Qur’an, translation and tradition revisited through language


By Farid Gabteni


بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ
رَبِّ اشْرَحْ لِي صَدْرِي وَيَسِّرْ لِي أَمْرِي وَاحْلُلْ عُقْدَةً مِنْ لِسَانِي يَفْقَهُوا قَوْلِي؛
رَبِّ أَدْخِلْنِي مُدْخَلَ صِدْقٍ وَأَخْرِجْنِي مُخْرَجَ صِدْقٍ وَاجْعَلْ لِي مِنْ لَدُنْكَ سُلْطَانًا نَصِيرًا
In The Name of God The Origin The Arranging
God My Lord! Relieve for me my chest and Ease for me my task, and Untie the knot from my tongue that they may understand my speech.
God My Lord! Make me Enter a credible entrance, and Make me Emerge a credible emergence; and Give for me, from Yourself, a rescuing authority.
In response to those who still have questions about my translation of the Qur’an, I have chosen to present this conference, which I have entitled:
Qur’an, translation and tradition revisited through language
There are more than 120 French translations of the Qur’an, the earliest of which dates back to 1647.
Each is of unparalleled importance in terms of its reputation, its publication and its thoroughness; each has its own characteristics and is therefore of particular interest.
But any translation in any language is a reflection that allows a more or less relative understanding of the original text; in no case is it the absolute linguistic equivalent.
No translation of the Qur’an is exempt from this fact, although their authors have certainly worked to the best of their ability.
Furthermore, many Muslim translators cannot overlook the stories and comments found in the ancient works of exegesis, which influence them in one way or another.
As for the non-Muslim translators, they are, to some extent, unable to fully escape from their prejudices and preconceptions.
Both these instances somewhat obstruct, if not more, the necessary scope for semiolinguistic treatment, which must be as objective and scientific as possible.
This is to ensure that the translation of the Qur’an into French, and/or in any other language for that matter, is perfectly reproduced.
The biggest difficulty the researcher faces lies in the Qur’an itself, which in some parts intentionally appears to be encrypted or has two meanings.
By using plurivocal words, it requires the person studying it to examine it, to analyse it, to decipher it and to decode it; all this, in the hope of reaching its primexplanation.
By “primexplanation” I mean understanding the essence and the original meaning of the speech. It has been found that several further levels of interpretation that are complementary co-exist within the source text.
The narrative of the Qur’an is both simple and complex, rich and multidimensional, and must be thoroughly and carefully reviewed.
In verse 44 of chapter 41, it says:
وَلَوْ جَعَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا أَعْجَمِيًّا لَقَالُوا لَوْلَا فُصِّلَتْ آيَاتُهُ أَأَعْجَمِيٌّ وَعَرَبِيٌّ قُلْ هُوَ لِلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا هُدًى وَشِفَاءٌ وَالَّذِينَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ فِي آذَانِهِمْ وَقْرٌ وَهُوَ عَلَيْهِمْ عَمًى أُولَئِكَ يُنَادَوْنَ مِنْ مَكَانٍ بَعِيدٍ۬
And if We had Formed it encoder (encrypted) Qur’an, they would assuredly have said: ‘If we had detailed its signs (verses); is it encoder and frank (Arabic)?
Say, ‘It is guidance and healing for those who assured (believed),’ and those who do not assure (not believe), in their ears a heaviness, and it is upon them a blindness; those are being called from a distant situation
For the most part, what explains the translator’s predicament in relaying the text of the Qur’an word for word and in the most rigorous way, is the systematic, quasi-automatic use of many of these translators to exegetes, and the interpretation of their comments, which lack legitimacy other than to be institutionalised by traditionalism, and which are relative to “socio-theologism” much more than to linguistics.
It may be worth mentioning here that the extremists among the traditionalists consider it unlawful to translate the Qur’an literally, letter by letter.
They argue that this would pose a risk that would lead to the sacralization of the translated text and to the detriment of the original Arabic text, which would subsequently be abandoned.
You may say to me that’s ridiculous. I agree, but it is with this kind of pretence – and I am not saying argument – that they justify their opinion.
In the same vein, and to prevent any possible dispute, the words “translation of the meaning of its verses” is generally included at the beginning of the editions of translations of the Qur’an.
“Translation of the meaning of its verses” translates to “approximate and general translation”. At least it is honest. It is true that these are in no way accurate translations of its verses.
They should even say in a fairer, more accurate and honest way: “translation of the meaning of its verses, in accordance with ideological traditionalism”.
I have already explained what I mean by primexplanation: understanding the essence and the original meaning of the speech, even if it only contains one word.
So, when you have lost and/or forgotten the primexplanation of a text, how can you translate what you only partly or falsely understand, or only understand through others? The Qur’an is unequivocal, but it must be understood correctly.
