Early Translations of the Qur’ān Part II

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On Friday, 8th of April 2011, there was a workshop organized by Concetta Finiello and myself, on “Early translations of the Qur’ān, Part II”. The first part took place one year ago, on 19th of March 2010. Both parts had the purpose to review and to intensify research on translations of the Qur’ān for the following reasons: An important requirement for the expansion of religions in an intellectual sense (were are not concerned here with military or political expansion, but with its sequels) is the production of translations of the holy texts into the languages of the newly acquired territories. To translate these texts seems not only useful but rather inevitable even in case of an untranslatebility of the original text due to its uniqueness that is assumed not only regarding the aspect of revelation but also of language. We all know of the Koranic concept of Idjāz, the unimitability and untranslatebility of the Qur’ān. Nevertheless, the Qur’ān has actually been translated into foreign languages since the expansion of Muslim empire. On the other hand, also non-Muslim people often have a great interest in translations of the enemies’ scripture in order to take up the intellectual struggle against Islam.

In the workshops, we were interested especially in translations into – so to speak – non-Islamic languages, that means languages that belong to countries which are not ore not entirely Islamic. To make it concrete, we were concerned firstly with the three holy languages of Judaism and Christianity, namely Hebrew, Greek and Latin; secondly with European vernacular languages; and thirdly with East or Southeast Asian languages. Our interest lies on the earliest attempts to translate the Qur’ān into these languages, and subsequently in the later history of translation, too.

In the first part of the workshop, after an overview to the problem of ‘untranslatebility’ (idjāz al-qur’ān) given by Hartmut Bobzin, the languages we were concerned with were Byzantine Greek, medieval Latin, 17th century German, and (perhaps most surprisingly) modern, i.e. 20th century Japanese (for details, see IKGF Workshop I Report). In the second part of the workshop, we concentrated on further vernacular European languages both Western and Eastern ones, namely Aljamiado (i.e. Spanish written in the Arabic alphabet) and French in the West, Polish and Russian in the East. Furthermore, we discussed a different Latin translation and, to be not too christianocentristic, translations into Hebrew. It was planned to have also a talk by our former fellow Svevo d’Onofrio on translations into Sanskrit, but unfortunately it was not possible to find any existing copy of a Sanskrit Qur’ān neither in Europe nor in India. Perhaps some of us remember Svevo’s last talk here in our consortium when he showed that the famous Indian Om sign is a distortion of the word Allah written in Arabic letters – just to make the relationship evident.

Notwithstanding this blind spot on our map, we had a wide range of space as well as of time: From Southwestern to Northeastern Europe and to the Near East, from the beginning of the 13th up to the 20th centuries. And we had also a wide range of cultural transfer phenomena: One the one hand, there are translations that resulted from direct encounters between Muslims and Christians or Jews, respectively, in a at least partly Islamic environment; one the other hand, the French and Slavonic translations were made in a completely different cultural context far from the genuine Muslim countries.

The first paper was given by Dr. Ulisse Cecini from Erlangen, who is with us as an Assitant Researches since the 1st of April now. Cecini was concerned with the Latin translation of the Qur’ān by Marc of Toledo, finished about 1209 or 1210. His translation was far less known and far less influential than the famous translation by Robert of Ketton from 1143, but Cecini convincingly showed that Marc’s translation is much more oriented at the Arabic original that Robert’s was. By means of comparison of several surahs, one could easily recognize the differences. The purpose of that very close translation that sometimes is not easy to understand obviously was to present a scholarly instrument for a bilingual reading of the Qur’ān to learned Christians who were not familiar enough with Arabic to read it only in the original language. Consequently, Marc’s translation was used by later missionaries like Riccoldo da Monte di Croce.

