Qur’an translation of the week #83: Turkish interpretation, Bulgarian translation- ‘Sveshteniyat Koran’ by Ivan Dobrev

Bulgaria has quite a large Muslim community (of more than half million people) which traditionally has had close cultural relations with Turkey, thus attempts to ‘Bulgarizing’ the Holy Book of Islam have historically been deemed as a challenge to the Turkish language and identity. Almost all published Bulgarian translations were prepared outside the community of Bulgarian Turks, and even the first interpretation to be officially recognized by the Muftiyate of Bulgaria (in 1993) was produced with the backing of a Saudi foundation (the Jamaʿiyyat al-Malik Fahd bin ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Hayriyah al-Islāmiyyah al-Dawliyyah, named after King Fahd ʿAbd al-ʿAziz ). One of the most notable members of the committee behind this translation (which was headed up by Nedim Gendziyev, the Mufti of Bulgaria between 1986 and 1992) was Ivan Dobrev. Born in 1938, Ivan Dobrev is well known for his writing on the Bulgarian language (in particular for his work on Old Bulgarian and Turkic influences on Bulgarian). Dobrev graduated from Sofia University with a PhD in Bulgarian Philology in 1962, following which he worked for many years in his alma mater and various other Bulgarian universities. In 1995, he became a member of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

Ivan Dobrev’s own translation of the Qur’an, entitled ‘Sveshteniyat Koran: Soderzhanie na bŭlgarski ezik’ (‘The Holy Qur’an: Its Contents in the Bulgarian language’), was published in 2009 by the Bulgarian Multimedia Company publishing house. Edited by Hajji Yusuf Kerim (who passed away before it was published), the translation is dedicated to his memory, with the hope that it will earn him ‘sawab’ (reward from God in Hereafter). According to the dedication, Hajji Yusuf Kerim was a folk healer, probably from Southern Bulgaria, who was very well versed in Islamic scholarship and thus an ideal candidate to revise the translation prior to its publication. The introduction gives the reader a very brief introduction to the biography of Prophet Muḥammad and the history of the composition of the Qur’ān in written form, and also an initial overview of Dobrev’s translation strategy. In this section, Dobrev begins by praising Ignatij Krachkovkij’s 1963 translation of the Qur’an into Russian, describing it as one of the most advanced works in Europe and Russia that conveys ‘exact and complete meanings of the … complicated phrases’. Such fulsome praise could be a reflection of the close ties that existed between Bulgarian and Soviet scholars in the communist era, when the Soviet school of oriental studies exerted a pervasive influence over the whole Eastern Block, as well as the fact that the Russian language was widely used in Bulgaria at the time. Other good examples of interpretation mentioned by Ivan Dobrev were ‘Turkish translations’ (‘turski perevody’), despite the fact that none of them are mentioned by name, nor are any particular translators singled out. The only Turkish source Dobrev refers to (on the book cover) by name (in the context of correcting and revising his translation) is a ‘Tefsir-i-Tebyan’. This seems to be a reference to a popular Ottoman tafsīr, the ‘Ṭibyān Tefsīri’ of Mehmed Efendi Ayıntâbî (d. 1699), who composed it on the basis of various earlier sources. However, since ‘Sveshteniyat Koran’ includes no commentaries on or interpolations into the Qur’anic text, it is hard to gauge how much Dobrev relied on this tafsīr, or to differentiate between any potential reliance on it or on other sources, such as other translations into Bulgarian. Notably, although Tsvetan Teofanov’s 1997 Qur’an translation (see #qurantranslationoftheweek No. 40) is not mentioned at all, the 1993 translation in which Dobrev is credited as one of the editors is criticized as containing ‘essential omissions and shortcomings’. He criticizes it for inconsistencies that resulted from the fact that the translation was produced by a translation team rather than being the work of a single translator.

