Qur’an translation of the week #162: Translating the Qur’an into Sundanese: The first Indonesian Qur’an translation to be authored by a woman

A guest contribution by Jajang A Rohmana, UIN Sunan Gunung Djati, Bandung, Indonesia

Anugerah Al-Quranul-Karim Tarjamah Basa Sunda (‘A Gift from God: A Sundanese Qur’an Translation’) is the only complete translation of the Qur’an to be written by an Indonesian woman to date. Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country with the largest Muslim population in the world, and translations of the Qur’an have long been compiled in its various ethnic languages to meet the needs of the faithful, both by the government and individual scholars and writers. However, until recently, all of the hundreds of translations of the Qur’an produced in Indonesia have been written by men. Religious authority in the country has always been in male hands, and this patriarchal orientation is also visible in the field of Qur’an translation. For this reason, Anugerah Al-Quranul-Karim Tarjamah Basa Sunda stands out.

The Sundanese language is spoken in West Java, and the Sundanese are the second largest overall ethnic and linguistic group in Indonesia after the Javanese, in a country inhabited by hundreds of ethnic groups who all speak different languages. The translator of Anugerah Al-Quranul-Karim Tarjamah Basa Sunda, Mariyah Maryati Sastrawijaya, is an eighty-year-old Sundanese woman born in Ciamis in 1943. Maryati, now retired, used to be a lecturer at Padjadjaran University, Bandung, where she specialized in Sundanese language and literature. Having taken several translation courses, she has become known as a translator of books on Sundanese literature into Indonesian. When it comes to her religious background and credentials, even though she was not educated in a traditional Islamic school (pesantren), her continuing interest in Islamic teachings, along with her religious activities, has been nurtured at the mosque near her home.

Anugerah was written shortly before Maryati’s retirement in 2013. Prior to publishing this complete translation of the Qur’an she published a partial translation, Al-Hikmah Tarjamah Al-Quran Basa Sunda, in 2009, which only comprised the first of the thirty parts (juzʾ) of the Qur’an. After completing her translation of the rest of the Qur’anic text in 2011, Maryati then changed the title of the translation to Anugerah, and it was published by the Padjadjaran University Alumni Association in five volumes with red covers, each of which contains six surahs.

Maryati’s approach to interpretation is interpretive, rather than literal, which is to say that she translates with the intention of rendering the general meaning of utterances in the Qur’an. Her translation uses the simple and practical variant of Sundanese that is spoken in daily life, rather than classical Sundanese, which has a high literary prestige. In addition, as is generally the case with Sundanese translations, Maryati strictly adheres to the rules surrounding the use of language registers. These registers – respectful, moderate and coarse – have to be applied depending on the relative positions of the speaker, the interlocutor and the object being discussed.

The most important source for Maryati’s translation is the official Indonesian translation of the Qur’an, Al-Qur’an dan Terjemahnya which is produced by the Indonesian government, specifically the edition published by the King Fahd Glorious Qur’an Printing Complex in Medina, Saudi Arabia, which is known as the 1990 Saudi edition. Her column-style layout, in which the Arabic Qur’an and the Indonesian translation are set side by side, is similar to the 1990 Saudi edition. In addition, she has said that she also used a number of Indonesian Qur’an commentaries to enrich her understanding, such as Tafsir Al-Mishbah by M. Quraish Shihab.

According to Maryati, the reason she saw a need to translate the Qur’an into Sundanese was her concern that several existing Sundanese translations were using a Sundanese register that was not sufficiently polite. For example, Al-Amin (1971), one of the most famous Sundanese Qur’an translations, uses the word manéh for Muhammad, which tends to be a coarse word. Maryati also chose to reflect Sundanese pronunciation in her translation, using phonetic spelling for Arabic terms: for example, she uses the letter ‘o’ in certain words such as Alloh, Rosul, Fir’aon, solat and Al-Furqon, even though official transliteration rules use the letter ‘a’ instead.

The question might arise whether Maryati’s translation, being the only translation composed by an Indonesian woman, tries to bring a women’s perspective to the translation of the Qur’an, especially with regard to gender relations which has become an important issue in Indonesia since the reformation period of 1998. However, Maryati has no concern for gender equality, and her translation is not intended to engage with this discourse. Instead, she prefers to focus on using the structure of the Sundanese language to bring across the meaning of the verses, and tends to strictly follow her main source, the Saudi edition of the Indonesian government’s Qur’an translation. Therefore, her translation does not reflect the desire to defend women’s rights that may be found in translations produced by feminists.

To take the opening phrase of Q 4:34, for example, al-rijālu qawwāmūna ʿalā l-nisāʾ (‘men are qawwāmūn over/with regard to women’), the word qawwāmūn in this context is understood by conservative exegetes and translators as denoting male leadership. Accordingly, Maryati translates the segment as kaom lalaki (salaki) teh pamingpin pikeun kaom wanoja (pamajikan) (‘men [husbands] are the leaders of women [wives]’), using the term pamingpin (‘leader’) to render qawwāmūn. In this, she seems to have followed the Saudi edition which interprets this verse in the context of husband-and-wife relationships in the domestic space, rather than reading it as referring to the public roles of men and women in general. Her focus was, accordingly, on finding words and sentence structures that are equivalent to the interpretation provided in the Saudi edition. Therefore, she chose the word pamingpin (‘leader’), which leaves no space for gender equality, in contrast to other possible translations such as papayung (‘protector’) or pananggungjawab (‘person who carries responsibility’).

We can see a similar tendency in her renditions of Q 4:1, a verse that mentions the creation of men and women, and Q 4:3, which is about polygamy: in both cases Maryati closely follows the sentence structure of the Saudi edition and translates that Indonesian sentence structure into Sundanese. Because Maryati’s translation generally echoes the Saudi edition of the government’s official translation, there are almost no original exegetical choices to be found her translation. The only translation choices that really originate with Maryati are limited to choices in the use of Sundanese vocabulary. And even there, although it is important to appreciate the enormous effort she has made in her translation, it has to be said that Maryati does not show much creativity in bringing across the meaning of the verses from the source text. Unfortunately, Maryati also chose not to use footnotes, which might have allowed her to include further arguments regarding her understanding of the Qur’an.

The case of Anugerah shows that a translation composed by a woman does not necessarily reflect a reading undertaken with women’s interests in mind, especially if the translator is not committed to gender and women’s issues at all, and arguably also when it is based on a pre-existing interpretation of the Qur’an that is not woman-friendly. The results tend to be normative and in favor of men’s interests, just like most translations written by men.

Jajang A Rohmana

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