Qur’an translation of the week #76: Not Poetry but Rhyming Prose- Koran: Perevod s Arabskogo i kommentarii by Betsy Shidfar (1928-1993)

Qur’an translations tend to be categorized in various different ways, but one of the most common means of categorization relates to perceptions of the translator and the style of the translation. Accordingly, Qur’an translations can be put into several categories, such as academic or confessional, humanistic or ‘fundamentalist’, poetic or non-poetic, or ‘traditional’ or ‘modernist’. In contemporary translations, the lines between these categories, and the translatorial approaches they reflect, are often blurred, intentionally or unintentionally, by either the translators themselves or, sometimes, their publishers. The Qur’an translation by Soviet Arabist Betsy Shidfar (d. 1928-1993) is an example of such a Qur’an translation, in which the lines (between an academic and poetic approach on the part of the translator) are blurred, and become even more so after the (confessional) intervention of their publisher.
Originally born into a Jewish family in Soviet Ukraine, Shidfar was, in a genuine sense, a product of the USSR system: she spent her whole live living within the Soviet sphere, working and studying in a number of major Soviet cities, such as Kharkiv, Sevastopol, Novorossiysk, Leningrad, Tashkent and Moscow. She studied Arabic and Islam under the guidance of the well-known Soviet Arabists Ignaty Krachkovsky (1883–1921) and Mikhail Salye (1899–1961).

Shidfar was a prolific author and published work on various aspects of the philology of Arabic language, the poetry of Andalusia, the Levant and North Africa, the philosophy of Ibn Miskawayh, Ibn Sīnā, Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī and even the biographical novel of the life of Abū Nuwās. In addition, she also published numerous translations, one of the most interesting and remarkable of which is her posthumously published translation of the Qur’an.
Shidfar’s Qur’an translation was published for the first time in 2003 by the Salafi-associated publishing house Umma under the title ‘Koran: Smyslovoy Perevod’ (which can be translated as ‘semantic translation’ or the ‘translation of meanings’). This publication was a very unusual choice for Umma, which is a publishing house that usually tends to publish works by Muslim authors. Shidfar was not a Muslim, and at the time her work did not yet have any public support from a Muslim authority of any kind, in comparison to, for example, the Qur’an translation of Soviet Arabist Teodor Shumovskiĭ (1913–2012), whose work was supported by muftis Talgat Tajuddin and Rawil Gaynetdin. Nowadays, the boundaries between confessional and academic translations of the Qur’an are rarely clear cut, because on the one hand Muslim translators often have academic degrees from secular universities and, on the other hand, some works written by non-Muslim academics are modified by Islamic publishing houses before publication. (For an example of this strategy, see Qur’an Translation of the Week #68: Islamicising A Non-Muslim’s Qur’an Translation: From Paris To Beirut (And Back?)). In this case, while Schidfar simply called her work a ‘translation of the Qur’an’, Umma changed the title of the book so that it fit in with currently dominant Muslim position regarding Qur’an translation and Qur’anic inimitability (iʿjāz), according to which it is only possible to translate the meaning of the Qur’an, rather than to produce a translation of the Qur’an per se.
When Shifdar died, she left only drafts of the intended full translation of the Qur’an, much of which was not of in a publishable state. Because of this, the first edition of Koran: Perevod s Arabskogo I kommentarii contained a large number of missing verses. The translation was subsequently republished a number of times, but never became really competitive in the market due to its unfinished form: it was difficult for it to gain wide recognition as a few full translations of the Qur’an were already available.
One of the main features of Shidfar’s work is the style that she used in her translation. Shidfar aimed to accurately convey the meaning of the text, helped by the use of some classical sources (e.g. tafsīr Jalālayn, al-Bukhārī’s collection of aḥādīth) but, at the same time, she wanted to represent the ‘original’ Arabic rhyme in Russian throughout the whole work. Although the Qur’an is not poetry (as the Qur’an itself asserts in Sūra Yā Sīn (Q 36:69)), it is also not prose, according to a general understanding of the word. The mainstream Muslim understanding of the Qur’anic message rests firmly on the concept of the iʿjāz, of the Qur’an, which includes both the actual meaning of its message, and the unique aesthetic appeal of the style in which this message is delivered. Shidfar, as a Soviet non-Muslim academic, followed in the footsteps of her mentor Krachkovsky in seeing the Qur’an not as a sacred text but as a unique example of the Arabo-Islamic literary heritage, thus the view that she might be ‘disrespectfully challenging’ Qur’anic iʿjāz by composing the Russian renderings of the Qur’an in a rhythm wasn’t a stumbling block for her. Her perspective was that, in attempting to imitate the style of the Qur’an, she was not trying to challenge the inimitable status of the Qur’anic source text, but rather to ‘do justice’ to it, and show respect for its role in the Arabo-Islamic literary heritage. Her use of rhymed and rhythmic endings such as -anie, -enie and suffixes such as -yasch, -avsh in the translated verses create a sound that has very unusual sonic resonances when they are read aloud, especially in the short suras.

