Skip to main content
by Jasser Hammami

Lost in Translation

When Dogma and translation clash

A fact most people tend to miss is that translation is in no way an exact science. There are grammatical rules and there are techniques to help us remain loyal to the original meaning, but there is no wrong or right answer. There is no such thing as perfect translation. And as someone who partially works as a freelance translator, I can assure you it is an annoying and hectic job, to say the least.

Of course, there will always be people who criticize your work, no matter what your job is. However, when it comes to translating religious texts, that criticism can quickly escalate to violent reactions. And such was the case for a recent translation of the Quran to Hebrew by scholars in Saoudi Arabia. This caught the attention of Egyptian media (and perhaps even other media outlets from other Arab countries, which I had missed) which was quick to paint it as some kind of attack on the Quran itself, and the religion of Islam as a whole.

The obvious part is that the main reason behind this is mere Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause that holds a deep value in the hearts of the citizens of the Arab world (or Palestinian/Zionist conflict as some like to call it). This obsession over the cause and dogmatic thinking has always provided an easy tool for politicians and Arab media to manipulate the crowds. And as a result of what happened, an innocent language, which has existed long before the conflict did, has been indirectly demonized and two Saoudi scholars are currently under the threat of getting killed by a number of Egyptian radicals (and of course others from different nationalities) who self-proclaimed themselves defenders of the faith.

The irony in all of this is that the reason the TV show’s presenter gave for his claim that “Saoudi Arabia is trying to taint and change the Quran through this translation” is because an old man who has the stereotypical looks of a Sheikh (wise, jebba-wearing, religious scholar with a small white beard) claims that he had found 300 mistakes in said translation. My initial thought was that I have been proofreading and editing translations for years and have never come up with a round number of mistakes like that. But mind you, this is an old man wearing a Jebba. Anything he says must be true!

As much as I enjoy discrediting pseudo-scholars that show up in Arab countries media, there is a deeper issue and a great misunderstanding I need to highlight, because similar situations can pop up at any given moment due to the current way things are heading. As I have mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as a perfect translation. The best we can have is perfect grammar and a meaning close to the original. This proves rather easy when translating a scientific or academic text and is much harder when it comes to translating a piece of literature. Most authors and literary critics would are that a translation, no matter how great, usually robs the piece of literature of its soul.

Translating a religious text, however, is a whole next level of hard. We’re talking about translating a vague text that can be interpreted in a million different ways and somehow miraculously copy the exact meaning of what we can assume is what God intended into an entire different language with different vocabulary, grammar, structure, etc… No matter how hard a person can try, we cannot stay loyal to the original meaning, because that meaning itself is not a constant one. Especially in the Quran’s case, it is literally meant for people to try hard and interpret it, but we’re not supposed to be able to find the “ultimate truth” on our own.

I could go on and on and provide countless examples of how everything could go wrong with translating a single verse, how confusing the Arabic language is in specific as we can find up to twelve different meanings for the same word, and how what we now know as modern standard Arabic differs from classical Arabic in which the Quran was written. But instead of a long monologue, I think I will end this by saying the following: We translate for others to hear us, we translate for others to understand our perspective, we translate so cultures can learn from each other, and we translate to surpass our ego and echo our thoughts. Let us not politicize and use as a reason for outrage and violence the tool that helped humanity intellectually connect since the dawn of time.