I myself do not claim to have achieved methodological perfection, and I have even been contemplating revisiting many of my translations.
I am confident that it would take several lifetimes and becoming an expert across several disciplines to be able to translate the entire Qur’an correctly and accurately by myself.
Only a broader, objective and scientifically qualified commission could envisage achieving such a feat.
This is not yet the case, since no commission at such a demanding and high level has ever been formed thus far.
I have therefore endeavoured to translate the verses that I have quoted in my works, by undertaking multidisciplinary research and a lexical-semantic analysis of Quranic Arabic, in search for the closest conformity from French to Arabic.
Even if it is contrary to what is used in the French language:
1 – I have adapted the standard Arabic rules of sentence structure to the structure of the verses.
2 – I have almost always respected the verbs tenses.
3 – I have applied the Quranic usage which allows the passage to change from singular to plural, in some cases.
In my opinion, these deviations from the grammatical rules of the French language lead to greater accuracy and new accessibility to the original text, while hardly compromising the comprehension of the translation.
Advanced research, which involves looking at the semantics of words from the 6th and 7th centuries from a mathematical approach, has sometimes helped find the forgotten meaning of certain words.
They have been forgotten because they are widely used which, over time and frequently in language, restricts the meaning of words and, conversely, broadens the meaning; that is why etymology is important.
A much deeper understanding of certain verses has thus been made possible. This understanding results from the initial idea of retransmitting the original meaning of each word in the verses into French as accurately as possible.
As I have previously mentioned, even if no translation can claim to perfectly replicate the source language, the difference that comes from my analytical reading of the Qur’an will not escape the polyglot reader or listener.
This is because time and time again they will have the feeling that they follow – at least partly – the Arabic text of the Qur’an word for word.
The Qur’an is full of words and expressions that are unique to it and transcend the Arabic language. These are just some of the characteristics that make it so unique and give it a rhythmic, phenomenal and unparalleled style.
This originality of expression is naturally reflected in my translation into French; once again, this is down to my determination to translate the source text as accurately as possible.
In this work, I have employed Old, Classical and Modern French. In exceptional cases, I have also employed neology but each time I have deemed it necessary.
The result of this set of processes that I have used gives the French-speaking reader and listener a completely new approach to the Qur’an.
It therefore gives rise to a new way of thinking, which is responsive to the translation, and is more accurate and more expressive than what was previously accessible to them through custom translations; of course, sometimes it requires some thought.
This work will also prove to be significantly useful to a multilingual specialist; it will help them to assess the undue influence of centuries of traditionalist exegesis.
This will be even more evident to them when studying the Arabic words used in the Quranic text, with a thorough linguistic, semantic and etymological analysis, including Hamito-Semitic languages – and not just Arabic from the 8th, 7th, or even the 6th century.
Having said that, because of this continued intention to carefully and accurately analyse the texts, the translation sometimes had to be done at the cost of syntax and literary expression; I cannot dispute that.
This has made it more difficult to understand certain verses, at least at first glance.
It is then just a matter of reviewing and observing the structure, articulation and punctuation of the sentence, and making the link with what precedes and/or what follows.
When it was necessary, I preferred to Arabise the French, and not the other way around, in order to immerse the French-speaking reader or listener into the heart of the Quranic language, so that they could be in touch with the apparent and hidden meaning of the verse.
My primary focus was to not only translate the wording conveyed by the verse, but also its content on a deeper level and its multiple levels of understanding.
In other words, it is not a literary translation, but a technical translation from the source language into the target language, the purpose of which is to personify the best possible correlation between Quranic Arabic and French.
To conclude, I would highly recommend for students and researchers studying my translations to consult Old and Modern French language dictionaries, relating to etymology, lexicography and synonymy. The CNRTL (National Center for Textual and Lexical Resources) seems a good tool for this work.
I also recommend that polyglots consult the ancient Arabic language dictionaries, معجم العين ولسان العرب. These, among others.
I would like to point out that an Arabic speaker specialising in linguistics, exegesis or any other discipline related to the study of the Qur’an, cannot broaden their knowledge and understanding of the subject without taking a real critical and honest look at their reference sources.
What is true for the Arabic speaker is even more true for those who do not know the language of Revelation of the Qur’an. In this instance, the French speaker, whose references, or almost all of them, on the subject of the Qur’an and Islam, are those that they take from traditionalist popularisation and/or from the preconceived ideas conveyed by viscerally Islamophobic pseudo-specialists.
This is what I can say about the translation of the Qur’an, at least at this stage of my essay.
I will now go over some examples with you to demonstrate and argue my point:
1 – In Arabic, the word “aΣraba” / أعرب, from the root Σ-R-B / ع ر ب, means “speaking openly, clearly, frankly”.
