic Qur’an, whereas the readers of such translations are thus denied. Practical solutions to the problems resulting from such approach, in dealing with the lexical items that have gained specific cultural and conceptual meanings over the history of Islam, are suggested.
2. Statement of the Problem
The most common approach in translating the Qur'an into a foreign language is often conducted in the light of traditional commentaries on the Qur'an. That is also what most of the Muslim scholars do when they present a tafseer, i.e. commentary or exgesis of the Qur'an to their students and/or audience. This approach is so keenly observed that an impression is left that otherwise the Qur'an is not readily accessible to readers or worshippers. Commentators are thus heavily quoted and often taken to be the normal route towards understanding the meanings in the Muslims' holy text. Even the common glossaries of the meaning of the words in the Qur'an mix the lexical meaning up with the commentary, often with no distinction that can guide the reader into the difference. Renowned such glossaries include Makhlouf' (1997), Juwaidi (2004) and Ar-Ruzz (2004). It is implicitly or explicitly understood that such glossaries are more of interpreting and commentary than lexical equivalence.
The problem with this approach is that the tendency is then to "interpret" rather than understand or translate. In the former case, the risk is high in delimiting the possible meanings that the linguistic elements in the text can offer the readers. Worse still, a commentator may thus offer some misconception or an outdated interpretation of some part of the text. In either case, when some readers naively take commentaries to be the only meaning, they are left with something else that may not be at all the Qur'an they think they are reading. Unfortunately, most of the readers of a translation are quite often under the impression that what they read is necessarily more or less the meaning in the original text. With no access to the original text, a gap is growingly created between the holy text and its readers in translation, who can at times be left completely in the dark and at others even misled.
3. Definition of key terms
3.1 Translating and interpreting
In the process of translating, the SL lexical meaning is sought via the possible meaning(s) as suggested by linguistic elements alone, e.g. lexical meanings found in relevant language dictionaries and in the light of...
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