On the Role of the Translator
in the Rendition of the Koran

This article should be connected with the *Messiah Machine* (or: Messias Machine)...

On the Role of the Translator in the Rendition of the Koran

by Achmed A. W. Khammas

A long time ago, the mysterious fascination of the Orient and the fear of its Moorish - and later Ottoman - credo of "fire and the sword" (actually "light and justice") motivated scholars to become acquainted through translation with the contents of the Holy Book of Islam, which was so surprisingly effective. A further motive was the Christian Church's desire to refute the Koran.

The official view of Islamic scholars is that the Koran is untranslatable - and this view is shared by a large number of Western Arabists, students of Islam and religious scholars, who prefer to speak of 'paraphrases', rather than of 'translations' for this reason. There is unanimity that any rendition can only offer a pale reflection of the powerful original verses.

The first Latin edition of the Koran was printed in Basle in 1543 by the Zurich-based theologian Theodor Bibliander on the basis of a commentary by Martin Luther, although it had actually been rendered from the Arabic as early as 1143 on the initiative of Petrus Venerabilis. This edition was the starting point for a whole series of versions in other languages for a further century.

The first two Koran renditions into German were then published by S. Schweiger in Nuremberg in 1616 and by E.W. Happel in Hamburg in 1688. However, neither these nor the renditions by D. Nerreter (1703) and Th. Arnold (1743) were based on the Arabic original. The main reasons for this were on the one hand the lack of authentic originals, and on the other the fact that there were so few Arabic translators at that time.

One rendition that had the most lasting scholarly impact on its time was the Italian Jesuit padre Lodovico Marracci's edition, which was published in 1698 in Padua. In addition to the complete Arabic text, it also contained a Latin translation along with corresponding refutations. Four years earlier, in May 1694, Pastor Abraham Hinckelmann in Hamburg had already published the first printed Arabic version of the Koran, even though Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667) had renewed the Church's ban on publishing the Koran, either in the original or in translation. It thus took until 1772 before a German edition of the Koran, rendered directly from the Arabic by D.F. Megerlein, was published in Frankfurt-am-Main. This version was used intensively by Goethe. Only one year later, F.E. Boysen published a further edition in Halle, which was then revised in 1828 by S.F.G. Wahl. Hence there were now renditions of the Koran available in the German-language region, and these laid the foundation for a further study of the basic statements of Islam.

The best known renditions into English include the works by G. Sale (1734) and E.H. Palmer (1880), as well as the more contemporary renditions by R. Bell (1939) and A.J. Arberry (1955). French renditions worthy of note include those by Du Ryer (1647), M. Savary (1783) and R. Blachère (1949).

Many of these past translators had recourse during their work to the Koran commentaries that are recognized and highly esteemed in Islam (primarily "Tafsîr al-Dschalâlain"). These are only a few centuries younger than the Koran itself, however, and thus probably better suited for interpreting the Koran according to the historical context and the meanings which the respective words had during the lifetime of the Prophet. Most contemporary translators also work in this way. On the other hand, this approach does make it more difficult to carry out a more profound analysis of the text, particularly of the parts of which the commentaries state: "And Allah knows what He meant by this". These passages were also rendered into the respective target languages, although the translators were forced to restrict themselves to the literal method (with many question marks). The role of the translator in this context could be considerably extended in the future.

A question that has not been dealt with sufficiently up to now concerns the religious affiliation of the translator himself, since scholarly distance or independence, which is so often evoked, is probably a fiction. In every individual, cultural and social influences condition the inner flows of feeling and thought. It is only understandable that cultures that are geographically or chronologically so far removed from each other - quite apart from their different motives - also arrive at different interpretations and evaluations.

If we compare Max Henning's rendition, published in Leipzig in 1901, with that of Rudi Paret, published in Stuttgart in 1966, i.e. the two most recent contemporary renditions of the Koran into German, we can clearly recognize the effects of modern times on the translator's target language in that it shows greater precision. The title of the 51st sûrah is a typical example: the ambiguity in the Arabic [Al-Thâriât] is reduced to an entropic "Die Zerstreuenden" ("the scatterers") in Henning's version, whereas Paret uses the substantially more exact and reality-related "Die aufwirbeln" ("those that whirl up").

