All Translations Are Paraphrases

Sep 12, 2011


All Translations Are Paraphrases

Dr. Pasha

(Bringing Islam to the World One Concept at a Time!
Taking the Qur'an to Every Home and Heart that Needs It --
And which One Does Not?)

Translating any text from any language into another language is one of the most difficult if not impossible things anyone can attempt or contemplate.

Long time ago, I wrote a “professional” paper which I presented to a professional conference in which I showed how close to impossible that task was.

And how it required knowledge, abilities and skills way beyond what most people presume it does.

And how it requires something else: Emotional resilience to get inside the very culture of the original text from which a translation is being made, as well as the new text into which it is being rendered.

In other words, it requires insinuating yourself into the mind of the original author, fully comprehending his intent and purpose, and then rendering them, using his words as aids, into your chosen language of translation.

How is that for a challenge? Generally speaking that is?

As for reading God Almighty’s mind, good luck with that. Not to say the very temerity and arrogance of that thought!

So, the required steps for attempting a translation from one language to another are, first, a thorough knowledge of both languages as well as a deep and empathic understanding of both cultures.

After that, the challenge of rendering one specific text into another still remains a fairly daunting, if not hopeless, one.

Consequently, all translations are, generally speaking, seriously inadequate and flawed. And they are all little more than translator’s paraphrases at best.

To the point that it is fair to say that reading a translation and hoping to understand the original text is a little bit akin to slurping a home-made mixture of sugar and water and hoping the taste rises to the level of the best mangoes anyone ever ate in their life.

That is why when it comes to the Qur’an, translations are simply not enough – in any language – even though some are better than some others. And they are all little more than paraphrases – at best – whether they proclaim themselves to be so or not.

And that may also be why reading the Qur’an in its original Arabic text is a requirement of Salah or Namaaz – the formal “prayers” Muslims are supposed to perform five times a day.

Did I say prayers? Imagine that!

Rendering the most amazing concept of Salaah as “prayer” in English?! Did you ever wonder about that? Well, if you did not till now, do so now.

And then, maybe, just stick to calling it Salaah – as the Qur’an does. For, there is no substitute or equivalent for it in any other language.

Ever seen Muslims “pray”?

Or “do” or “perform” their prayers as it were?

I mean: Standing upright; doubling down from the waist with the palm of their hands firmly grasping their knees; going down to do a half-prostration in a straight-up fetal position with their foreheads resting on the ground?

Ever tried that at home? Ever seen anyone, anywhere “praying” that way?

And is that what you grew up calling “praying”?

If you have not, then go and take a good look at how Muslims do it. And then ask yourself if this is what you learned all your life in English language as “praying.”

Then, how does “Salaah” fit the English expression of “praying”?

What this means is that languages are expressive of certain cultural core elements. As a result, there are things in languages that simply cannot be translated – or duplicated or rendered with any degree of exactitude – into other languages.

And almost all of Qur’an is that – From Alhamdu to Annaas.

The easiest way to understand this point is like this: Qur’an is Godspeak from beginning to end. Translations are Manspeak – as they would say – from beginning to end.

Just how do you graft one on to the other then?

And, on top of that, guess what Muslims call their prayers – the Salaah that is?

And do you know why they do that? Just because some English translators of Arabic language, and the Qur’an, told them to do it!

And Muslims have done a sheep-dance with it ever since.

Rituals”! What else?

How is that for a translation of Islam’s most fundamental requirement in human life and the cornerstone of Islam’s divine culture on earth?

Will Muslims change that anytime soon? Keep your fingers crossed as the English language says – whatever that means.

To me, however, “crossing your fingers” means a lot of Western cultural baggage, quite problematic in many ways. But you all figure that out on your own.


© 2011 Syed Husain Pasha

Dr. Pasha is an educator and scholar of exceptional 
talent, training and experience. He can be reached at DrSyedPasha [at] 
AOL [dot] com or www.IslamicSolutions.Com.

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