Meanwhile, the word “aΣjami” / أعجمي, from the root Σ-J-M / ع ج م, means “speaking unintelligibly, hermetically, in code”.
عربي / “Σarabi” / “clear, frank” is thus the antonym of أعجمي / “aΣjami” / “hermetic, coded”.
In other words, “Σarabi” / عربي  denotes a clear and frank expression, language or discourse, whilst “aΣjami” / أعجمي denotes a hermetic and coded expression, language or discourse, which must be clarified in order to be understood.
The Qur’an was revealed in Arabic; i.e. in frank language; in this case, the language is not intrinsically linked to an ethnic group.
On this matter precisely, there is a semantic equivalence between the terms إعراب / “iΣrāb” / “Arabic” and “frank”; one of whose common meanings is “who speaks openly, without artifice or reluctance”.
You will therefore understand that this meaning is the same for denoting the French language or the Arabic language.
2 – In Arabic, the words “world” and “scholar” /عالم وعالم / “Σālam” and “Σālim” have the same root (Σ-L-M / ع ل م), from which the word “Σilm” / علم is first derived, meaning “science, knowledge, understanding”.
The world is closely linked to knowledge, to the objective understanding we have of it; it only exists through this vital information.
The real world can only be understood through scientific knowledge – any way-out is subjective; this results in myths and legends, synonyms of fetishism and superstition.
It was in this way that, apart from a few exceptions, the Ancients speculatively devised fabulous and imaginary worlds in the past, with no true scientific basis.
Nevertheless, they had this specifically intelligent awareness that the world has a meaning and a “raison d’être”.
This intellect awareness was amplified by an innate and acquired level of self-awareness and of the outside world.
This level of awareness is unique to humans, at least to our knowledge.
This is the state of affairs at the origin of scientific research and the results thereof that we observe nowadays and every day.
3 – Etymologically, in the Arabic language, Islam / “al-islām” / الإسلام, from the root S-L-M / س ل م from which the word “silm” / سلم / “peace” is first derived, means “Pacification”: the action of pacifying, establishing, re-establishing and maintaining peace; fully and completely surrendering to God through peace.
Islam is the activation of peace “al-silm”, “al-salām” / السّلم السّلام: he who surrenders to God gets pacified / “yuslim” / يسلم, he banishes troubles from his mind, the rebellious streaks within him and around him; he is pacified, Muslim / “muslim” / مسلم, and a pacifist / “mussālim” / مسالم.
He yearns for peace, safety and tranquillity; he is not in favour or involved in troubles and rebellion; as a result, he acquires a peaceful / “salīm” / سليم, healthy and saintly heart, at peace with God and His Creation.
4 – In Arabic, the word “religion” / “dīn” / دين  expresses the sense of approximation, obligation, duty and debt; in this case, it refers to the creance owed to God; therefore, I translate “religion” as the “creance.”
5 – In Arabic, the words “assurance” and “faith” / “amn” and “īmān” /أمن وإيمان  have the same root (A-M-N / أ م ن ), from which the word “amn” / أمن is first derived, meaning: “assurance, safety, security”.
In the Quranic language, faith is acquired through knowledge, by making sure and assuring; it is far more than a vague and relative belief.
Rationally, God Is Evident, one can only testify this; and this testimony must be made with full knowledge of the facts, with full science and consciousness.
The “believer”, which I translate as the “assurer”, makes sure and secures himself, by educating himself about the Fact of God; this is how he becomes secure and securing, assured and assuring, “mu’min”مؤمن.
6 – In Arabic, the word “al-ṣalā” / الصّلا   refers to the middle of the back or the small of the back, or the area between the buttock and the tail (which is residual in certain species), or what is to the right and left of this tail.
In horse-racing, the word “al-muṣallī” / المصلّي, which has the same root, is used to refer to the runner-up whose head meets and follows closely behind the middle of the winner.
Again, with the same root, the word “al-ṣalāt” / الصّلاة  means the action of articulating by jointing, of tightly assembling the following element, or event, to the middle of the other; in this way we accomplish prayer.
It was by jointing that Abraham built the foundations of the Building of God. In Mecca, we joint around the Kaaba and between the “al-ṣafā” and “al-marwah” hills.
And Muslims articulate addressed (standing position), bent over (reclining position) and bowed down: positioning, phase and phrase, one after the other, one stemming from the other. This is the “prayer”, which I translate as the “jointing”.
7 – The word “mosque” comes from the Spanish “mezquita”, according to the pronunciation of the Arabic word “masjid”, from the root S-J-D / س ج د, from which the word “sajd” / سجد is derived meaning “to bow down”.
In Arabic, “al-masjid” / المسجد  refers to “the position, the location in which one bows down”.
