Qur’an translation of the week #92: Interpreting the Qur’an into Ukrainian from a translator’s perspective

In contrast to most previous threads, this week’s post shares a translator’s vision of his own work, in this case ‘Preslavnyi Koran: Pereklad smysliv Ukrains’koju movoju’ (‘The Glorious Qur’an: A Translation of its Meanings into Ukrainian’), first published in 2013 by the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex. Unlike many of the other translations recently published by the KFQPC, ‘Preslavnyi Koran’ was produced specifically for publication by them, and thus its first edition adheres to the guidelines provided for translators of the Qur’an by this powerful institution. This is not the first translation of the Qur’an into Ukrainian: the earliest was carried out by Oleksandr Lysynetsky in 1913–1914 (and was based entirely on Max Henning’s translation into German), but is only available in manuscript form. Lysynetsky’s translation was followed by two other partial translations from the Arabic, but there was no full translation into Ukrainian. Given the increasing number of speakers of Ukrainian after 1991, and the simultaneous growth of the Muslim community in Ukraine (which currently comprises more than half a million out of a total population of 50 million), there was, however, a clear demand for a complete translation of the Qur’an. It seemed to me that the most important requirements of a new Ukrainian translation were that it not only fulfilled the exegetical requirements of Ukrainian-speaking Muslims, but was also readable and widely accessible to a broad audience. Given the lack of prior reliable translations of the Qur’an into Ukrainian, as well as the continued wide use of Russian in the country (and the consequent relevance of Russian Qur’an translations to the local readership), this accessibility would be the main feature that could win a new Ukrainian translation wide popularity.

Published according to the ‘standard’ KFQPC design (which includes features such as the the presentation of the Arabic text in verse-by-verse format, and an introduction written by the Minister of Religious Affairs of KSA), the translation also went through the typical KFQPC process of revision. This procedure, carried out by external revisers, is intended to ascertain whether or not the meanings conveyed in a given translation conform to the original Arabic text (from a broad perspective) and, especially, that the translation meets the requirements set out by the KFQPC for all their Qur’an translations. This includes not only formal prescriptions like distinguishing all insertions into the target text by using brackets, but also essential pre-conditions: for example, priority is given to four exegetical works, those of al-Ṭabarī, al-Baghawī, Ibn Kathīr and al-Saʿdī. This does not exclude translators from using other tafsīrs, but most of the commentary provided in ‘Preslavnyi Koran’ includes references to these four tafsīrs only. The main goal of the commentary I provided was to explain various cultural concepts (for example, the specific kinds of cattle mentioned in Q. 5:103), basic Arabic terms (such as imām in Q. 2:124, ḥanīfin Q. 2:135, and qiblah in Q. 2:142), variations of interpretation at points where there is a significant disagreement between exegetes (for example, over the question of whether the reported speech in Q.12:52–23 was spoken by Yusūf or the wife of the ʿAzīz), and so on. Whereas discussions over the ‘Salafi hermeneutics’ of the Qur’an that is usually associated with the KFQPC approach are often concerned with the theological issues, in this translation almost none of my commentary touches on issues of doctrine (ʿaqīdah) directly, and this position allowed me to represent the different theological readings of Sunni Islam with some degree of balance. Another basic translation strategy I implemented was to be quite literal to the Arabic idiom wherever possible. Thus, for example, I translated the phrase ‘wa’khfiḍ janāḥaka li ’l-mū’minīn’ in Q. 15:88 literally as ‘I prygorny svoim krylom virujuchych’ (‘And lower your wing to the believers’), appending a comment that this Arabic expression means ‘to be kind to someone’. This strategy was especially useful in terms of conveying the style of the original while simultaneously producing an understandable target text.

After the completion of the first draft of ‘Preslavnyi Koran’, I was invited to visit the KFQPC for two months, during which time a special committee consisting mostly of tafsīr scholars addressed their questions and comments on the text to me. Following this, an initial print run of 5,000 copies of the translation was distributed via the Saudi Embassy and major Islamic religious organizations in Ukraine. Further editions (with minor revisions and additional commentary, all from the side of translator) appeared a few years later from Ukrainian publishers, following the establishment of local Sunni religious authorities such as the Spiritual Board of Ukrainian Muslims ‘Ummah’, and the Association of Ukrainian Muslims. It was also printed and distributed by various Turkish religious foundations. For example, in 2016 and 2017 the translation was re-published by the Turkish Administration of Religious Affairs (Diyanet Işleri Başkanlığı), and this edition is still available for free distribution in Ukraine and Turkey (it is available in the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, as well as other places in Turkey that are popular with Ukrainian tourists). ‘Preslavnyi Koran’ is also available on many Islamic websites, both local Ukrainian ones and global ones such as Quran.Enc and Quran.Com. It has also had an impact on at least one other regional translation of the Qur’an: Aleksei Ismail Krywtsou’s recent translation of the Qur’an into Belarusian was largely based on this Ukrainian text, due to the mutual intelligibility of the two languages. Ukrainian has no rich tradition of Islamic writings, in contrast to Polish or Russian, and the reception and publication history of this translation, which has already been published fourteen times in various editions, demonstrates clearly that the authority of the first publisher can play quite an important role in regions where literature on the Qur’an in non-Arabic languages is in its emerging stages. In this case, while the translation was first published by the KFQPC, it was later adopted (and adapted) by the Diyanet Işleri Başkanlığı in Turkey, as well as by local Ukrainian Muslim communities.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

Share this post