Scripture as “supra-cultural”
One of the frustrations of Bible translation in an Islamic context stems from the Muslim belief that the Koran was written in heaven and is thus “supra-cultural,” that is, it is not shaped or determined by human culture or language. Although written in the Arabic language, the Muslim conviction is that the Koran is purely the word of God and is thus perfect in word, form and message; there is no human element, and therefore no flaw in its construct. Such thinking is the basis for the claim that the Koran cannot be translated.
A foreign journalist once asked a Muslim scholar if there was a translation of the Koran that made sense, as all the translations that he had read were confusing. This was the scholars’ response:
The Koran is untranslatable because it is sublime. Its form and its content are inseparable. The presence of the divine is in the words themselves, and only in those words which were given to the Prophet. The Koran, which is the most beautiful book in the world, exists solely in those words. Therefore Islam commands its followers to read the Koran only in Arabic. If you wish to understand the Koran, you must learn Arabic. That is the only answer I can give you. (1)
Such thinking contrasts sharply with the Christian view of the Bible and the fundamental basis of Bible translation: The Bible can be accurately translated into any language and culture. The theological support for this claim is the conviction that the Bible is both divine and human, both God’s word and a product of culture. Culture and language is the medium through which God has provided his written revelation to humanity. Even as Jesus was both divine and human, so the Bible is both human and divine: good news brought “by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Pet 1:12 NRSV). Even as Jesus revealed God to us as a human being within a specific historical and cultural context, so we believe that God’s word can be revealed through translation into another cultural and linguistic setting. God’s purposes are eternal and unchanging, but the ever changing languages and cultures of humanity require an ongoing process of translation for those purposes to be revealed.
In contrast, the Islamic view of scripture preserves the original form of the untranslatable text in the daily life of the practicing Muslim through the reading and memorizing of the Koran in the original Arabic script. This is reinforced through traditional rituals, such as the daily prayers which are performed worldwide in the Arabic language. This belief serves as an important unifying factor in Islam as well as elevating Koranic Arabic to a level in which not just the meaning but the form contains both mystery and power. In addition, these practices reinforce the perception of the eternal stability of the Koran from centuries past as pure and unchanging in its form.
Bible Translations: Corruption or Blessing?
The frustration for translators of the Bible in an Islamic context is that Bible translations and the Christian understanding of scripture do not measure up to this Islamic belief concerning the nature of God’s word. No one translation can communicate all the meaning of the text as well as capture the cultural nuance and form of the original. This impossibility is complicated by textual and interpretive variations in some passages that lead to a number of possible translation options. Moreover, translators are forced to adopt a specific style or philosophy of translation that emphasizes one aspect of the original over others. For example, a literal translation will seek to maintain the form of Hebrew poetry, even though it will not be the contemplative genre of the target language and thus cannot convey the same impact and meaning. Alternatively a meaning based translation attempts to communicate the meaning of the poetry according to the style most appropriate to the receptor culture, even using a simple narrative style that sacrifices much of the poetic element. A third option is an impact focused translation that strives to communicate the contemplative impact in an appropriate poetic style of the target language, even though certain culturally defined nuances of the original are lost. Ps 24:7 illustrates this difference:
- The NRSV is a good literal translation preserving the Hebrew imagery:
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors
that the king of glory may come come in.
- The TEV, a meaning based translation, provides a clearer understanding for English speakers with modern idioms. Note that the poetic address to the inanimate doors has been sacrificed to facilitate the more natural English expressions:
Fling wide the gates,
open the ancient doors,
and the great king will come in.
- Our Sindhi translation, also meaning based, provides further clarification that the “gates” and “doors” are not two separate entities, but refer the same part of the temple (translated from Sindhi):
O doors of the Temple! Lift up your lintels,
Yes, O ancient doors! Make yourselves tall
So that the glorious king may come in.
- The Message by Eugene Peterson, seeks to communicate the impact of the verse and interprets the doors more figuratively than the Sindhi translation:
Wake up, you sleepyhead city!
Wake up, you sleepyhead people!
King-glory is ready to enter.
The benefit of the variety of translation styles lies in their contrast with each other and thus the more comprehensive expression of the original meaning. Each of these styles is legitimate and collectively provides a more complete representation of the original. Because of their unique style and focus, they provide the student of the Bible a clearer sense and deeper appreciation of God’s message. But it is here that the clash with the Muslim reader occurs. When there is a perceived discrepancy between translations, the Muslim concludes that the translators have deliberately “corrupted” the Bible or else the original Scriptures themselves are not the pure word of God as they believe exists in the Koran.
How should the Christian in dialogue with Muslims about the Scriptures reply to this accusation? There are two possibilities which will be explored in the next article.
- (1) Jonathan Raban: Arabia Through the Looking Glass. Glasgow: Fontana 1979. p. 114.