Qur’an translation of the week #42: The Bhâsa Madhurâ Translation of the Qur’an

A guest contribution by Ulya Fikriyati, Institut Ilmu Keislaman Annuqayah (INSTIKA) Guluk-Guluk Sumenep, Indonesia

The “Bhâsa Madhurâ” (Madurese) translation of the Qur’an is one of many vernacular translations of the Qur’an available in Indonesia. The Madurese (after whom the Madurese language is named) hail from the island of Madura, which is located immediately to the northeast of Java. They constitute the fifth most populous of Indonesia’s 1,340 recognised ethnic groups, and Madurese is the second most widely spoken language in East Java. The majority of Madurese people identify as Muslim, and there is a well known saying that “It doesn’t matter if you can’t read Roman Indonesian script, but you should to be able to read Arabic because the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic.” It is because of this that most of the older Madurese generation are able to read the Qur’an but are unable to even recognise any characters in the Roman alphabet. Unfortunately, the ability to read the Qur’an doesn’t necessarily entail the ability to understand it. It was this state of affairs that inspired a collaborative venture to translate the Qur’an into the Madurese tongue in the early 2000s, resulting in the publication of the first edition of “Al-Qur’an Tarjâmah Bhâsa Madhurâ” (“The Qur’an, Translated into Madurese”) in 2006.

This Madurese translation of the Quran is important for two reasons. First, the Indonesian language is becoming increasingly dominant in daily conversation among Madurese people, especially in the younger generation, most of who have no ability to speak the Madurese vernacular to a high level any more. There has therefore been a move towards translation into Madurese, as part of a wider strategy aimed at perpetuating the language. This can be seen in the composition of the translation team that produced the Madurese Qur’an, which includes a number of experts in the Madurese language and culture in addition to religious scholars and organizations. Secondly, the Madurese language has three distinct registers, which means that different people (including God) are addressed differently based on social hierarchy. The absence of such linguistic expressions of social hierarchy in Indonesian translations of the Qur’an feels tasteless to older Madurese people, who are familiar with the different levels of low, soft/alos, and high language found in Madurese. To a Madurese-speaking readership, Indonesian just does not have the same level of intimacy and deference when speaking about God as is found in high Madurese.

The first complete translation of the Qur’an into Bhâsa Madhurâ was published by the Jamaah Pengajian Surabaya (JPS, “The Surabaya Congregation of the Qur’anic Recitation”) in 2006 under the auspices of the late KH. Abdullah Sattar Madjid. In 2010, this translation received approval from the Lajnah Pentashihan Mushaf Al-Qur’an section of the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs, which is responsible for all Qur’anic muṣḥafs published in Indonesia. Following this, a workshop was held to discuss this translation project and improve on it. A number of kiais (religious teachers), religious scholars, cultural observers, community leaders, and also officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs were invited to give their opinions. This resulted in the establishment of the Lajnah Penerjemahan dan Pengkajian Al-Qur’an (LP2Q, ‘The Committee of Qur’anic Translation and Studies’) which produced a second, revised LP2Q edition of the text, published in 2012.

“Al-Qur’an Tarjâmah Bhâsa Madhurâ” is a translation from the original Arabic, rather than from Indonesian or another language. However, although it presents itself as a translation, it is perhaps better described as an interpretation of the Qur’an. For example, we can find various additions and explanations of an exegetical and sometime theological nature worked into the text that are not mentioned in the original Arabic text of the Qur’an, and sometimes Qur’anic Arabic words are rendered into Madurese using words with quite a different import, as will be demonstrated later. According to the Foreword, in determining their translation of specific passages and terms, the translators took recourse to many works of classical Qur’anic exegesis, especially “Tafsīr al-Jalālayn”, and also to the Indonesian Qur’an translation published by the Ministry of Religious Affair of Indonesia, “Al-Qur’an dan Terjemahnya”. The translators use the Madurese spelling stipulated by the Surabaya Language Centre for transcribing Arabic terms.

