Qur’an translation of the week #65: Coranului cel Sfânt în limba română: The first Muslim translation of the Qur’an into Romanian

Romanian is the state language of both Romania (where the Muslim population numbers around 70,000, or 0.3 percent of population) and Moldova (which has a small Muslim community, not exceeding 10,000 people). Most Romanian Muslims reside in the counties of Constanța and Tulcea and are of Crimean Tatar descent, rooted in the Tatar migrations of the sixteenth-seventeenth and, especially, eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. This may explain the relative lack of interest from local Muslims in translating religious texts into the Romanian language, as the majority of them have traditionally relied on the traditional Türki-Tatar religious legacy. There was little historical interest in promoting Islamic scholarship in the Romanian state language until the 1990s, which witnessed the growth of an Arabic student community and the appearance of Romanian converts. This lack of interest is reflected in the long gap between the first translation of the Qur’an into Romanian, published in 1912 by Silvestru Octavian Isopescul, a scholar of Oriental Studies, and the publication of the second Romanian Qur’an translation in 1997.

The 1997 translation, Coranului cel Sfânt în limba română, differed from Isopescul’s translation in that it is a specifically Muslim interpretation. Prepared by a team from Liga Islamică și Culturală din Români, a Romanian non-governmental organization located in Cluj-Napoca and staffed by Muslim students, the translation was published without any mention of the names of the translators. Between 1997 and 2018, six ‘revised’ editions of this translation appeared, including editions published by foreign Islamic foundations (such as Hayrat Neşriyat in Istanbul), all of which were designed for free distribution. In addition to this, the translation is available on numerous Romanian and international websites. All the editions generally present the same text (with minor changes), although the first imprint also contained small introductions to the suras, which were removed from the later editions.

The translation contains quite a long introduction (between 60 and 70 pages, depending on the format of the edition), beginning with a chapter titled Islamul – Religia Omenirii (‘Islam: The Religion of Humanity’). This can be broadly categorized as a mainstream Sunni text and provides a short history of Islam and outlines its main principles and ethical values, as well as addressing the ‘scientific wonders’ described in the Qur’an, the status of Jesus in Islam, and, finally, gives testimonies of ‘notable people’ who embraced Islam (among them two translators of the Qur’an are mentioned, Muhammad Asad and Marmadok Pikthool [sic!]). In general, this part of the work seems to be written with a missionary purpose, aiming to reveal to its readers the uniqueness of the Qur’an. The last part of the introduction also gives some basic impressions to the reader of how the Qur’an is interpreted and translated, although this is not really informative: the names of the translators are not mentioned (the reader is just told that they are ‘experts in Arabic and Romanian’), and the same is true for the tafsīrs or other sources for interpretation that were used to inform the translation process. There are plenty of footnotes and interpolations, but these also never quote any of the commentaries directly, thus it appears that the strategy behind the translation was to provide a simple (and acessible) rendition that would work with any intra-Islamic confessional identity (e.g. ‘Traditional Sunni’/‘Sunni-Salafi’ etc.).

At first glance, the text seems to demonstrate at least some reliance on the earlier Romanian translation of the Qur’an by Silvestru Isopescul (on the levels of both terminology and structure), but with the vocabulary updated and the style Islamicized: for example ‘Allah’ is used for ‘God’ rather than the Romanian Dumnezeu, although the names of the prophets are presented according to the Romanian Christian pronunciation. In addition, the translation follows that of Isopescul in that it provides a kind of grammatical interpretation, mostly giving a very literal translation of the Arabic text. For example, in its annotations it even explains such features of Arabic grammar as the pronouns used in the source text (who is meant by the Arabic -hu and -hā, and so on). A number of basic Qur’anic terms are also transcribed in brackets within the text of the translation (such as as-salat, az-zakat, and ihram). The Names of God are preserved in the same way, locating the Arabic original reading after the Romanian versions. For example, in Q. 3:121, we find ‘Allah este Cel care Aude Totul, Atoateştiutor [As Sami, Al ‘Alim]’. Sometimes the commentaries relate the text of the Qur’an to ritual practices: for example, the translation recommends that readers say „Ba da, pe Domnul meu!” (‘Yes, O my Lord’) after the last verse of Sūrat al-Tīn: alaysa’llāhu bi-aḥkami’l-ḥākmīn, here translated as ‘Oare nu este Allah Cel mai Înţelept dintre judecători?’ (‘Is not Allah the most just of judges?’). No sources for this opinion are given, but in a tradition (narrated on the authority of Abū Hurayrah and mentioned by Abū Dawūd and al-Tirmidhī) the Prophet urges Muslims to do this when reading this surah. The transferal of this practice, normally used in the context of collective prayers and Qur’an recitation, to the symbolic space of translation, poses an unanswered legal question about whether this utterance has the same ritual value when reading the interpretation and not the Arabic original.

Ultimately, the relatively accessible style of the translation and the availability of numerous editions for free distribution have made this translation particularly popular in Romania, where it competes with later individually-authored interpretations (such the popular translation by the Romanian scholar George Grigore published in 2000). It seems that this text will remain one of the main sources those seeking knowledge of the Qur’an and its interpretation in Romania.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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