Qur’an translation of the week #90: Arabic roots and Qur’anic meanings – Maurice Gloton’s Le Coran: Essai de traduction et annotations

Why yet another French Qur’an translation? ‘To further explore the richness and depth of the Qur’an’s Arabic vocabulary’ is the answer that Maurice Gloton (1926–2017) might have given. The astonishing outcome of his endeavour is a ‘literal translation’ that is so serious about identifying the literal meaning of Qur’anic terms that most Muslim readers would not perceive it as literal at all.

Gloton’s Le Coran: Essai de traduction et annotations (‘The Qur’an: An Attempt at Translation with Notes’) was first published in 2014 with Albouraq (Paris), possibly the biggest Islamic publisher in France. It was preceded by Une approche du Coran par la grammaire et le lexique, a thorough and voluminous study of the Qur’an’s grammar and vocabulary, which he published in 2002.

The son of a freemason father who had an interest in all things spiritual, as a young man Gloton was impressed by the French intellectual and Sufi René Guénon (1886–1951) and converted to Islam in 1950. He studied Arabic autodidactically, alongside his business career and family life, until, in the 1980s, he found himself unemployed, and started translating the works of premodern mystics and theologians, including Ibn ʿArabī, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, al-Jurjānī and al-Ghazālī, into French. He continued to work as a translator throughout his retirement, an activity that culminated in the publication of his translation of the Qur’an, which appeared in a beautifully and professionally typeset hardcover edition. The presentation and marketing of this seem to address Muslim readers who ideally have some knowledge of Arabic and are interested in the serious study of the Qur’an: those readers benefit from a lengthy introduction and an extensive annex with helpful indices.

The most distinctive feature of this Qur’an translation is Gloton’s deep interest in the etymology and structure of the Qur’an’s Arabic vocabulary. He aims for a ‘literal’ translation that remains close to the source text, based on the belief that the Qur’an, due to its inimitable nature, does not contain anything that is superfluous, not even a particle. Gloton also postulates that the Qur’anic vocabulary does not contain synonyms, an idea that is often expressed with regard to the French language, too.

The result of this approach is a translation that is far from straightforward or self-explanatory because it uses unique terminology. For example, al-ṣalāt, the Arabic term that denotes the ritual prayer, is translated as ‘l’action unifiante de grâce’ (‘the unifying work of grace’). In some contexts, this rather idiosyncratic expression is explained in brackets as ‘ritual prayer’ (e.g., Q 5:6), and in other contexts, it is not, probably based on the assumption that the term has a more general meaning here (e.g., Q 2:3).

Gloton treats Allāh as a proper name; it is typeset in green both in the Arabic and the French text. He has clearly spent much time and care on coming up with translations of the other names and descriptions of God, resulting in further unusual translation choices. For example, Gloton translates māliki yawm al-dīn (Q 1:4), which is often rendered as ‘Master on the Day of Judgement,’ as ‘le Possesseur du Jour de la Redevance’ (‘Owner of the Day on which Fees are due’). His rendering of al-raḥmān al-raḥīm, two semantically interrelated adjectives that are typically translated along the lines of ‘merciful,’ ‘beneficent’ and ‘gracious,’ shows traces of his Sufi leanings: he translates them as ‘le Tout-Rayonnant d’Amour, le Très-Rayonnant d’Amour’ (‘the All-Radiant with Love, the Very-Radiant with Love’). He makes no attempt at allegorical translations, however, even in places where metaphorical understandings are relatively common – for example in relation to the Throne (ʿarsh) or Seat (kursī) of God, two concepts that he distinguishes carefully from each other.

Modernists often attempt to seek out the ‘original’ or root meaning of Qur’anic terms. For them, it is part of a strategy that serves to redefine religious categories such as ‘Muslims,’ ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ so as to allow for a religiously inclusivist reading of the Qur’an. This is true of Gloton’s translation, too. For example, the kāfirūn, often translated as ‘unbelievers,’ are ‘dénégateurs’ (‘deniers’) for Gloton, and the muslimūn are rendered as ‘ceux qui se soumettent’ (‘those who submit themselves’), rather than ‘Muslims.’ As such, these terms might include any monotheistic believer. That Gloton considers the Qur’an’s promise of salvation a universal message to the followers of all authentic divine revelations is clear from his note on Q 2:62.

