Qur’an translation of the week #137: De Koran, The First Translation of the Qur’an from Arabic to Dutch.

Johannes Hendrik Kramers (also known as J.H. Kramers or Jan Kramers, 1891–1951) was born in Rotterdam on 26th February as the eldest son to Hendrik Kramers, a physician, and Jeanne Suzanne Breukelman. Kramers had a brother named Hendrik Anthony Kramers, a physicist who made important contributions to quantum mechanics and statistical physics. Unlike his father and younger brother, who chose to work in the field of physics, Jan Kramers demonstrated an interest and talent in languages from an early age, and completed the Gymnasium Erasmianum in Rotterdam. A ‘language man,’ he studied Italian, Russian and Hebrew, after which he intended to go on to study Arabic, but was advised by his mentor to take law instead: in the end he took law with Arabic as a minor. In 1915, at the age of twenty-six, he obtained his doctorate, submitting a thesis on case law over Dutch nationals in Turkey. At that time, Western citizens were not yet covered by Turkish law, and this doctoral degree was effectively preparation for a job in Constantinople. Kramer’s PhD supervisor was the well-known Islamologist Snock Hurgronje (1857–1936), who was very influential in developing the study of Indonesian Islam as an academic field. In addition to supervising Jan Kramers, Snock Hurgronje also had a similarly named student called Hendrik Kraemer (1888–1965), who also completed his doctoral studies in Leiden but afterwards followed a very different path to Jan Kramers and went on to undertake Christian missionary work in East Java, Indonesia. The similarity in the names and early academic careers of these two figures necessitates some caution when one is looking for information about  Kramers’ life and work!

In 1915 Jan Kramers married Gerda Dientje. Gerda had been born in Blitar in eastern Java and was the daughter of Corneille Jean Marie Pleysier and  the granddaughter of the painter Arie Pleysier (1809–1879). A few months after getting married, Kramers and his wife moved to Constantinople, where he worked as an apprentice interpreter at the Dutch consulate. Among other things, his duties included translating material published in the Turkish press on Pan-Islamism. After seven years in Turkey, the couple returned to the Netherlands in 1922, where Jan Kramers was appointed as Reader in Persian and Turkish on the initiative of his old teacher, Snouck Hurgronje. On 22nd February 1922, he delivered his inaugural lecture on the Historiography of the Ottoman Turk. Gradually his interest turned more and more towards Arabic; he was fascinated by classical Arabic literature. After the death of Arent Jan Wensink in 1939, Kramers was called to the vacant Chair of Arabic and Islamic studies, to maintain the Leiden tradition in Arabic studies established by scholar like Michael Jan de Goeje, Hurgronje and Wensinck. In addition to Arabic and Islamology he continued to teach Persian, Turkish, Ethiopic and Armenian. On 9th February 1940, he delivered his inaugural lecture on the language of the Qur’an, which shows clearly how far his interest had moved in the direction of linguistics. Shortly after being appointed Professor, Kramers started working on his translation of the Qur’an, during the years of the Second World War. His tenure as chair and professor was interrupted when German authorities closed the university of Leiden, but this did not prevent him from secretly continuing his lectures with small group of students. When the university reopened in September 1945, after the liberation of the Netherlands, he took on an additional role as a member of The Royal Netherlands Academy of science in 1946, and undertook teaching of Semitic languages at the University of Amsterdam.

However, Kramers’ health began to decline, and he had his first heart attack in the summer of 1947. Despite the fact he now had to take great care of his health, he still attended the International Congress of Orientalists in Istanbul in the autumn of 1951. Only months later, on December 21, 1951, he died, just before turning 61, leaving many unfinished and unpublished writings behind him. His wife Gerda, who outlived her husband by another twenty-nine years, pursued the publication of these, beginning with Kramer’s Qur’an translation, De Koran, for which she corrected the proofs herself. The draft manuscript of De Koran was found among Kramers’ papers and was prepared for publication by the Arabist and diplomat Roelof Willem van Diffelen (1902–1992), and eventually published by Elsevier in 1956, after which it was reprinted numerous times.

Kramers’ De Koran is the first Dutch translation of the Qur’an to rely directly on the original Arabic text. In addition to the translation itself, it contains a historical introduction to the Qur’an, a detailed index and many explanatory notes (which are collected at the end of each sura). Some of the explanatory notes indicate that Kramer’s interpretations are made on the basis of the tafsīrs of al-Baydāwī (d. c. 1286 CE) and al-Suyūṭī (d. 1505).

A revised and corrected fifteenth edition of Kramer’s translation was produced in 1992, edited into contemporary Dutch by Asad Jaber (b. 1946), an Arabic lecturer from Leiden University, and the Arabist and Islamologist Johannes Juliaan Gijsbert Jansen (1942–2015). This has also been republished several times, and the twentieth printing was produced in 2006.  Jansen was a graduate of the University of Amsterdam, while his postgraduate degree in Arabic was from the University of Leiden. He worked in Egypt as Director of the Dutch Institute in Cairo in 1983, and was an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Leiden University. After leaving Leiden, he was appointed Professor of Modern Islamic Thought at the University of Utrecht until 2008. He is well known to the general public because, in 2008, he advised Geert Wilders on his anti-Islam film Fitna, and in 2010 he was a principal witness in Geert Wilders’ trial for inciting hate and discrimination against Muslims and non-Western immigrants.

In his revised edition of De Koran, Hans Jansen provides many additional introductory notes about the actual translation process, which he and his co-author Jaber continued from Kramers. But he also made some changes to Kramers’ original translation, and added some additional notes. For example in the footnotes to Q 2:286, the reader is told:‘Diet fragment heft de Egyptische president Sadat vaak in zyjn toespraken geciteerd’ (‘This fragment has often been quoted by Egyptian President Sadat in his speeches’).

One of the most distinctive features of Kramers’ translation is that he provides notes or comments on the Qur’anic verses that relate to the stories in the Bible: the translation is clearly aimed at Dutch readers who have no background in Islam but have some knowledge of the Old and New Testaments. When first published, the work was praised for its accurate, if somewhat old-fashioned, translation of the Arabic text and it quickly became the most widely used reference in Dutch, right from its first publication in 1956 until the early 2000s. This is partly due to a number of conflicts that have taken place in the Middle East after the second world war which have given exposure to Islam and led to an interest in the Qur’an, and partly due to the fact that translations of the Qur’an into Dutch only began to proliferate towards the end of the 1980s. Nowadays, many Dutch translations of the Quran have been published by academics and scholars from both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the Netherlands, but this translation is still used as a reference, especially among Dutch academics.

Yulia Riswan

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