The dangers of translation

« previous post | next post »

Most translators only have to worry about being criticized for errors, but in Afghanistan the mere act of translation can get you twenty years in prison. An appellate court has upheld 20 year prison sentences for Ahmad Ghaws Zalmai, who translated the Qur’an into Dari, one of the two major languages of Afghanistan, and Mushtaq Ahmad, a cleric who endorsed Zalmai’s translation. It appears that no errors have been found in Zalmai’s translation: the objection of Muslim clerics is that the Dari translation does not appear alongside the original Arabic text. The prosecutor had asked for the death penalty. Although the court did not impose the death penalty, Chief Judge Abdul Salam Azizadah agreed that it might be appropriate.

Lucky for Zalmai and Ahmad that Afghanistan now has a democratic government controlled by moderate Muslims rather than the Taliban and other members of the tiny minority of intolerant extremists, hunh?



32 Comments

  1. Rubrick said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    And people wonder why Richard Dawkins gets so worked up. Feh.

  2. jfruh said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

    From a linguistic point of view, Islam is interesting in that it is (as far as I know) the only religion that claims its sacred text was directly transmitted from God in a human language (Classical Arabic, in this case). Thus the myriad issues involved in translation of same. The taboo or difficulty is much stronger than among, say, Christians or Jews. (There is the counterexample of the King James Only movement, though I’ve heard people in that movement claim to be misunderstood.)

    Not to engage too much with what I assume to be the polemical thrust of this post, but I would add that the baseline for “moderate” in Afghanistan is extremely low. There are plenty of Muslims who would not wish to see you jailed or put to death for translating the Qur’an, but they would almost universally agree that the result of said translation was not, in fact, the Qur’an.

  3. John Cowan said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    Most translations seem to be labeled something like “The Meaning of the Quran”.

  4. Karen said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    Surely the translator can’t be held accountable for the publisher’s decision not to include the Arabic?

    Oh, wait. Religion. Never mind.

  5. Amy Stoller said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

    Plus ça chanɡe, plus cʼest la meme chose. Tyndale was burned at the stake.

  6. dw said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

    From a linguistic point of view, Islam is interesting in that it is (as far as I know) the only religion that claims its sacred text was directly transmitted from God in a human language (Classical Arabic, in this case). Thus the myriad issues involved in translation of same. The taboo or difficulty is much stronger than among, say, Christians or Jews. (There is the counterexample of the King James Only movement, though I’ve heard people in that move claim to be misunderstood.)

    It’s not exactly the same thing, but the Hindu Brahmins claimed that the Gods would only listen to prayers that were pronounced correctly in Sanskrit, and that they (the Brahmins) were the only ones able to achieve the correct pronunciation.

  7. Stephen said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

    From what I understand, “translations” of the Qur’an are called something like “The Meaning of the Qur’an” or “An Interpretation of the Qur’an” because Muslims believe that only the Arabic text is the Qur’an itself. Anything else is no longer the Qur’an, but an interpretation of it or a commentary on it. Hence the importance of printing the Arabic alongside the Dari “translation” of it.

  8. Bill Poser said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

    @jfruh,

    It is true that Afghanistan falls at the less moderate end of the spectrum of Muslim countries. At the same time, this incident illustrates that such mind-numbing intolerance is not a property of a tiny minority. Moreover, even those who would not themselves go to such extremes will tolerate it. I’m still waiting for such institutions as the Organization of Islamic Countries or al-Azhar University to denounce this decision as contrary to Islam. The problem with Islam is that to a large extent the “extremists” are not deviant in their views, only in their rigor. The “moderates” are hard put to counter “extreme” positions because it is usually the “extremists” who have the better of the argument as to what is the true Islamic position.

    @Amy Stoller,

    While it is true that the Catholic church of the time was not keen on translation of the Bible into the vernacular, preferring to have the clergy interpret religion for the masses, Tyndale was executed for his Lutheranism, not for translating the Bible.

  9. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

    Hey, they are moderate. They didn’t get the death penalty, after all.

  10. anathema said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

    This is eerily like the De heretico comburendo, with the major difference that English Christianity eventually realized the benefits of allowing sacred texts to be translated and stopped burning people at the stake who did so.

  11. CarrerCrytharis said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 12:17 am

    @DW: That depends. Some of the gods in our mythology gave their blessings over completely accidental worship. (Accidentally kicking flowers onto a shrine while climbing a tree, and such.) There’s a lot of variety in Hinduism.

  12. SDT said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 12:23 am

    @Bill Poser

    The problem with Islam is that to a large extent the “extremists” are not deviant in their views, only in their rigor. The “moderates” are hard put to counter “extreme” positions because it is usually the “extremists” who have the better of the argument as to what is the true Islamic position.

    That’s a horribly bigoted generalization. Afghanistan is not the entire Muslim world.
    Incidentally, the Guardian article that you link to says that the defendants will appeal to the supreme court. It’s a shocking story, but it may not be the end of the story.