I therefore translate it as the “prosternat” in French, rather than “mosque”, which hides the original meaning of the word to non-Arabic speakers.
8 – In Arabic, the word “al-zakāt” / الزّكاة  refers to everything that is growing, is purified and purifies by its development; it also refers to the momentum of returning part of any asset acquired to the beneficiaries and/or those who need it. This is the sacred tax, which I translate as the epuratory.
9 – Etymologically, the first meaning of the word “ḥajj” / حج / “pilgrimage” is “argumentation”, in the sense of a sequence of arguments leading to a given conclusion.
This word is also used in the sense of “destination”, namely the reason why a person or a thing is made and, by extension, the place where one should go, hence the meaning of “pilgrimage” too.
These two meanings of the word “ḥajj”, pilgrimage and/or argumentation, both give the same sense of an action oriented towards an end.
Depending on the context of the verse, I translated this word with one and/or the other term.
10 – In Arabic, the words “injustice” and “obscurity” / “ẓulm” and “ẓulmah” or “ẓalām” /ظلم وظلمة أوظلام  have the same root (Ẓ-L-M / ظ  ل  م), from which the word “ẓulm” ظلم is derived meaning “injustice”.
An inherent logic in the Arabic language explains the link between injustice and obscurity: in the darkness we act without correctness, we operate blindly, we take and move things incorrectly, we deviate, we stray and lead others astray; we are unjust, we assess and act unjustly.
In light of these facts, you will understand that I use these terms for my own good and for good. In light of the facts that I have mentioned about the lack of accuracy in obscurity.
We can say and argue that the unjust is obscurantist and obscuring, and conversely, the obscurantist, obscuring, is unjust: الظّالم ظلاميّ والظّلاميّ ظالم.
And in the same way, we can argue and say that he who suffers injustice is obscure and obscured:  المظلوم مُظۡلِم.
I would like to point out that in both Bukhari’s and Muslim’s collections, we read a ḥadīth attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which confirms and reinforces the principle of a relationship between injustice, obscurity and obscurantism:
“… الظُّلْمَ ظُلُماتٌ يومَ القيامةِ …”
This passage is usually translated as:
“… Injustice (الظُّلْمَ  / al-ẓulm) is darkness ( ظُلُماتٌ/ ẓulumāt) on the Day of the Straightening…”.
Therefore, I occasionally, but intentionally translate the word “unjust” as “obscurantist”. In verse 16 of chapter 13, it says:
”… قُلْ هَلْ يَسْتَوِي الْأَعْمَى وَالْبَصِيرُ أَمْ هَلْ تَسْتَوِي الظُّلُمَاتُ وَالنُّورُ…“
“ … Say: “Can the blind and the seeing be adjusted? Or can darkness and light be adjusted?…”
I would like to stress here that, contrary to Quranic Arabic, the term “obscurantism” has only existed in the French language since the 19th century, precisely since 1819, to mean hostility to the Enlightenment.
11 – In Arabic, the word “by” / “bi” / ب, as in بسم الله / “In The Name of God, By The Name of God”, is a particle that can be understood as a prefix, but also as a preposition, adverb or prepositional locution.
It expresses, in a variable or complementary way, the meanings of: “with, in, because of, thanks to, by means of, through, etc.”
In the Qur’an, there is a considerable expressive significance of the particle “bi” / ب , therefore I have not allowed myself to overlook or disregard it.
Consequently, I regularly translate it as “by”; the variability, or complementarity of its meanings can be inferred from the context of its use.
I would like to conclude this conference by drawing your attention to a curiosity between Arabic and French about certain words; for example:
1 – The word “al-jannah” / الجنّة / “paradise”, “garden”; in fact, the word “genesis” which means: birth, formation, generation. In the Bible and the Qur’an, the history of humanity begins in a garden.
2 – The word “jahannam” /جهنّم  / “gehenna”, which means: abyss, hell, torment.
3 – The word “al-jān” / الجان / “the jinn”; in fact, the “gene” which etymologically means: race, type, species.
4 – The word “ajinnah” / أجنّة / “embryo”; in fact, the “genotype” which means: genetic makeup.
5 – The word “al-jinnah” / الجنّة / in the plural “intruding jinns”; in fact, the transgenesis which means: insertion of genes.
6 – The word “majnūn” / مجنون / “one possessed”; in fact, transgenic which means: genetically modified.
All these words, including others I have mentioned today, share the concept of being hidden from the ordinary.
In verse 85 of chapter 17, it says:
وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الرُّوحِ قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّي وَمَا أُوتِيتُمْ مِنَ الْعِلْمِ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا
And they ask you about the spirit, say: “The Spirit is of the Command of My Lord”; and in no way have you been Brought of knowledge except a little
Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds.
والحمد لله رب العالمين

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