The Corner

New Koran Translation

One of my great (but definitely amateur) interests is the field of English Bible translation. Since the days of King James, we English-speakers have been very well served by the efforts of ministers and scholars to render God’s Word in a manner that’s both faithful to the original and understandable to readers; the period since 1950 has been especially fruitful in this regard. In this era of our fateful, global confrontation with radical Islam, it’s important that the Koran, too, be available in contemporary translations that give the reader an accurate picture of what it says — the ugly, hateful material as well as the spiritually uplifting material. On my morning commute today, I was able to read the first 24 pages of Tarif Khalidi’s translation, just out in paperback from Penguin; and, so far, it certainly works better as English than do some other popular translations. From 2:177:

Virtue does not demand of you to turn your faces eastwards or westwards. Virtue rather is:

He who believes in God, the Last Day, the Angels, the Book and the prophets;

Who dispenses money, though dear, to kinsmen, orphans, the needy, the traveller, beggars and for ransom;

Who performs the prayer and pays the alms;

Who fulfil their contracts when they contract;

Who are steadfast in hardship, calamity and danger;

These are the true believers.

These are truly pious.

That’s a pretty good summary of mainstream monotheistic thought and theistic ethics, and, while I myself would have tinkered with it a little more, it certainly reads as very clear contemporary English. Compare some of the wording of the same passage in one of the most popular earlier translations, that of Abdullah Yusuf Ali:

It is not righteousness

That ye turn your faces

Towards East or West;

But it is righteousness –

To believe in Allah . . .

Such are the people

Of truth, the God-fearing.

“It is not righteousness” and “the people of truth” are in that special form of English diction some of us call “Biblish.” A native English speaker today would not typically have phrased those thoughts in that manner; he or she would have said something closer to Khalidi’s rendering.

A couple of paragraphs down, in 2:178 (Khalidi version), there is an admonition highly applicable to our situation of the past decade: “The prospect of retaliation saves lives, O you who are possessed of minds.” Over the eight years that have passed since 9/11, the U.S. has waged vigorous military combat against Islamic extremists; it is surely no coincidence that there has not been another 9/11. Every measure we take — within the limits of divine and human moral law — to strike back at the terrorists gives the terrorists a healthy prospect of retaliation, and thus it does, indeed, save lives. And that’s not all: By weakening the Muslim fanatics motivated by hatred, it strengthens those Muslims who work and pray for a better Islam, an Islam devoted to the ideals of 2:177 that I quoted above.