Qur’an translation of the week #185: The Qur’an in Korean. The story of Hamid Choi and his translation

Although most of the relatively tiny Muslim population of the Republic of Korea (around 150,000 out of a total population of some 51 million) are foreigners, for example foreign students or migrants, there are already three full translations of the Qur’an into Korean. The most recent (and probably the most popular) is the translation by the Korean Muslim Hamid Young Kil Choi (born 1949) published by the King Fahd Glorious Qur’an Printing Complex in 1997. Hamid Young Kil Choi was interested in Muslim culture as a young man, and after undertaking a BA at Hankuk University in Seoul (1975) he went on to pursue a religious education at Madinah Islamic University (Saudi Arabia) and Omdurman Islamic University (Sudan). Afterwards, he returned to his homeland, where for years he has served in both academic and religious fields, as a professor at the Seoul-based Myongji University and Chairman of the Korea Muslim Federation.

The holder of prestigious awards such as the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Award for Translation (2008) and a trophy for services to Islam from the Regional Council for Islamic Call in Southeast Asia (2023), Hamid Choi’s path to publishing his own translation of the Qur’an was not an easy one. According to his memoirs, he began working on this project in the early 1980s, mostly basing it in the popular Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation into English. His main supervisors were local Saudi scholars, who urged him to complete the work for missionary purposes. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Republic of Korea had embarked on a policy of developing strong economic ties with various countries in the Middle East, and thus the promotion of Islamic or more broadly Arabic culture was also seen as a kind of cultural diplomacy.

The publication of the first edition of Hamid Choi’s translation in 1988 was financed by a company from the UAE: Choi had simply sent letters to the embassies of a number of Arab countries asking for financial support. However, his main aim was to promote the work at a global level, primarily through the Muslim World League (est. 1962) which had already supported a few Qur’an translations, including a Japanese translation. It is clear from letters from the MWL published by Hamid Choi in an autobiographical article in 2003 that their response was mostly supportive, but his attempts to secure their backing did not actually bear fruit for a further five years, despite continued correspondence: although the MWL sent him a letter outlining their intent to publish his translation in 1991, it was not until 1996 that Hamid Choi was invited to Saudi Arabia to discuss this. The MWL then passed the project on to the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex, which intensified its publishing activities after the creation of its Center for Translations in 1994. Eventually, a standard bilingual edition was published in 1997 which provided an annotated Koran text alongside the Arabic original (in so-called khaṭṭ al-hindī,or Indian script, which is mostly used in India, Pakistan, and South Asia).

In his translator’s introduction, Hamid Choi simply provides a general overview of the Qur’anic scripture. The formal introduction (which was written by the Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs) surprisingly makes no mention of any reviser or editor, which seems to be an exception to the usual KFQPC rule that the translation be approved by at least two revisers, who receive credits in both the Arabic and target language version of the official introduction. It thus looks as if Choi was regarded as a credible translator by the KFQPC, presumably on the basis that he is a graduate of the Islamic University of Madinah.

When one looks at the text of the translation and Choi’s commentary, the persisting influence of Yusuf Ali’s translation is clear: for example, Hamid Choi sometimes uses terminology that reflects Yusuf Ali’s English-language choices, for example in his use of ‘Opening Chapter’ for the Fātiḥa). It may be that he also referred to other English translations: in his commentary on Q 1:7, Hamid Choi says that the people God is ‘displeased with’ are Jews, and ‘those who are astray’ are Christians in exactly in the same way as the Hilali-Khan English translation does. Hilali-Khan is the only English translation to use this wording, and has been printed continuously in Saudi Arabia since 1994, initially by Darussalam and later, from 1997, by the KFQPC.

It seems that when it comes to the Islamic exegetical corpus, Hamid Choi’s main sources were the works of the prominent modern exegete Muḥammad ʿAlī al-Ṣābūnī (1930–2021), especially his Ṣafwat al-tafāsīr (‘The Clearest of Interpretations’) and Mukhtaṣar, a short outline of Ibn Kathīr’s tafsīr. The influence of al-Ṣābūnī’s thought can be seen, for example, in Choi’s  commentary on the ‘mysterious’ letters alif-lam-mīm in Q 2:1, which he reads as Allāh laṭīf majīd, ‘God [the One Who] is Sublime and Glorious’. The development of specifically Islamic terminology in Korean does not seem to have been an easy task: according to a study by J. Choi and K. Kim (https://doi.org/10.1080/1369801X.2020.1863837), Choi adopted Christian terminology on some occasions, for example in the use of the word ‘Hananim’ to denote God as ‘the only God’, a term that was already used by Korean Protestants. The translator himself explained his choice, pointing out that the majority of Korean readers perceive Allah as ‘some Islamic god among other gods’, which meant that using ‘Allah’ as a name would be inappropriate, despite the fact that most of the translations published by KFGQPC use ‘Allah’ regardless of the connotative implications for the target readership. There are a couple of cases where Hamid Choi also refers directly to the Bible, for example in his attempt to refute the Christian tenet of Jesus’ divinity (Q 5:79–82) by quoting Luke 18:18–19:

A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good—except God alone’ (New International Version translation).

Such a polemical approach is hardly surprising given the local context, since around a quarter of the population of South Korea are Christians, and the translation has an obvious missionary aim.

After publishing his work with the KFGQPC, Hamid Choi and his story garnered quite a lot of interest from both the Korean and international press: he was said to be the first Muslim to translate the Qur’an into Korean, despite the existence of two previous translations (by Kim Yong-sun, 1971, and an Ahmadiyya translation by Ahn Dong Hoon, Park Bang Hen, and Sung Ha Chang, 1988). Due to its promotion by the KFGQPC and other Muslim institutions, Hamid Choi’s translation has become, and remains, the main point of access to the Qur’an in Korean. This is not Choi’s only translation of significance, he has since also translated an edition of Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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