This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

The Koran in translation

The first thing to be said about the Koran, which can be said of any scripture but is perhaps exemplified here, is that content and container are inseparable: its lyrical style, which is not an accessory but is essential to its meaning and the reason for its explosive power, cannot be conveyed in translation. The word ‘koran’ itself means ‘recitation’ and the command given to the Prophet was to ‘recite’, and so we must realize that the Koran was first and foremost vocally expressed.

This is why Muslims prefer to teach the language in order to provide access to the text, rather than translating their book into any and every tongue. And when translations do proliferate, disappointment follows. The stark contrast in response between Western readers of English translations of the Koran and that of the Arabs who heard it and still hear it in the original cannot simply be dismissed as a matter of taste but must be acknowledged as evidence that the language matters and that, to use our earlier way of putting it, the content cannot be removed from the original container (Arabic) and placed in another (English) without being disfigured. Or to use a different analogy, if the message is like a seed, it is one native to Arabic soil and can only really be seen by situating oneself in that context: if instead we try to transplant the message into English, no fruit is produced, because the seed cannot germinate.

Translation destroys scripture due to the fact that scripture is crystalized revelation, and it occurs by necessity in one language and not another, and once it occurs, it is set: it cannot be dissolved and then re-crystalized in another tongue.

There are still more difficulties, however, that are faced when we approach the Koran from without. Language is one of them, as was said above, but mentality is still another. Suffice it to say that just as scripture is revealed in a certain language for a reason, this reason is that language is the vehicle of a certain human type. Vocabularies are not equivalent, and one cannot really learn a language without also being enculturated. Certainly it is possible to memorize the mechanics of a tongue to the extent that you can ‘communicate’ in the street with locals and order food in a restaurant, but that is not the same thing. This is what we mean when we say someone is ‘speaking my language’ in the sense of a meeting of minds, and minds cannot meet unless they are able to identify with one another. We have pressed this point elsewhere, so won’t press it again here.

Lastly, the style of the Koran is unique in such a way that even if linguistic and mental barriers are overcome, it must not be approached in the way one would approach other scriptures, Hindu or Christian. It comes off as incoherent, as if the ‘plan of the work’ were never really set down ahead of time. Those most familiar with the Christian scriptures are familiar with a presentation that is first and foremost historical: the Old Testament is an account of a people, and is rarely doctrinal in a direct sense. We typically draw doctrine from the Old Testament by observation and by surmising the lesson from the narrative. This is somewhat true of the Gospels as well, which offer ‘first hand accounts’ of Christ’s life. They present his teachings, sure enough, but through the eyes of witnesses. We say that it is ‘the Word of God’ but if so, it is the Word of God speaking in the third person about himself.

When we come to the Koran we are thrown offguard because not only does it deal with historical and narrative details very loosely, but it spends much of its time in direct doctrinal mode. Moreover, when Muslims claim that the Koran is ‘the Word of God’, it is a bit more obvious via the style: the Koran is presented as God Himself speaking in the first person.

Everything that has been said regarding the difficulties faced by outsiders when they approach the Koran is true in the opposite direction, and we would expect Muslims to offer corresponding complaints about the Old and New Testaments: they do not take the form of God speaking directly, they dwell on insignificant historical details, etc.

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