Qur’an translation of the week #99: The State-sponsored Translation of the Qur’an into Palembang, Religious Moderation, and Language Dilemma

by Tri Handayani, Sekolah Tinggi Ilmu Al Qur’an (STIQ) Al-Lathifiyyah Palembang

The Indonesian state has only recently, in 2018, initiated an official project to translate the Qur’an into local languages, even though the first state-authorised translation of the Qur’an into Indonesian was published in 1965 and has since been reissued in various different editions. However, by the beginning of 2022, the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MoRA) had published approximately 20 regional language translations of the Qur’an, including translations into Palembangese, Javanese, Banyumanese, Sasakese, and Makassarese. MoRA, an institution charged with preserving and upholding religious cultural values, considers Indonesian linguistic diversity to be one of Indonesia’s most valuable cultural assets, which should be guarded and preserved, and thus sees the production of Qur’an translations into local languages as an important part of its remit.

Indonesia is an archipelagic nation, with a population estimated in December 2021 as numbering approximately 273 million people. This population is spread over 17,000 islands, which are inhabited by between 500 and 700 different tribes, who between them speak a total of 300 local languages (not including dialects and subdialects). It was this linguistic richness that prompted MoRA to embark on its ambitious project to translate the Qur’an into various local languages, to ‘meet the needs of the community.’ MoRA considers that, in general, people’s understanding of the Qur’an is lacking, due to factors such as the (understandably) low levels of literacy in Arabic among the general populace, regional differences in the availability and quality of religious education, and the scarcity of translations of the Qur’an in regional languages. The project is based on the premise that the promotion of ‘religious moderation’ (moderasi beragama) through ‘proper’ translation of Qur’an into Indonesia’s various regional languages will ‘create conditions for people to live in harmony and peace within the framework of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia.’

The translation project was launched by MoRA in 2018 under the title ‘Qur’an Literacy for Religious Moderation.’ It is conducted under the aegis of MoRA’s Research and Development Center for Literature, Religious Treasures, and Organizational Management (LKKMO), whose main tasks include preserving the manuscripts and books of the nation, and its history and culture. The project is part of an umbrella project run by MoRA called ‘Religious Moderation’ (Moderasi Beragama), which consists of many smaller sub-projects—including the Qur’an Literacy project—and received extremely generous funding from the Joko Widodo governance, enabling them to mobilize a large number of researchers, primarily under the MoRA’s network of State Islamic Universities (STAIN & UIN). The Religious Moderacy project was launched mainly to tackle one of the most important issues facing the country, i.e. radicalisation and terrorism. One of its aims is to counter radical elements through providing approved translations of the Qur’an into local languages.

MoRA’s Qur’an translation project is informed by a particular agenda. First, it aims to provide a translation that is easy to understand, so that believers might be able to interpret the substance and essence of the divine message. Secondly, it was intended to provide a vehicle through which local languages might be preserved, and the Qur’an, which is a key part of the religious heritage of the nation, be transferred into the mother tongues of its readers. Its third motivation was the preservation of Indonesian Islamic culture. This national project involves local government, ulema, and academics with expertise in various local languages and cultures, and in disciplines such as anthropology and sociology.

Although the Palembang Qur’an translation was not set in motion until 2018, the idea to translate the Qur’an into Palembang had been in the air since 2012, when the former Rector of UIN Raden Fatah of Palembang, Aflatun Mukhtar, visited Gorontalo to attend the launch of a Gorontalo Qur’an translation. Inspired by the event, he however found it very difficult to find native speakers of high Palembangese (Palembang alus) who were at the same time Arabic linguists with sufficient knowledge about the Qur’an. The idea was put on ice until MoRA launched its Religious Moderation project in 2018, which both provided funds and opened up the potential for collaborative work on local-language translations of the Qur’an. With funding now available from MoRA, a team of translators from the Ushuluddin Faculty of the State University of Islamic Studies (UIN) Raden Fatah Palembang emerged to take on the task. The process of translation took approximately two years: the first year was spent on the actual translation, and the second year on editing, layout, and validation of the translation. The final validation process involved a team from MoRA Jakarta.

