Qur’an translation of the week #63: Word for word translations in English

This week’s post concerns the phenomenon of “word for word” translations in English, with a look at some examples along with the translators’ introductions. Interlinear verbatim translations have a long history, and work more naturally in languages with shared vocabulary and structure with Arabic.

A three-volume work first published in 1995 by the Islamic Book Service, New Delhi, claims to be the first of its kind in English. The publisher’s note opens with this bold statement: “To understand the Qur’an, it is necessary that one should know the translation of every word of the Verses.” However, they explain that it was necessary to add a flowing “idiomatic” translation, and respond to objections raised against word for word translation by appealing to the example of Shah Rafiuddin (for whom see: https://twitter.com/GloQur/status/1410933721318969344?s=20). The translator (“composer”), a woman named Shabista Khaleel, is only credited at the end of this publisher’s note, along with the “Paster” (typesetter?) Wajid Ali Khan. There is no information about their credentials or sources. The style adopted is to break the text into boxes, then the flowing translation (with explanatory glosses) is provided under each verse’s table.

In 1999, the Saudi-based Darussalam issued a similar 3-volume work, this time based on the Noble Qur’an translation by Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan. Strangely, the introduction is largely plagiarised from the Islamic Book Service publication, including the claim that “All the present English translations of the meanings of the Qur’an are idiomatic”! They do not acknowledge the IBS work while definitely knowing of it. The Darussalam publication follows the same structure except that the boxes were replaced by one integrated text box which should be read from right to left.

Another publication from Al-Huda International, a women-led Qur’an study institution founded by Dr. Farhat Hashmi (Pakistan/Canada), demonstrates the utility of this format to certain pedagogical approaches. The workbook-style volumes were compiled by unnamed Al-Huda graduates and published around 2000. They describe the word for word translation as their “combined effort” which was reviewed by Dr. Zia ul Haq of the National Institute of Modern Languages, Islamabad. The “running” translation provided in a separate line is taken with permission from the work of Muhammad Farooq-i-Azam Malik (Texas, Institute of Islamic Knowledge, 1997). The format overall is awkward, and there are spelling errors.

“Easy Quran” was first published 2010 (Taj Company, Lahore) and approved by Pakistan’s religious ministry. It has two lines under the Arabic: a word by word breakdown, and a flowing “plain translation” with a little elaboration. Mohammad Suhail Shaheen, an Afghan refugee and editor of an English journal, worked on the latter with the oversight of Peshawar University professor Muhammad Din, who provided the word for word translation. After Din’s death in 2003, Shaheen edited the whole work. This layout allows the reader to combine modes of study of the text, and this is intended as a pedagogical approach. However, the two translations are sometimes disconnected in their vocabulary as well as their position on the page. A preface to the work notes the history of translation especially since Shah Waliullah, but does not touch on English translations. It notes its dependence on a range of classical and modern works of Arabic & Urdu commentaries and translations.

Our final example (albeit earlier) is the substantial 3 volume work of Muhammad Mohar Ali (1929–2007), a noted British-Bangladeshi scholar who taught at Riyadh and Medina and published several works including “The Qur’an and the Orientalists” (2004). His “Word for Word Meaning of the Qur’an” was first published in full in 2003 by JIMAS, a British Salafi organisation founded by the author’s son Muhammad Manwar Ali (Abu Muntasir). Instead of incorporating two types of translation, Mohar Ali started by translating as closely as possible to the Arabic word order. (A similar project was described previously:
https://twitter.com/GloQur/status/1291758940049608704?s=20) He then added word meanings and grammar notes, aiming “to enable a non-Arab reader to understand the Qur’an as well as to improve his knowledge of Arabic.” The translator lists 9 references he used specifically for Qur’anic vocabulary. The result is a fine study resource, mainly focused on language but with occasional notes of commentary and references to works of exegesis. However, the translation itself, if extracted from this format, would suffer from occasional incoherence. For example, try reading the following (English only): “They said: ‘O Mûsa قَالُوا۟ یَـٰمُوسَىٰۤ / whether you will throw إِمَّاۤ أَن تُلۡقِیَ / or will it be we وَإِمَّاۤ أَن نَّكُونَ نَحۡنُ / the throwers?’” ٱلۡمُلۡقِینَ


Nowadays, such word notes are available on some websites and mobile apps for casual browsing and reference. However, it may yet be the case that printed books best facilitate the sustained study their producers intended.

Sohaib Saeed

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