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Can the Quran be translated?

by I Need Allah
Can the Quran be translated?

There is a difference between: And

One is a literal word of God while the other is a translation of the word of God by men.

You see a translation is only as good as the one who translates it. And in order to even attempt translating the Quran, one has to have mastery of two languages. Arabic and the language the Quran is being translated to. Adding to that is human fallibility.

When we talk about accuracy in translating God’s Word, we’re talking about meaning and the rule is: nothing should be added, deleted or changed. But it can be difficult to see how this gets applied if you’re only looking at the words. Part of the difficulty in translation arises due to the lexical gap and syntactical differences between the source language and the target language, especially between two languages belonging to different language families.

Daniel Hahn director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, sums up the issue beautifully:

“There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative. Anything that is, itself, a ‘linguistic’ quality will by definition be anchored in a particular language — whether it’s idiom, ambiguity, or assonance. All languages are different.”

As literary translators will attest, a single word can be extremely troublesome. The author of a work of literature has chosen that word for a good reason, so the translator must ensure that it is faithfully delivered in the target language. However, what if no direct translation is available? Or what if several options exist, each with a slightly different nuance? Urdu language translator Fahmida Riaz outlines her approach to such thorny issues:

“Every piece you translate comes from the pen of an individual, so you have to give it an individual treatment. I try to retain the ambience of the original culture, rather than the language, as it is reflected in the text.”

Still some might find it difficult to grasp the issues with translations. So I will give an example. Chapter 1 verse 1 of the Quran says:


Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim


In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.

The words “Ar- Rahman” and “Ar-Rahim” is translated as “Entirely Merciful” and “Especially Merciful”. Okay fair enough. But as a English reader some might be wondering whats with the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful? Isn’t it the same thing? Wouldn’t it be better to just say “in the name of Allah the Most Merciful”? And what’s So great about God showing “mercy”? Because in the English language the word mercy is usually associated with being spared from harm or punishment. It does not befit the God to be boastful about being the best in sparing people. Believe it or not I had this very conversation with someone once.

But to someone who is well versed in Arabic (I am not. I’m still learning), this verse means entirely something else. Ar-Rahman and Ar-Raheem, both of these names derive their meaning from the word mercy or love (rahmah).

In classical Arabic, rahmah represents the mercy and love of a mother for her child in her womb. The child inside the RAHAM is taken care of, in every single way. There is an interesting relationship between the mother and the child. Does the child know the mother? No. Does the child love the mother? No. But does the mother already love the child? Yes. Is the mother already looking after the child? Yes. As the child grows, it causes the mother to be sick and weak; it eats nutrition from the mother; in the later trimesters, the child even stretches, punches, or kicks the mother’s ribs! But still, the mother cares for, takes care of, and protects the child.

From this understand we can come to begin to understand the concept of RAHMA and it from this word we get RAHMAAN AND RAHEEM.

So if both of these words means RAHMA what is the difference between the two? When two words are similar to each other in meaning in the Arabic language and they are put next to each other, then the point is to show you that there is a difference (not just to show you that they are similar). The difference is the tense.

Ar-Rahman means Allah is not just merciful, but is being extremely merciful right now. But the scary part of it is, it’s not going to be forever. In contrast, the name Ar-Raheem means, Allah’s mercy is not necessarily happening right now but saved for the future and is going to last forever. In other words God is telling you are being taken care of in the immediate sense and in case you are worried about the future, he assures you by telling that too is taken care of. There is also another interpretation where Ar-Raheem is only for believers, while Ar-Rahman is for all the creatures and everything on earth including one who hates God — because Ar-Raheem is what you need on the day of Judgement.

And this is how Allah introduces himself in Surah Fatiha. By combining these two names together, we get the total meaning of Allah being extremely and permanently merciful, both immediately (right now) and in the future!

Do you see that? See how much words I used to explain just the first verse alone in English. Do you see now why the English translation failed to capture the entire Essence of God’s word. You only get a glimpse of it in the English translation. It’s enough to give you a taste but not enough to satisfy you.

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