Qur’an translation of the week #14: Koranens budskap by Mohammed Knut Bernström

Mohammed Knut Bernström, Koranens budskap – with comments by Muhammad Asad (Stockholm: Proprius förlag, 1998). New, slightly revised edition 2000, pocket edition 2002, and audio book 2002. Online edition koranensbudskap.se.

The translation of the Qur’an in Europe is a history of retranslation: even if the translator is working directly with the Arabic text, s/he also refers to other translations into the same or a different language. The translator and Swedish diplomat Mohammed Knut Bernström (1919-2009) positioned his new translation critically to the previous Swedish translation by Karl Wilhelm Zetterstéen (Koranen, 1917, reprinted with comments by Christopher Toll 1979), and positively to Muhammad Asad’s The Message of the Qur’an (1980).

Bernström explicitly presents his translation as an interpretation, both through the title Koranens budskap (cf. Asad), and through discursive pretextual materials such as an introduction, footnotes and appendixes (translated from Asad with additional notes from Bernström). Bernström had the ambition to reproduce lexical coherence as well as to render the semantic content, rather than later posited terminological content of the vocabulary. Thus, the cluster islām, aslama and muslim is throughout translated with verbs, nouns and adjectives cognate to the word submission to God (“underkastelse under Gud”). In other instances, however, the polysemic nature of Qur’anic language makes it necessary to translate a word like dīn with different concepts like “tro” (‘faith’), “dyrkan” ( ‘worship’), “det religiösa regelverket” (‘the religious rules’) or “religion”.

A number of grammatical, lexical and stylistic choices are made to reflect a certain understanding of the pragmatic, semantic and aesthetic values in the source text. Compared to his most immediate predecessor Zetterstéen, the target text is sometimes more economical. For instance, where Zetterstéen sprinkles his text with a selection of adverbs to reproduce emphatic discursive markers such as la-qad and inna, Bernström omits these markers to achieve a stylistic makeup closer to the target language conventions.

At other times the translation is quite elaborate with insertions in rounded and square brackets in the running translation to accommodate a certain interpretation of the text, or with translating one word with several words to cover more of the semantic content. In the much discussed verse 4:34 describing men’s role in relation to women, the first sentence in the source text is a verb-less, non-modal sentence, al-rijālu qawwamūna ʿalā l-nisāʾi. While Zetterstéen translates the word qawwāmūna with the clearly hierarchical notion “föreståndare” ( ‘supervisor’), Bernström opts for two words to convey an idea of combined responsibility and care “ansvar för och omsorg om”. Bernström also interprets the sentence prescriptively “Männen skall ha ansvar för och omsorg om kvinnorna …” (‘shall have responsibility and care for’ rather than the non-modal alternative ‘has responsibility’). In this interpretation, Bernström follows Asad, but as in many other instances, there are some subtle differences as well, as with Asad’s lexical choice: “Men shall take full care of women …”
Although an individual endeavour, Bernström’s work was approved by Al-Azhar University upon examination by Swedish experts. During the more than twenty years since it was first published, Bernström’s translation has both received academic recognition and popularity with Muslims audiences and well as in the wider society. There are several groups and individuals working on translations, but so far Zetterstéen and Bernström remain the two readily available and used Swedish translations of the Qurʾān. Unlike Zetterstéen, Bernström’s translation is available online.

In the online edition, the interpretative approach is clearly acknowledged on the opening page, and in-text marking like (…) and […] is duly reproduced. However, this interpretation appears more decisive than in the original edition. One example is 4:14, one of several passages where the following sentence (or variant) occurs: fa-yuḍillu llāhu man yashāʾu wa-yahdī man yashāʾu. The Arabic text allows for two possible interpretations: that God will lead astray whoever wants to be led astray and guides whoever wants to be guided, or, more conventionally according to the translation history (and chosen by Zetterstéen), that God leads astray and guides whoever God wills (the target language convention of capitalizing the pronoun He when referring to God contributes to locking the interpretation). In the running translation, Bernström opts, following Asad, for the first interpretation, but the other possible interpretation is in the printed edition referred to and discussed in a footnote. However, since the footnotes are not included in the online edition, the discursive element is omitted and the interpretational disambiguation of the text’s ambiguous wording is left unremarked. Understanding a translation as an integrated work combining the translated text and the pretextual commentary, the online edition may thus be understood as a retranslation, another interpretational contribution to the ever growing chain of retranslations of the Qur’an.

Guest contribution by
Nora S. Eggen, University of Oslo

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