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The Qur’an is fundamentally untranslatable, according to Bonn University Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages and Islamic Studies Stefan Wild.
In a lecture sponsored by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Wild said yesterday that the sacred Islamic text cannot be perfectly replicated in another language.
“The miraculous rhetorical quality that the Qur’an has for the reader is lost in translation,” he said.
However, Wild added that globalization, which has played a role in the increase of non-Arabic speaking Muslims throughout the world, makes these translations necessary.
According to Wild, the problem then becomes how to translate the text in a way that creates meaning but also preserves the stylistic dignity of the original.
But this is perhaps “an unsolvable question,” he added.
Wild said that mistranslation usually occurs when translators retain Arabic terms or force a single meaning upon Arabic words. These decisions stem from an unsuccessful effort to stay true to the original text, he added.
“If the translator does not know and master the target language, he will fall into this trap,” Wild said.
Citing translation of the Qur’an into sign language as an extreme example of the modernization of the text, Wild said that translating the Qur’an has come into sharper focus in recent years.
Wild predicted that in the future, translations will become increasingly numerous and divergent from the Arabic text. He added that translators will continue to attempt what he dubbed an “impossible” task—translating the Qur’an into different languages while staying true to the text’s Arabic nuance.
Wild concluded his lecture by acknowledging the essential paradox in translating the Qur’an.
“It cannot be translated, but it must be translated,” he said.
Jonathan J.N. Edwards, a first-year graduate student at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, agreed with Wild’s assessment of the challenges posed by translating the Qur’an.
“Like any other great literary work, it’s certainly impossible to do a full translation,” Edwards said.
Wild’s lecture—titled “The Qur’an Today: Why Translate the Untranslatable?”—was the final installment of the three-part Fall 2010 H.A.R. Gibb Arabic & Islamic Studies Lectures series.
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