However, he takes this strategy further than the vast majority of translators where the term īmān (typically translated as ‘faith’ or ‘belief’) and its related forms (e.g., āmana, ‘to believe’, and muʾmin, ‘believer’) are concerned. He links īmān to the noun amāna, which is derived from the same Arabic root as īmān (ʾ – m – n) and which he translates as ‘dépôt confié’ (probably best rendered in English as ‘that which has been entrusted’), and explains it as referring to the resources and abilities with which God has entrusted humans. Īmān, then, means using those resources and abilities, or acting on them. It follows from this logic that, in Gloton’s translation, expressions that are usually understood to refer to the believers become references to ‘those who have implemented that with which they have been entrusted’ (alladhīna āmanū: ‘ceux qui ont mis en oeuvre le Dépôt confié’; al-muʾmīnūn: ‘les acteurs du Dépôt confié’). This is a fairly complicated translation and also creates problems when the Qur’an connects the verb āmana with the preposition bi-, which is conventionally translated as ‘to believe in something.’ For example, alladhīna yuʾminūna bi’l-ghayb (Q 2:3) is often translated into English as ‘[those] who believe in the Unseen.’ Gloton, however, renders it as ‘qui, à cause du mystère, mettent en oeuvre le Dépôt confié’ (‘those who, due to the mystery, implement that which has been entrusted’).

Arabic, like all Semitic languages, invites such translation strategies since it is possible to easily trace most words to their root consonants. The question is whether this strategy makes sense, because words might in the course of their history take on other meanings than the ‘original’ one, and words derived from the same root can nevertheless end up referring to different semantic fields. The issue then might be not so much one of the etymology of a given word, but rather the audience’s understanding of it.

In some places, Gloton uses his engagement with Qur’anic semantics to revise established interpretations and promote a modernist reading. For example, in Q 4:34, the much-discussed ‘wife-beating verse,’ which many modernist interpreters say does not refer to the beating of wives at all, he reads the injunction fa-ḍribūhunna (conventionally understood as ‘and hit them’) as ‘provoquez un choc chez elles’ (‘provoke a shock in them’). The initial statement in the verse, al-rijālu qawwāmūna ʿalā l-nisāʾ, sometimes translated along the lines of ‘men are in charge of women,’ is rendered by Gloton as ‘Les hommes se doivent de se comporter toujours droitement à l’égard des femmes’ (‘Men should always behave fairly towards women’).

Some of Gloton’s interpretations can also be found in Qur’anist circles. Gloton was possibly aware of this, and his strategy definitely bears a resemblance to that of Qur’anists in that it is Qur’an-centric and disinterested in contextualising the Qur’an through the use of hadiths, but he did not explicitly identify with Qur’anism or any of its proponents. In a note on his translation of Q 74:30 (ʿalayhā tisʿata ʿashara; ‘over it are nineteen’), he writes ‘This number 19, eminently symbolical, has been an object of numerous interpretations. Some commentators think that it concerns guardian angels, others relate it to human faculties. But God knows best.’ This may well allude to Rashad Khalifa’s (1935–1990) theory of the numerical miracle of the Qur’an, which is centred on the number nineteen, but if it does, Gloton does not seem to subscribe to Khalifa’s numerical theory.

Gloton’s translation, despite its flawless French, is probably not the first choice for readers who want to use a single Qur’an translation that is as straightforward as possible, or is based on mainstream interpretations. It might be most useful when read in conjunction with other Qur’an translations, as it does add nuance to the understanding of the text. However, in light of how idiosyncratic Gloton’s interpretations are, using them as the only point of reference might mean giving too much weight to a work that Gloton himself cautiously labelled as an ‘attempt’ – an interesting attempt, for sure, but also one that at times shows the limits of a purely semantic and etymological approach to the Qur’an.

Johanna Pink

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