Qur’an translation of the week #132: The inexhaustible drive for translation accuracy: Koran: Perevod na russkiĭ i͡azyk by Ural Sharipov and Raisa Sharipova ([Moscow: Vorobyev A.V., 2009] Moscow: Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, 2012)

This week our attention is focused on another attempt to translate the Qur’an into Russian by translators from an academic background. Two Tatar Islamicists, Ural Sharipov (b. 1937) and Raisa Sharipova (b. 1940), published the first edition of their translation in 2009, and the second edition in 2012. Koran: Perevod na russkiĭ i͡azyk is associated with the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies (Iv Ran) and is intended to be useful for both an academic readership and the general public. However, despite the fact that Ural Sharipov emphasizes the academic nature of his and Raisa Sharipova’s work, the introduction states that ‘we regard the Qur’an as Revelation of Divine origin, which corresponds to the beliefs of a billion and a half Muslims.’

In a similar manner to Osmanov’s translation, which we have previously reviewed, these translators, both of whom have a Soviet background, in the new post-Soviet world preferred to break with the dichotomous perception of academic versus confessional scholarship. Nevertheless, their approach in many respects reflects the Soviet Orientalist ideals established by the iconic Soviet scholar Ignatiĭ Iul’ianovich Krachkovskiĭ (d. 1951), in that it provides a literal reading and strives for textual ‘accuracy,’ which is treated as being of the highest value. Critiquing Krachkovskiĭ’s work, the Sharipovs have criticized his overreliance on ‘Western’ sources and neglect of ‘Oriental’ commentaries. Given this, it is interesting that the bibliography of the Sharipovs’ translation includes all kinds of sources in many languages, including Russian, French and English as well as Arabic and Turkish. Even more strangely, works by al-Bayḍawī and al-Razī, together with other sources such as Arabic dictionaries and hadīth collections, are listed under sources in ‘western languages,’ which is apparently a mistake. 

The tafsīrs mentioned by the Sharipovs in their bibliography cannot be characterized as preferencing a specific outlook, instead they include all kinds of ideological and creedal perspectives, and works in a number of different languages. What is also particularly surprising is the mention of books on various topics that relate more widely to Islamic studies, such as Tariq Ramadan’s To be a European Muslim: A Study of Islamic Sources in the European Context and Seyd Muhammad Naquib al-Attas’s Prolegomena to the Metaphisics of Islam: An Exposition of the Fundamental Elements of the Worldview of Islam.

Unfortunately, none of these sources are mentioned in the footnotes or endnotes, which makes it unclear how the translators have used them in their Qur’an translation. Moreover, the Sharipovs state in the introduction that the sources they have included in their bibliography:

 ‘… do not imply that their authors’ understanding of any particularʾāyah of the Qur’an has been used in our translation. However, they have been taken into account for the purpose of seeing the present palette of interpretations of the text of the Qur’an by various commentators, theological and juridical schools, and trends in Islam.’ 

This approach may give us a clue to ‘the intellectual literacy’ of the authors, but is not particularly helpful in allowing us to understand how the Sharipovs aimed to stay as close to the source text as possible. Departures from ‘close text translation’ are marked by either the addition of words in parenthesis, or the insertion of italicized words that the Sharipovs have worked into their translation based on their own understanding of the implications and nuance of a particular Qur’anic verse. 

The Shapirovs clearly state that the aim of their translation was to overcome the common concern with existing errors that are frequently found in both academic and confessional Qur’an translations. On the one hand, for the Sharipovs, academic translations, despite their methodological acceptability, include certain mistakes that their own work aims to overcome; on the other, confessional works ‘mask’ their mistakes by adopting variations on the title ‘translation of meanings,’ a concept which the Sharipovs do not endorse. Furthermore, they aimed to strike a balance between ‘accurate’ translation and correspondence to Russian grammatical structure, an ambitious task that can necessarily only be evaluated subjectively.

What is significant about this particular Qur’an translation project, is the fact that the Sharipovs’ personal, confessional stances have not led to the inclusion of extensive explanatory glosses in the translation. There are only eleven footnotes to the entire translation, and these give only very basic clarifications, mostly relating to specific names and terminology, such as explanations of what the Ṣafā and Marwa are, what Tawrā refers to, and the like. This is unusual because it gives the reader the impression that this translation is not concerned with the polemics surrounding creedal debates, or the various ethical issues and approaches that many other modern translators intend to clarify.

These include issues such as the question of how to translate anthropomorphic verses, which the Sharipovs in most cases do not hesitate to translate literally: hence for Q 68:42 ‘… yakshafu ʿan sāk …, sāk is translated as goleni (‘shins’) (although in the plural instead of the singular as per the original Arabic, and with the addition of istiny [‘truths’] in parenthesis); in Q 67:1 yad in the phrase ‘… bi-yadihi l-mulku …’ is translated as Ruke (‘hand’); in Q 32:4 the verb istawā in the phrase ‘… istawā ʿalā l-ʿarsh …’ is translated as utverdilsi͡a (‘established’), which is a duplication of Krachkovskiĭ’s word choice. The controversial phrase wa-ribūhunna in Q 4:34 is simply translated as pobivaĭte ikh (‘beat them’) without any clarification or interpretative gloss. The Sharipovs ‘literal’ approach to translation, with its lack of explanatory glosses or expansions on the original Qur’anic text, is a logical result of their methodological stance that the quality of a translation is measured in terms of that most elusive quality, ‘accuracy’ and faithfulness to the source text. This led them to consciously refuse the role of ‘translators cum interpreters’ even when it came to verses relating to issues such as the use of violence, securitization and ‘correct’ ʿaqīda that are often the subjects of social and political debate. Nevertheless, it is perhaps precisely this absence of exegetical commentary in their Qur’an translation that influenced the Sharipovs to embark on another project, their translation of Qur’an commentaries, which we will hopefully review in the future. 

Overall, this work can be useful to use as a reference, when one needs to have short Qur’an citations without extended interpolations. However, thirteen years after its first publication, this work still has not become widely known and is used neither by many academics nor by the general public. One of the reasons for this is undoubtedly a lack of promotion and ‘Islamic’ institutional support for it among such organizations as the muftii͡ats (state-supported Muslim spiritual administrations in Russia), and the absence of this work from apps and websites that include various other available Qur’an translations.

Elvira Kulieva

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