  13. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:29 am

    My Penguin edition of The Koran (spelt that way) simply claims to be a translation (into English) with no Arabic in sight, or reference to it being about “the Meaning” of the book. The back cover blurb says the translator (NJ Dawood) was even “altering the traditional arrangement to increase the understanding and pleasure for the uninitiated,” including, apparently, removing too wordy or repetitive bits. I don’t recall any great controversy about that sort of thing, or sites like http://www.islam.tc/quran/ which translate into English without Arabic alongside. Maybe this is a more regional-specific issue.

    @ Bill Poser – This website claims that the “saintly” Thomas More ruthlessly persecuted Tyndale specifically for his translation work (which presumably was the key manifestation of his heresy) – though as you’ll see the site is not exactly even-handed in tone (“More’s one all consuming passion was to add Tyndale’s name to his list of burn victims….To accomplish this he spared not his money nor his time….His network of paid informers and spies were everywhere”).

    I do remember seeing a TV documentary or drama-doc that I can’t now google up which had some shockingly un-saintly lines from More about Tyndale; it argued that getting Tyndale killed was top of his list of priorities even while he was himself in political hot water (and in fact, More was executed first).

    More is generally thought these days, I suppose, to be saintly, scholarly, a humanist, a principled man of conscience unfairly despatched by the murderous tyrant Henry VIII – but for anyone on the wrong end of him in his pomp, he would have been like the Taliban or an Afghan prosecutor.

  14. Stephen Jones said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    They give out translations of the Qura’an in English and other languages in Saudi Arabia, without the Arabic, though most people would agree that it would be better to have both the Arabic original and the translation together.

    There’s something we’re not being told here.

  15. Amy Stoller said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Re Tyndale: True enough as far as it goes, but wasn’t his translation of the Bible banned? (And then, ah irony, most of it preserved in the KJV?) There may be differences in detail between what sets off Christian oppression and what sets off Muslim oppression, but both are oppression, imprisonment is imprisonment, and death is death. Henry VIII “reformed” the Church in England, thus establishing the Church of England, and then didn’t like it when somebody else did the same.

    But okay, Wyclif, then, if you don’t like Tyndale. I still say plus ça chanɡe. Western Christian culture has nothing to be proud of in this respect, since those in positions of power regularly murdered those whose translations of the Bible they didn’t like. I find these prison sentences horrifying, but I think it important to acknowledge that we live in a glass house.

  16. Amy Stoller said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 11:50 am

    Clarification: I meant that Henry VIII’s reformation of the Church was the only authorized one, and the King had Tyndale executed for daring to suggest other reformations. I’ll stop now before I make things any worse!

  17. Stephen Jones said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    The BBC says the book was translated into Persian and that it was accused of having many mistakes. The BBC also said Dalwai didn’t do the translation which was carried out by some Iranian living in the States

  18. Lameen said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

    First, Zalmai didn’t make the translation, he got it reprinted. The translator was the US resident Qudratullah Bakhtiarinejad.

    Second, the translation is certainly alleged to contain errors (the BBC even implies that Zalmai agrees: “Zalmai… said he did not know the translation contained mistakes”). However, I’ve found one article, from IWPR (about halfway down), which quotes one of the poor man’s critics, very illuminating. Dr. Zarifi gives as examples of “errors” the fact that “the translation does not mention… stoning as a punishment for adultery. “This [omission] is clearly wrong,” he said”, even though the text of the Qur’an indisputably does not mention stoning as punishment for adultery either. He also complains that “the prophets… do not receive the respect due to them in the translated text” – obviously referring to the lack of the standard formula “peace be upon them” after each mention of their names, which is not found in the Arabic text of the Qur’an either! If this is the worst he can come up with, either the translation is accurate or the critics aren’t interested in checking it.

    Third, two separate quotes in the article (one from Maulavi Mohammad Siddiq Muslim, one from Dr. Zarifi) show that they’re not objecting to making a translation of the Qur’an without the Arabic text per se, but rather to titling such a book “the Qur’an”.

    So why are they deploying all this heavy-handed persecution and evasive rhetoric? Well, note the source of the translation. This translation comes from efarsi.org – which belongs to the so-called Quran-Alone movement, a small modern sect urging that Islam should be based exclusively on the Qur’an with no input from Hadith, tradition, etc. This sect is commonly regarded as extremely heretical (indeed, as outside the pale of Islam); they probably came down so hard on them so as to stamp out what looked like a proselytising effort by that group, and used absurd criticisms like these so as not to have to actually mention the Quran-Alone movement in case Afghans might get curious about it.