However, while Shidfar indeed tries to remain close to the source text in terms of style, the emphasis on the aural dimension compromises the degree of closeness the translation has to Qur’anic syntax.
Not having met with a positive reception in its initial editions, Shidfar’s translation underwent a rebirth in 2012 when it caught the eye of Tatar Islamologist Renat Bekkin and was published by a Tatar publishing house, called Marjani, that specialized in publishing books on Islamic studies. Bekkin took on the role of editor, and ‘reconstructed’ Shidfar’s translation, a process which, according to him, included filling in the missing verses based on Shidfar’s various drafts, improving the structure and syntax, and creating differentiation between her translations and interpolations. Bekkin was attracted by Shidfar’s unusual attempt to render the artistic style of the Qur’an, and believed in the value of this translation for those specialised in Islamic studies, but also thought it was a valuable way of introducing the Muslim scripture to the general non-Arabic-speaking public. Bekkin attested that, in his personal view, Shidfar’s translation is even suitable for the purpose of ‘inspirational reading’ or ‘reading for the soul’, and put forward the opinion that it is ‘a golden mean between the letter and the spirit of revelation’. As a Muslim academic, he adopted an attitude of veneration towards the Qur’an which can be seen in his capitalizing such wording as ‘Sacred Book’ and ‘the Word of Allah’ in his afterword to Shidfar’s translation. However, he deliberately decided to avoid using the title ‘translation of meanings’ for the revised edition, going against the prevailing approach among Muslim publishers, and instead leaves the title of Shidfar’s work as just Qur’an: Translation and Commentaries.
The title page of the new edition contained titles in both Russian and English (the English version was named The Holy Qur’an).

In addition, we find reviews on the work by a number of Muslim reviewers, which were added at the beginning of the volume to lend it credibility in the eyes of a Muslim readership. These reviewers include Elmir Kuliev, the popular Russian translator of the Qur’an, Ildar Alautdinov, the chief Imam of Moscow cathedral mosque, and the vice-president of the Marjani Foundation Murad Zargishiev. In addition, such actors as the ḥalāl meat company SAFA, mentioned at the beginning of the book, increase the reliability for Muslims. This interplay of confessional and non-confessional authorities, together with the unusual artistic style of the translation with its sometimes very hyperbolized prosody, complicates the work in terms of its potential readership, which was perhaps one of the reasons why this translation, as with the previous edition, did not gain wider acceptance. The rhythmic language of Shidfar’s translation included archaic words (e.g. niva/нива, napersnik/наперсник) and Christian concepts (e.g. zagrobnaya zhizn’/загробная жизнь) that might be appreciated by admirers of the Russian literary tradition, but was not necessarily easily accessible to the general Muslim reader.
In addition to the translation itself, Shidfar’s Koran: Perevod s Arabskogo I kommentarii includes a short history of the Islamic message from the beginning of the Prophetic revelation, and a short sketch of the compilation of the Qur’anic text and its content (such as the difference between the Meccan and Medinan suras) and description of its linguistic features. She also added commentaries after the main text that serve to clarify some ritual and historical issues, and creates a meaningful conversation between the Qur’an and the Biblical narratives. Overall, this translation represents a valuable introduction to Islam for non-specialists. However, the lack of Arabic text that excludes devotional reading, the absence of honorifics after mention of the Prophet and Companions, the refrainment from representing the dogmatic stances, and the unusual rhyming prose remove the possibility that the work would receive wide appreciation from a Muslim audience.

Elvira Kulieva

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