The second paper was a real highlight: Professor López-Morillas from Bloomington/Indiana (USA) is the leading worldwide expert in Aljamiado, especially Spanish translation of the Qur’ān keeping Arabic letters. So we were very happy that she had come to Bochum to present us the results of her long time research on that topic. The first translation of the Qur’ān into a European vernacular at all was the translation into Spanish made by the Alfaqui of Segovia, ‘Isa ibn Djabir, on behalf of a famous Christian theologian, Juan de Segovia, who made a interlinear Latin translation from the Spanish. Unfortunately, this trilingual Qur’ān is lost. Professor López gave an overview over the surviving 26 manuscripts containing Spanish Qur’āns, most of them bilingual in Arabic and Aljamiado (in Castile or Aragonese dialect). Of particularly interest was her presentation of “The Mystery of Ms. Toledo 235”, the only complete Spanish translation. It is in Latin characters and transcripted from a bilingual manuscript in Aljamiado, finished as late as 1606. Professor López’ edition of that text with a detailed study of its paleographical and linguistic features is under press and will come out in the next few weeks.

The third paper given by Dr. Aleida Paudice, former Assistant Researcher at Halle-Wittenberg, dealt with Hebrew translations and transliterations of the Qur’ān. She gave a report of her so-far studies in that topic, concentrating mainly on manuscripts with Arabic Qur’āns in Hebrew characters, obviously written for and used by people who understood spoken Arabic but could only read Hebrew script – just the opposite to the aforementioned Mudéjars and Moriscos whose spoken language was Spanish, but who could read only Arabic letters. There were, as far as we know, no medieval translations of the Qur’ān into Hebrew. The first one was made by Jakob Levi b. Israel in 1636 Venice, not directly from the Arabic, but from the Italian translation of Andrea Arrivabene 1547. The first direct translation is from Hermann Reckendorf, Leipzig 1857.

In the afternoon, we had two further papers by Bochum scholars, one by Dr. Annette Gerstenberg from the Romanistic Department, the other one by Prof. Mirja Lecke from the Department of Slavic languanges. Dr. Gerstenberg talked about French translations, the first being that of André Du Ryer1647, followed by that of Claude-Étienne Savary 1783 and Albert Kasimirski 1840. It was highly interesting to see how Dr. Gerstenberg showed by means of a synopsis of several Qur’ānic passages and the three French translations that the method and purpose of the translations changed over the centuries: While Du Ryer made a Christianizising translation for polemical purposes (to demonstrate the absurdities of the Qur’ān), Savary’s intention was to create a literary work of art congenial to the Qur’ān; finally, Kasimirski’s translation is philological one to serve interests of historical scholarship. So the trias may be called in terms of absolutism, enlightenment, and historicism.

The last, but not the least presentation was by Prof. Lecke on the first Polish and Russian translations, respectively. They are not comparable at all, because of their completely different origin, purpose and linguistic features. The first Polish translation called “The Lithuanian Tefsir” was made about 1600 by Muslims for a Muslim minority living in Poland (including parts of the Balticum at that time). It is preserved in some bilingual Arabic-Polish manuscripts written entirely in Arabic letters, a kind of Polish Aljamiado, so to speak. Since the Muslim community was later completely Polonized, that means also Catholizised, these translations had no future impact and have of course never been printed. In the Russian empire, on the other hand, there are many peoples of Muslim faith until today who have their own languages and translations. The first Russian translation by Petr Posnikov is a Christian orthodox one and was made for polemical and missionary purposes. It was published 1716 in St. Petersburg and is a somewhere grotesquely distorted translation from the French of Du Ryer. The second Surah, for example (al-baqara, revealed at Medina), which in Du Ryer is titled “La vache, à Medina”, in Posnikov sounds like that: “From Lavache to Medina”.

In sum, the workshop gave fascinating insights not only into different kinds of philological aspects of the translations, but also into religious transfer phenomena that are crucial for Research Field 2. The idea came up to wide and deapen these insights by holding a third part of this workshop on translations in languages not yet concerned, namely East and Southeast Asian languages like Chinese and Indonesian, or at least to include these languages in the forthcoming publication. And perhaps we’ll discover a Sanskrit Qur’ān, too.


Photograph of Prof. Dr. Reinhold Glei

Prof. Dr. Reinhold Glei

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