    On a slightly different note: I have sitting in my house a translation of (the meaning of) the Quran into Berber without the Arabic text, made and printed in Morocco. Its publication was accompanied by mild controversy (more to do with the choice of language than with publishing it without the original Arabic, which the translator justifies on the basis of financial limitations), but oddly enough, no one got killed, wounded, jailed, excommunicated, or anything else over it. I also have several into English without the Arabic text. It’s terrible that this is going on in Afghanistan, but let’s be clear: this particular issue is (or has been made) an issue in Afghanistan, not in Muslim countries in general.

  19. dr pepper said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:04 pm

    Hmm, “Koran Only”? That’s the problem with fundamentalism, there’s always someone more fundamentalist than you.

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

    Thank you for all the details Lameen.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

    Anathema, another difference with De heretico comburendo (based on the article you link) is that De heretico comburendo did not ban all translations, it banned (apparently) new translations. Yeah, that article doesn’t say that, but it does say that translations from the Latin Vulgate were considered heretical, implying that the Latin Vulgate was the standard version. The Latin Vulgate is a translation. The books of the Bible were written in various languages, Latin not amoung them. (The New Testament was written in Greek.)

  22. Stephen Jones said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

    If the Duri or the Farsi translation is the same as the English version we see on the ‘Quran-Online’ web site then indeed there are problems.

    First the founder of the sect, an Egyptian-American scientist, who was murdered in Tucson in 1990, claimed to be the last messenger of God mentioned in the Quran.

    Secondly the version contains commentaries and footnotes by Rashad himself. As Rashad states in some of them that those following the Hadith and the Sunna are doing so because they’ve been duped by Satan, it is going to get people’s backs up a bit.

  23. Ellen K. said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

    Stephen Jones, can you clarify what you mean by “the same as”. The obvious meaning, that it’s the same translation, can’t be correct. So, the same in what way?

  24. Stephen Jones said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

    What I mean by ‘the same as’ is that it includes Khalifa’s appendices and commentary and the fact that he’s taken two verses out of the Quran because they interfered with his numerological proof that he was the latest messenger of God.

    What’s not at all clear is even whether the Farsi was a translation of the Arabic original or of Khalifa’s English version.

  25. Stephen Jones said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

    What are in the Farsi are the same headings Khalifa had put in his English translation that are not in the Koran at all that I can tell.

  26. mollymooly said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 8:53 am

    As early as 1631, the punishment for The Wicked Bible was only £300.

  27. Aaron Davies said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 9:19 am

    @Amy Stoller: “we” don’t live in glass houses. henry viii and thomas more aren’t condemning crazed Afghanis, the modern world is. i fail to see how our misbehavior four hundred years ago bears on it at all.

  28. Berck said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    From a linguistic point of view, Islam is interesting in that it is (as far as I know) the only religion that claims its sacred text was directly transmitted from God in a human language (Classical Arabic, in this case). Thus the myriad issues involved in translation of same. The taboo or difficulty is much stronger than among, say, Christians or Jews.

    Nope, Judaism claim that the Torah was given to Moses in Hebrew, word for word. Furthermore, the Jews hold that God was speaking in Hebrew when he created the world. Jews do not, however, execute people for translating the bible.

  29. Ellen K. said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

    Perhaps some Jews believe that, but what I’ve seen is Moses considered to be the author of the Torah. Muslims would not call Muhammed the author of the Qur’an.

  30. Forrest said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 11:27 pm

    In related news, almost a year ago, the Times Online reported that Pope Benedict had plans to restore the Latin mass. I don’t know of anyone being sentenced to jail or death in 1970, but, to me, the question is why anyone would want to keep the details of the faith they’re trying to spread hidden?

  31. David Marjanović said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

    the Times Online reported that Pope Benedict had plans to restore the Latin mass.

    The Latin mass (complete with the liturgy approved by the Council of Trento in the 16th century) is now allowed again, having been outright banned by the 2nd Vatican Council. That’s all.

    why anyone would want to keep the details of the faith they’re trying to spread hidden?

    It used to be Catholic tradition that it’s best not to read the Bible by yourself, but to have it interpreted by someone competent, lest you misunderstand some part of the complicated text (let’s not say “self-contradictory”, that’s such an unpleasant word…) and start a heresy or even deconvert to atheism. A few hundred years ago, peasants who read the Bible were beheaded.

  32. Aaron Davies said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    it’d be a little hard for moses to have written the whole torah, given that it includes his obit. the traditional story of the composition is a little more complicated than that. that said, i read an interesting article in a jewish newspaper last year sometime comparing the attitudes of the three “peoples of the book” to their books’ languages: for muslims, the koran is inherently in arabic (and to some extent, arabic is inherently the koran). for christians, language is irrelevant (except as far as it poses ordinary translation issues). for jews, it’s somewhere in between–preserving and reading the hebrew text is inherently a good thing, but the truth of the text is not contained in its precise words. (well, except for kabbalah…)

    of course the funny thing is that apparently some of the koran’s really in syriac…

RSS feed for comments on this post