Nevertheless, one notices again and again that the translators of the holy texts adhere to past examples and - consciously or unconsciously - always remain within this "space-time", also in terms of content. One alternative to this which is hardly ever used is the working concept of the "non-historical translation", i.e. a rendition based on the premise that the text concerned is contemporary, thus making it possible to elaborate new associations and up-to-date correlations.

In addition to the unsurpassed poetic force of its verses, the "miracle" of the Koran is seen to lie in the fact that it is nevertheless surprisingly intelligible to ordinary people. An uneducated, illiterate person experiences the same inner fulfilment as an experienced linguist when he or she hears the holy texts. Although subsequent enquiry might reveal that very different levels of conceptual grasp and intellectual penetration have been reached, no-one would criticise this, let alone try to put a stop to such differences of interpretation. However, what is the situation as regards future, new levels of understanding?

In practice, attempts are made in most societies that are dominated by Islam to maintain a status quo that suits certain political and economic vested interests. As in other societies, there is a link here between the direct wielding of power and the definition of the meaning of words. The translator is particularly sensitive to such shifts of meaning. For example, [Hukm] today stands for "political regime" and "rule", whereas originally it meant to "administer justice", to "be just" and "be wise", and had nothing whatsoever to do with politics. Many similar examples could be given to illustrate how concepts are given a primitive and sometimes even arbitrary meaning for reasons of power politics.

This situation makes it much more difficult to stimulate the translator's intuition. Although there are signs of a contemporary and enlightened understanding of the visionary texts in some Islamic countries, they have not exerted any noticeable influence as yet. The growing influence of fundamentalism has made enlightened textual work and modern exegesis - particularly in a foreign language (!) - almost physically dangerous.

The Prophet Mohammed reported that the holy texts were read out to him by the Archangel Gabriel (in the "Arabic tongue"), whereupon he memorized them immediately. Disciples said, however, that the Prophet had also fallen into a trance, in which condition the words simply bubbled out of him. These verses [Ayât, literally "miracle"] left their mark on an entire epoch, brought down huge empires in the shortest space of time and gave the Arabic language an extremely stable foundation that has lasted to the present day.

The Prophet said of the text itself that it would accompany mankind until the Day of Judgement, and that no further book was needed after the Koran (Islam recognizes the Gospels and the Torah). In Islamic instruction, pupils are shown where such modern machines as aeroplanes and submarines are mentioned in the Koran as proof of the visionary and future-penetrating power of the text. The corresponding modern, technical terms have not, however, been incorporated into contemporary renditions up to now.

The surahs and verses of the Koran are indeed full of intricate pieces of information. Because of the ambiguity of Arabic words, this becomes particularly clear in the type of translation work that conscientiously correlates all conceivable semantic groups with each other. On one level, one is reading stories and examples, warnings, orders and pieces of advice which have the clear intention of organizing a well-functioning community. On other levels, one can read esoteric and hermeneutically coded secret knowledge into it. Absolutely essential in this context are the "utopian" descriptions of a future paradisiacal environment (promised to the believers), which is described as extremely desirable, with bubbling wells, lots of green nature, "rivers" of milk and honey, sex objects as slender as poplar trees [Al-Hûr], and so on and so forth.

If we go on to look into the possibility of a future substantive participation on the part of the translator in up-to-date, new renditions of the Koran, this could be conceivable as textual work using semiotic methods. This involves deciphering the vision by raising the meanings onto the level of general structures. As an example, I have selected a statement in verse 13 of the 91st sûrah [Nâkat-Allâhi ua Sukiâha]. Henning's rendition reads: "(This is) Allah's camel and her watering place", while Paret writes: "(Look after) the camel of God and (make sure that) it receives (enough) to drink!"

The semiotic transformation could then look as follows:

Text Conventional General Meaning (Priority)

[Nâkat] camel mare energy supplier (food, dungfuel) / means of transport
[Allâh(i)] (of) God highest principle / maximum (optimum)
[ua] and addition, inference (reference)
[Sukiâha] her drink water (supply) / reservoir (of operating resources)

One of the possible meanings of the sentence would then be: "(This is) the optimum / water (or/and) energy-supply (system) and its operating resources".

