Translations are human efforts

Nicholas Harrison, a language expert at King’s College London, wrote in May 2014 in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature that even if translations may be accomplished literary works in their own right, the very notion of literature — or at least, one important notion of literature — is associated with untranslatability, or what is lost in translation.

The losses, it is argued, may be felt or imagined in various dimensions, and reach into the institutional foundations of the study of literature and of foreign languages.

If this is the situation when modern techniques and computerized translations are common, what was the situation centuries ago, when religious texts were translated from one language to another?

As the Quran is the most recent of all the religious scriptures of the world, it is the only one that is available today in its original language and text as it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad about 1,500 years ago. It was written down completely in the life of the Prophet.

Although the Arabic text of the Quran has been translated to hundreds and thousands of languages, because of the “loss in translation” phenomenon, all the translations are not technically “The Quran.” These are only meanings of the text of the Quran.

As the Quran is believed to have been revealed to the Unlettered Prophet by God through the archangel Gabriel, the Arabic text of the Quran is Divine, while all the translations are human efforts, which can not be Divine.

— Muhammad Haq, Anniston Islamic Center

Translation is a huge task

Every one of the great world religions has at least one sacred text. Naturally, the followers of that religion want those texts to be available in various languages if they are used to propagate that religion. However, translating them into languages other than the original is not as easy as it seems.

The translator cannot simply sit down and write out a word-for-word translation. There are sometimes words that have no equal or parallel in the new language. Then a word has to be created.

A story is told of a Christian missionary who was having trouble finding a word for “faith” in the native language with which he was working. Then, one day, he heard someone say, “I am going to rest my weight on this chair.” “Rest my weight” was a single word in that language, and became the word for “faith” in his translation.

Another problem in translation is the use of idiom. Every language has idioms of its own. “Hit the nail on the head” is an example of an idiom that says one thing but means another.

There are translations and there are paraphrases. Translations are from the original languages, but paraphrases are merely a rewriting of an existing text to hopefully make it clearer. One would hope to use translations true to the original.

In the Christian Bible, one finds texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, koine (common) Greek and classical Greek. It would take a battery of scholars to produce a new translation, whether simply into English or another language.

Translation into another language can be a huge task. In selecting a text to be used, one should note the scholarship behind it if one is to get the full meaning of the sacred scripture.

— Robert Ford, Retired Baptist campus minister, JSU