Many today ask which is the best English translation of the Quran. The answer will arguably vary according to taste. Whilst some prefer Pickthal’s archaic style, a style reminiscent of the King James Bible, others prefer more modern versions with a language that they can relate to, such as M.A.S Abdel Haleem’s translation of the Quran that we vividly recommend for its accuracy and idiomaticity, or the Sahih International Translation. Whilst we do not claim that our opinion is to be taken as Gospel, we recommend the reader to check different translations of the Quran, many of which are freely available online click here, and see which translation they prefer.
Whilst we do not belittle the magnanimous contributions of different translators of the Quran, we consider M.A.S Abdel Haleem’s translation to be the best of them all. In order to back our claim, this post will comment on three translation choices of verses of surat al-Fatiha by three prominent translators of the Quran including M.A.S Abdel Haleem, Marmeduke Pickthal, and Muhamed Asad.
Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthal:
Unlike Professor M.A.S Abdul Haleem who renders ‘Allah’ (basmallah, verse 1) as ‘God’, Pickthal keeps the name unchanged. It is the writer’s opinion that ‘God’ gives the target text a more universal connotation. Indeed, even in the pre-Islamic days, Allah is the name the Arabs used whenever referring to God (even the polytheists amongst them e.g. quran 39:38). For the target readers, the non-Muslims in particular, the term ‘Allah’ might resonate as foreign. Conversely the dynamic equivalent ‘God’ fulfils a similar function as that implies in the source text. Pickthal in this instance disregards the function of the text and opts for a formal equivalent. It is the belief of the writer that just as the source text addresses the original recipients in terms that are familiar to them, so should the translator take into account the target reader and render the text in a manner that s/he can relate to.
Considering that the word ‘beneficent’ is defined as “someone generous or doing good” (Oxforddictionaries.com), Pickthals’s rendering of the word Al-Rahman does not totally reflect what is intended in the source text. Conversely Abdel Haleem’s rendering of the word is more reflective of what is implied in the source text. The latter translated the word Al-Rahman as “The Lord of Mercy”. Al-Rahman’s Arabic root word is ‘r-h-m’, meaning ‘mercy’ (Abdel Haleem 2011: 16). The word ‘rahim’, meaning ‘womb’ derives from the same root word as Abdul Haleem states (2011: 16). Furthermore, Abdul Haleem supports his claim with a hadith Qudsi in which God Himself affirms that He has created the womb and given it the name ‘rahim’, a name that He derived from one of his own names and attributes (2011:16).
In addition, pickthal rendered the attribute Al-Rahim as ‘The Merciful’. Although the rendering reflects much of what is implied in the source text, pickthal in this instance deprives the target reader of a morphological pattern existing in the source text i.e. two adjectives or attributes sharing the same root word. Indeed, ‘the Beneficent, the Merciful’, despite their subtle semantic difference do not share the same root word as is the case in the original Arabic text. Certainly Abdul Haleem’s rendering of the two attributes Al-Rahman Al-Rahim as ‘the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy’ is more accurate and faithfully conveys what is implied in the source text (optimally).
Pickthal’s 1930 translation of the Qur’an is a manuscript that many peruse over and praise. Nevertheless, language keeps evolving and to move in time as well as in space, old texts need ‘updating’ as language within any given society changes and evolves. For instance, Pickthal renders verse 5 of Al-Fatiha as “Thee (alone) we worship; Thee (alone) we ask for help”. This archaic style of the use of the second pronoun is outdated and would today act as a barrier between a sizable amount of target readers and target text. To remediate this remoteness, idiomaticity is an element that should be taken into consideration. Abdul Haleem’s rendering perfectly achieves idiomaticity, although one may argue that ‘alone’ could have been added (although implied), even if in bracket. It must be noted that Abdul Haleem, as part of his translation strategy, avoids adding elements that might overburden the target reader.
An important element which isn’t in the source text is the addition of ‘Thine anger’ in verse 7. Indeed, the source text doesn’t mention God being angry in this particular verse, but rather uses the term ‘al maghdobi’ is a possessive construction and is broad. This mistranslation appears in many translation or interpretation of the Quran e.g. Shakir, Mohsin Khan, Pickthal…
Asad renders the second verse of Al-Fatiha as ‘All praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the Worlds. Looking at the emboldened word ‘alone’, one may ask oneself: if all praise is due to God, would there be any (praise) left for anyone else? Anyone agreeing with the statement that ‘all praise’ implies exclusivity would (arguably) agree that the word ‘alone’ is redundant. In addition, the word ‘alone’ doesn’t appear in the source text, and could have found a better place in brackets.
On the other hand, the latter part of Asad’s rendering of the second ayah could be considered as accurate. ‘The Sustainer’ reflects much what is implied in the word Rabb (everything being under the Lordship and care of God). Certainly, ‘All the worlds’ which is referring to all creatures, classified and in their categories could be considered as a faithful rendering.
Furthermore, Asad translates the third verse of Al-Fatiha as ‘the Most Gracious, the dispenser of Grace. In this he seems nearest to Abul Haleem’s rendering, the latter’s rendering still achieving greater idiomaticity.
Asad opts for the archaic ‘Thee’ in his rendering of the fifth verse of Al-Fatiha which, as stated above doesn’t achieve idiomaticity and is an element which could be perceived as foreign by the target reader.
In addition, Asad renders verse 6 of Al-Fatiha as ‘guide us the straight way’. Indeed the omission of the preposition ‘to’ could appears to the writer as most peculiar: ‘to’ is often used as a function word to indicate direction and in this case, the worshipper is invited to invoke His Lord and ask Him for guidance; indeed, one who asks for guidance does so when one has, (or fear s/he has) gone astray. The worshipper in this case seeks to be taken from a straying position to the right path. Therefore, the omission of the preposition ‘to’ deprives the target reader from this element of direction. (e.g. Quran 2:257)
Lastly, Asad in verse 7 of Al-Fatiha Asad uses the pronoun ‘Thou’(archaic form of you), its possessive form ‘Thy’ (your)and the pronoun ‘Thee’ (you). This indeed emphasises Asad’s reliability on archaism for impact on target audience.
We have endeavoured to give you a few examples showing why we deem M.A.S Abdel Haleem’s transition to be the best English translation available today. We would also like to vividly recommend the reader to read his Introduction to the Quran, an introduction that gives the reader better insignts as to the history of Islam, issues of interpretations, compilation of the Quran and so on.
To read different translations of the Quran online click here.
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