The project used the second, revised edition of MoRA’s Indonesian translation of the Qur’an as a basis for translating, rather than the original Arabic text. The revisions to this second edition were effected in four main areas: language, consistency, substance, and transliteration, and the revisions process took about four years. Notable figures involved in this edition of the Indonesian translation include Quraish Shihab, Said Aqil Husein al Munawwar, and Junanda P. Syarfuan. The second edition is more concise than the previous one, and the volume is physically smaller. It contains far fewer footnotes, subtitles, and preambles, and is aimed at a general readership.

The Palembang Qur’an translation was printed with a thick maroon cover, and decorated with a flower image in a ‘songket’ motif, which is the hallmark of Palembangese batik. Consisting of 885 pages, it begins with a frontispiece containing remarks from the rector of UIN Raden Fatah Palembang and MoRA Jakarta. This is followed directly by a table of contents which consists of the names of the surahs of the Qur’an. The Indonesian translation of the Qur’an on which it is based begins with a section recounting the history of the revelation of the Qur’an, Muhammad’s prophethood, and addressing the contents of the Qur’an and the rules of tajwid, but the Palembangese translation eschews this, and instead moves directly into the text of the surahs. The translation itself is in high Palembang (Palembang alus), which is not readily understood by all native speakers of Palembang, as it is a different register from that commonly used in everyday life.

It is interesting to note that the language used in this Qur’an translation, Palembang alus, is a mixed language, showing influences from various other cultures and languages, predominantly Javanese, Sumatran Malay and Indonesian Bahasa. Javanese influence spread to Palembang in the sixteenth century when a group of royal families fled political chaos in the Islamic Demak Sultanate in Central Java to Palembang. One of them, Ki Gede Ing Lautan, even went on to establish a kingdom in Palembang. This interrelationship between the various languages means that they share many words, and sentences can sometimes seem to be a jumble of languages. The situation is complicated further by the existence of differences between the dialects spoken in Palembang Ilir and Palembang Ulu, two different areas of Palembang City that are separated by the Musi River.

Given its status as the first ever translation of the Qur’an into the Palembang language, this translation deserves appreciation. However, the project is problematic on two fronts. The first relates to the fact that this Qur’an was produced as part of MoRA’s Religious Moderacy project. While this can generally be seen as a commendable initiative, any state has a tendency to want to regulate and control its citizens, to a greater or lesser degree (for more on this, see ‘The State and The Holy Qur’an: Politics of The Qur’an Translation By The Ministry of Religious Affairs’ at http://journal.uinjkt.ac.id/index.php/ilmu-ushuluddin/article/view/18344). As with any government project there are, of course, many political aspects that need to be considered, especially when it comes to the translation of foundational religious texts such as the Qur’an. In addition, budgetary constraints meant that the translation itself had to be completed in only one year, which is a very short time frame for such a complex text: choosing the right words to render ‘revelation’ into human language is certainly not easy.

The second problematic aspect relates to issues of language. On the one hand, the idea of the Palembang language itself has been contested by linguists. Palembang is considered by some to be a mixed language because of language migration and assimilation, and this means that it is possible for there to be inconsistencies in meaning or differences in nuance or connotative range. Moreover, the fact that the translation was undertaken from an Indonesian translation of the Qur’an, rather than from the original Arabic, is also problematic. The combination of both of these factors means that it is very likely that there will be many inconsistencies between the translation and the original source text. This is only compounded by the self-acknowledged limitations of the team of Palembang linguists who undertook the translation.

Finally, given that the project intended to promote religious moderation, it is surprising that it had an extremely limited print run of only 70 copies! This certainly makes it very difficult for the work to reach a wide readership, and has no doubt contributed to the fact that the translation has not been met with much response from readers in general.

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