There are many verses related to reality in the Koran that attempt to grasp and describe by language an object upon which they are based. This process cannot have been anything but visionary and related to the future, since otherwise the "thing" could simply have been named. The difficulty involved in successfully proclaiming a vision described as "dazzling, overwhelming and rousing" using the vocabulary of that period becomes clear if one brings to mind the fact that for some of the pictures seen on the "clear (inner!) horizon" (sûrah 81, verse 23) the corresponding terms simply did not exist at all, or else were used at that time in a completely different context. Let us take the term "vehicle" as an example: to begin with, the implied meaning was assumed to be "horse-drawn vehicle" and nothing else; "railway carriage" was included later, and today the meaning is almost restricted to "private car".

Dozens of further examples of this object-relatedness of the text could be quoted, in particular in the case of the sûrah beginnings that have hitherto not been deciphered and are often simplifyingly and indiscriminately termed "oaths". The translator should not, however, be satisfied with such a wholesale generalization. After all, up to now neither the exegesists (after one thousand four hundred years) nor contemporary translators have managed to clarify what is actually meant by these passages.

It would certainly also be interesting - and would of course be going far beyond the responsibility of the translator - to think about how a time-transcending transfer of information takes place at all in the biological context of the living human being. Time and again the impression is confirmed, when working on texts of the Koran, that an attempt is being made to describe things that have been seen, but for which (at that time) simply no name existed. There are therefore grounds to suspect that these things exist in the future from the point of view of the person making the description. Obviously people could not recognize aeroplanes, excavators, electrical devices or atomic bombs for what they were before these things had been officially invented. A good example of this is the archaeological discovery of the 3,000 to 4,000-years-old "batteries of Baghdad", which were not recognized as such until the beginning of this century, after humanity had (re-)invented electricity. Until then, they were regarded as ominous "cult objects".

This all might sound rather strange and reminiscent of the "deciphering" of the story of Hezekiah as the description of the landing of a space craft; nevertheless, the semantic contents of the [Ayât] and its interlinkages speak an unequivocal language. What is being described in the above-mentioned verse is in all probability some kind of device (and not a "divine camel"!). And there are many other verses containing references to such an object, for example:
sûrah: 11 24 37 56 67 70 72 76 82 88 ...
verse: 07 35 01 03 30 03 16 06 03 12 ...

Fantastic as it may seem, it is possible, in the course of a consistent, "technologically" defined rendition, to develop from the Koran the unequivocally technical specifications of a "Mâkina" (- machine, cf. the root "m-k" with the meaning "to suck out marrow/extract", as well as the root "m-k-n" with the semantic group "foundation laid/stable", "to make possible", "to reach a high position"; etymologically, this Semitic root extends to our present-day "make"). If we believe the text, this will make possible a wealth of new applications, like an environment-friendly energy and water supply, or even new methods of sea-water desalination (sûrah 25, verse 53). The descriptions worked out up to now refer to a large-scale technical system, whose postulated basic synergistic function in the form of a technical description is of course available at all times to anyone who is interested.

I should have been more inclined (as a translator in particular) to hold back with such statements if it were not possible to confirm them by scientific experiment. Strengthened and encouraged by such an argumentation, the translator can take on a new function, he/she becomes the future "revealer" of innovations and resources. If he/she draws from religious sources in this context, he/she is also indirectly serving the aim of these religions to use the holy information for the benefit and enrichment of humanity.

In conclusion, I should like, by way of comparison, to quote from St. John's Gospel, chapter 7, verse 38: "Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water". In addition to the "figurative" interpretation, further profane - because application-oriented - new interpretations could be possible here too, suggesting that all prophets had received the same vision of an achievable (!) healed, healthy and just world of the future. Technical collaboration in translating this vision or these visions into reality would, despite all the effort that would be required, certainly be one of the most responsible activities that a translator can engage in at all.


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Al-Qurân al-Karîm (1973) Kairo: Al-Ahrâm.
Braun, H. (1959) "Der Hamburger Koran von 1694", in Libris et Litteris, Festschrift fuer Hermann Tiemann zum sechzigsten Geburtstag am 9. Juli 1959, 149-166, Hamburg, Maximilian-Society.
Genischen, H.-P. (1993) "Bibelarbeit", pro terra 125: 9-10.
Henning, M. (1974) Der Koran, Leipzig: Reclam.
Orientalia (1986) Exhibition Catalogue of the 32. International Congress of Asian and North African Studies in Hamburg, Osnabrueck: Biblio.
Paret, R. (1979) Der Koran, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

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