As with many other Indonesian vernacular translations of the Qur’an, the Madurese edition is presented in two columns with the Arabic text on the right and the Madurese translation on the left. The juz number is included on the header of each page, along with the sura name and number. The Arabic font resembles that used in the old style of muṣḥaf published in Indonesia, which originated from publications produced in Mumbai, rather than the font widely used in modern Indonesian or Middle Eastern muṣḥafs in the last decade. Finally, although it is designated as a Madurese translation of the Qur’an, it is important to note that “Al-Qur’an Tarjâmah Bhâsa Madhurâ” only accommodates the east Madurese dialects (Pamekasan and Sumenep) and not the west Madurese (Bangkalan and Sampang).

One particular feature of this translation is the dynamic interaction between the Arabic text and the local tradition at work in the text. This is most evident in the use of the registers that indicate social status and hierarchy in the Madurese vernacular. The Qur’an itself never differentiates people in the light of their social class: speaker and interlocutor are equal in Arabic vernacular, whoever they are. Madurese vernacular, however, uses three levels of language depending on the social status of the speaker and addressee: bâsa mabâ (“low language”), which is used in communicating with close friends, younger people, or those designated as low class in Madurese society; bâsa alos (“soft language”), used in communication with strangers, such as between a vendor and customer, or between passengers on public transportation; and bâsa tèngghi (“high language”), which is used in communication with older or respected people, or even when discussing them.

These language levels give the Madurese translation of the Qur’an a unique flavour, as the following examples will demonstrate. When translating the words yaʻlamu and taʻlamūna in Q. 2:216, the translation uses two different words even though both yaʻlamu and taʻlamūna are derived from the same root, ‘alima, meaning “to know”, the only difference being that yaʻlamu denotes a singular subject and taʻlamūnu refers to a plural subject. The verse is translated as follows: Dhineng Allah Ngaghâli bân bâ’na kabbhi paḍâ ta’ tao (“God knows and you do not know”). In Madurese, the words Ngaghâli and tao have the same meaning (“know”) but Ngaghâli only refers to someone with high social status, while tao is commonly used for those with a low social status. Thus, differing language levels are used here to distinguish between God and His creatures, rather than to differences in social status between humans. To give another example from the same sura, in the conversation between God and His angels related in Q. 2:32 and 33, when the angels answer God’s challenge to tell Him the name of all things He has created, qālū (“they said”) is translated as mator, while when God speaks to the angels in the following verse, qāla (“He said”) is translated as ngoca’. Again, different words are used because of the difference in social status between God and the angels. However, there are no differences found in the context of human peers. Thus, in Q. 2:54–55, when Moses speaks to his people, the word qāla is translated as ngoca’, and exactly the same word is used to translate qultum (“you [pl.] said”) in the next verse, which relates the response of the people of the Banu Israel. The translation thus implies through its use of language that although prophets may have a higher social status in Muslim, all humans are equal before God.

Sometimes the Madurese translation deviates from precise rendition of Qur’anic grammar and syntax in favor of idiomatic Madurese. For example, every occurrence of “We” (ḍamīr -nā or naḥnu) that refers to God, using the pluralis maiestatis, is translated by the capitalized singular form Sengko’, which means “I”, as can be seen in the translation of Q. 2:34, 35, 36, and 84. In contrast, the occurrence of “we” in relation to humans, angels, or devils is translated verbatim in the Madurese plural form. This accords with the main aim of this project (as stated in the Preface), which is to provide an accessible translation aimed at the general Muslim believer. The consistent use of Sengko’ provides an uncomplicated reading that supports the basic Islamic tenet of the oneness of God. Thus the reader doesn’t need to explore the question of why the One God sometimes speaks in the plural form, an issue which is much discussed in many classical tafsīr works.

The above examples of the adaptations made by the translators of the Madurese Qur’an demonstrates that vernacular translation of the Qur’an does not just entail a transfer of the text from one language to another, but also provides a medium for dialogue between the holy text and the local tongue. Vernacular translations of the Qur’an make the Qur’an more approachable and easier to understand in the light of local culture and knowledge. By speaking to people in their own language, they create a context in which the reader feels that the Qur’an is addressing them too, and was not just revealed to the Arab peoples.

Ulya Fikriyati

Share this post