Qur’an translation of the week #89: The First Translation of the Qur’an in Balkans

As is the case with the translation of the Qur’an into many European languages, the first translation of the Qur’an to be published in Balkans was not produced by a member of the Muslim community. The translator, Mićo Ljubibratić (1839–1889), one of the most prominent local political and military figures of the second half of the nineteenth century, was a revolutionary who fought against the Ottomans and Austrians for an independent Slavic state and was an active participant in many uprisings. As it is typical when it comes to Balkan literature, sometimes this translation is described as ‘Bosnian’, sometimes ‘Serbian’, sometimes ‘Serbo-Croatian’, etc. As Edin Hajdarpašić has suggested, the idea of a Balkan Qur’an translation was initially proposed by Jovan Dragašević (1836–1915), another political activist and intellectual. Mićo Ljubibratić began work on it in the 1860s, and the first edition appeared posthumously in 1895, when it was published in Belgrade by Državna štamparija Kraljevine Srbije (‘The State Printing House of the Serbian Kingdom’). Because Ljubibratić had no knowledge of Arabic, he had to base his translation on another translation, and chose to use ‘Le Koran’ by Albert Kazimirski de Biberstein, a French orientalist and Arabist of Polish origin (first published in Paris under the title ‘Le Koran’ in 1840). Kazimirski’s French translation was quite popular throughout Europe, not least because during the nineteenth century knowledge of French was ‘a basic standard’ for any European with intellectual aspirations. It appears that Ljubibratić used one of the later revised editions of this work, probably the 1869 edition.

As has already been noted by various Bosnian scholars, including Jusuf Ramić, Ljubibratić followed his source text (i.e. Kazimirski’s translation) very closely, replicating his interpolations and other features of the work. Like Kazimirski, Ljubibratić opts for Christian religious vocabulary in his translation and, when it comes to the names of prophets and other characters, uses the Christian variants only. The work also includes a glossary that explains the Arabic words used in the translation (for example, ‘Alkadr’, ‘Alrakim’, ‘Alforkan’, and ‘Ansari’) and some key concepts of the Qur’an (such as ‘brak’ – ‘marriage’; ‘vjera i dobri dela’ – ‘faith and good deeds’; and ‘pobožnost’ – ‘piety’). It also includes footnotes, again mostly taken verbatim from Kazimirski’s ‘Le Koran’.

Since the translation seems to be based on only one source, it is hard to find any readings or opinions that can be specifically traced back to Mićo Ljubibratić. Ljubibratić may not have known Arabic, but he was well-versed in French and, as a result, produced quite a faithful reproduction of his source. Like Kazimirski’s, Ljubibratić’s text generally echoes Christian religious style: thus, for instance, one finds expressions like ‘Neka je hvaleno ime tvoe’ (lit. ‘Let Your name be praised’, Surat al-Baqarah, v. 30), a phrasing that is often used in Serbian translations of the Bible. Futhermore, because Ljubibratić tried to remain as close to the French text as possible, his translation contains no additional literary flourishes. His style is nothing but a simple narrative that follows the sentence structure found in the French text (including frequent semicolons and dashes). Ljubibratić is also silent about some of the Arabic words that are used in Kazimirski’s translation. For instance, in Surat al-Fīl, verse 3, the word ‘abābil’ is used to refer to a flock of birds: as the French source gives no explanation of this term, Ljubibratić also includes this word without comment. There are a few key Qu’anic concepts, however, for which Mićo Ljubibratić uses Islamic rather than Christian terms. Hence, while in Kazimirski’s translation the word ‘ḥajj’ is rendered as ‘pèlerinage’ (‘pilgrimage’), Ljubibratić uses the Serbian/Bosnian term ‘hadžiluk’, a word derived from Arabic that means specifically ‘Islamic pilgrimage’.

Ljubibratić’s translation was published in a total of three editions, all in Cyrillic: the original (Belgrade, 1895), a reprint (Sarajevo, 1990), and finally in a revised format (Banja Luka, 2016). The first print run was marred by a slightly embarrassing event: as the work appeared posthumously, the publisher added a small cross before the Ljubibratić name, which led to fears of a negative reaction from Muslims. The cover page was changed in some copies, and the sign was erased from others but, despite this, conservative Muslim circles still viewed the translation with great suspicion, not only because it was produced by an Orthodox Christian (and the fact that Ljubibratić was a priest cannot have helped on this front), but also because the concept of Qur’an translation was still anathema to Balkan Muslims at the time, and the ‘translation movement’ was still far from beginning. However, the third and final 2016 edition of Ljubibratić’s translation, which was produced to celebrate the one hundred and twentieth anniversary of its initial publication, involved the participation of a Muslim religious publisher, ‘El-Kalem’. As well as being published as a complete work, some parts of Ljubibratić’s translation have appeared as independent partial editions in the first half of the twentieth century, published as ‘extracts’ from the Qur’an. The historical impact of this work was also enhanced when Ali Riza Karabeg used it as the basis for his own interpretation of the Qur’an into Bosnian in 1937, and it has thus had quite a big influence on other Qur’an translations into Slavic languages. Recent studies on the historical figure of Mićo Ljubibratić and the 2016 re-issue of his translation in Banja Luka, the largest city of the Serbian Republic inside the state of Bosnian and Herzegovina, seem to be motivated by an underlying political agenda to promote the peaceful co-existence of Muslim and Christian Slavs within the same state. For Muslim readers in Bosnia, however, Ljubibratić’s translation remains more a historical document, especially after the appearance of popular translations by Bessim Korkut and many others over the last fifty or so years.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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