A first look at the text of Dobrev’s translation generally reveals some influence of the translation from 1993, while many verses and terms differ in quite a significant way. First of all, Dobrev’s translation differs in style (his language is more modern), and is sometimes more a rhetorical than grammatical translation. As in the 1993 translation, he retains all the basic Arabic/Turkic terms that have made their way into Bulgarian (such as ‘Peygamber’for ‘Prophet’, ‘Akhiret’ for ‘Hereafter’, ‘Zakyat’ for ‘Zakāt,’ ‘namaz’ for ‘obligatory prayer’, ‘Dzhennet’ for ‘Paradise’, ‘Dzhehennem’ for ‘Hell,’ etc.). Additions to the text can be found as early on as the second verse of Sūrat al-Baqara, where in his translation of ‘dhālika ’l-kitābu lā rayba fīhi hudan li’l-muttaqīn’ (‘This is the Book, in which is sure guidance, without doubt’), he includes the additional phrase ‘Che izpratena e Tya ot Allakh’ (‘The Book that was sent by Allah’) as a kind of gloss of ‘lā rayba fihi’(‘without doubt’). In another instance in the same sura, both Dobrev and the 1993 translation convey the meaning of ‘uʿbudū rabbakum’ (‘worship your Lord’) in Q 2:21 as ‘Otpravyaĭte molitvy kŭm vashiya Allakh’ (lit. ‘Perform prayers to your God’) while, for example, Teofanov has the more literal ‘sluzhete na svoya Gospod’ (lit. ‘serve your Lord’). It is also interesting to look at Drobev’s translation choices when it comes to the phrase ‘… mathalān mā baʿuwḍatan fa-mā fawqahā’ (lit. ‘… a parable, be it that of a gnat or of something above it’) in Q 2:26, as this provides a good example of a traditional exegetical challenge for translators, namely whether to translate ‘fawqahā’ as ‘greater’ or ‘less’ than ‘a gnat’. The first part of Dobrev’s translation of this verse coincides exactly with the 1993 translation, although he makes one significant change (‘po-golamo’, ‘greater’, is changed to ‘po-malko’, ‘lesser’).

When browsing the translation from an exegetical perspective, it seems that the paraphrasing translation provided by Ivan Dobrev bears traces of influences from Islamic exegetical sources, in contrast to the more literal translation of 1993. For example, for Q. 86:9 (‘yawmu tublā ’l-sarāʾīr’, ‘The on the Day all secrets will be disclosed’), the 1993 translation has ‘v denya s’den kogato taĭnite shte se izyasnyat’ (‘on the day when the secrets will be opened’), while Dobrev writes ‘A v denya na Ravnosmektata kogata yavni shte stanat delata taĭni’ (‘And on the day of Balance, when the secret deeds will become apparent’). Interestingly, the passage Q. 86:9–14 from the 1993 translation follows Ignatij Krachkovski’s Russian text ‘v tot den’, kak budut ispytuyemy tayny, i net u nego ni sily, ni pomoshchnika, Klyanus’ nebom, obladatelem vozvrata, i zemley, obladatel’nitsey raskalyvaniya. Eto, poistine, slovo reshayushcheye, i eto – ne shutka!’ (reading ‘v denya s’den kogato taĭnite shte se izyasnyat, i nyama za nego ni sila, ni zashtitnik, kŭlna se v nebeto, na v’zvrata obladatel’, i na zemyata, koyato se raztvarya. Naĭistina, Toĭ e istinno slovo, i ne e toĭ shega’). This could be translated into English as ‘on the Day when the mysteries will be tested. And he has no strength or helper. I swear by Heaven, the owner of the return, and by the land, the owner of that splits open. This is, indeed, the decisive word, and this is not a joke!’ Instead of this, Dobrev’s ‘A v denya na Ravnosmektata kogata yavni shte stanat delata taĭni’ (‘And on the Day of Balance, when secret deeds will become apparent’) generally follows ‘Ṭibyān Tefsīri’ which also talks about good deeds becoming apparent on the balance of the Day of Resurrection. In the same way, the phrase ‘aḥsani taqwīm’ (‘the best condition’) in Q 95:4 is translated as ‘vid nai-krasiv’ (‘the best appearance’), which corresponds to the Ottoman Turkish ‘intiṣāb qāmat ve hüsnü ṣūrat’ (‘the straight form and nice appearance’). In contrast, the 1993 translation provides ‘naĭvŭzvisheno polozhenie’ (‘the highest position’), the meaning of which is not completely clear to the reader.

Ivan Dobrev’s translation is not one of the most popular Bulgarian Qur’an translations (it does not compete with Tsvetan Teofanov’s translation, for example) and has only been printed once, in 2009. However, this is the only translation to rely on Turkish/Ottoman sources, which makes it culturally speaking the closest to the legacy of Bulgarian Turks. Despite being based to some extent on the 1993 translation on which Dobrev had previously worked, the translation is definitely innovative, and contains improvements over the earlier work in both content and style. It also uses more accessible language. However, the fact that this work is not a translation from the original Arabic means that, overall, it lacks prestige in the eyes of contemporary speakers of Bulgarian.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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