Professor Arberry’s debt to the Qur’an

This Ramadan I am reading Arthur J. Arberry’s translation of the Qur’an. I first came across Professor Arberry’s translation ‘The Koran Interpreted’ at university. I had borrowed it from the uni library and read it over the summer of 1989. Btw, somewhere out there is a Pakistani chap I worked alongside in a summer job that year who borrowed that library copy from me and never returned it! I had to pay the library to replace that copy. Grrr.

Anyway, in the introduction to the World Classics edition of his translation of the Qur’an, Arberry mentions that he thinks his work is distinguished from earlier translations because of the length he went to to capture the ‘intricacies’ and ‘rhythmic patterns’ in the original Arabic Qur’an.

I mentioned last Ramadan that all of us non-Arabic speakers owe a huge debt to translators of the Qur’an such as Arberry, Abdullah Yusuf Ali and many others. In a very moving passage from the introduction to the World Classics edition of his translation, Arberry mentions that, on the contrary, it is he who owed something to the Qur’an for comforting him while he was translating it.

“This task was undertaken, not lightly, and carried to it’s conclusion at a time of great personal distress, through which it sustained and comforted the writer in a manner for which he will always be grateful. He therefore acknowledges his gratitude to whatever power or Power inspired the man and the Prophet who first recited these scriptures.”

I can’t find the text of Arberry’s World Classics edition online – though you can purchase it at the link given above, but an earlier 1950’s edition of Arberry’s work with a different introduction can be read in full at this link.

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4 Responses to Professor Arberry’s debt to the Qur’an

  1. 'Uthmān says:

    I came across a copy of Arberry’s translation at a mosque in Longsight.where I went to pray while my mum was shopping. His introduction is very moving indeed and shows that he understood the unique literary beauty of the Qur’an in a way that can only be truly appreciated by somebody who understands it in the original Arabic. I believe at one point, he describes the rhythm of the Qur’an as being like the beating of his heart.

    Btw for a great introduction to the Qur’an’s literary excellence as described by the orientalists themselves, I recommend the following work by Hamza Tzortzis:

  2. Yakoub Islam says:

    When I read for a degree in Theology and Religious Studies at Leeds (89-92), for our Islam module, Arberry was the translation on our reading list. However, I prefer the slightly controversial translation of Asad, for its commentary.

  3. I read Muhammad Asad’s translation during my final year at uni. I still have the same copy over twenty years later. His translation and commentary has a very disinctive slant towards the Mu’tazilite scholars which I found interesting. Overall though, I think I prefer Yusuf Ali’s commentary. Very humane and uplifting.

    I can’t abide the bastardised Saudi version of Yusuf Ali’s translation though which came out around 1990 and has been republished continuously since with petro-dollar money. They have butchered his commentary and removed entire appendices from Yusuf Ali’s original because it did not fit in with their cretinous idea of Islamic teachings. Shame on all the people involved in that Saudi backed venture. How dare they mess with someone else’s translation and life-work?

  4. 'Uthmān says:

    Regarding Yusuf Ali’s translation, I don’t necessarily condone anybody tampering with it, but I do find his translation to be somewhat overrated. His translation contains several errors which in one case leads to a negative implication regarding the prophet Yunus. In another case, he translates the word “Burooj” as “Zodiacal Signs” which is incorrect since that meaning for the word Burooj appears later on in the Arabic language, whereas in classical Arabic, the word signifies a constellation of stars. Due this error, he has Allah swearing by “the sky, displaying the Zodiacal signs” which is dodgy to say the least from a creedal perspective. Further, his interpretation of heaven and hell as states of mind and the jinn as an innate force in man are simply wrong along with his implication that the Prophet’s famous night-journey did not physically take place. Other errors (albeit less serious ones from a theological perspective) include his claim that Dhul-Qarnayn (as mentioned in Surah al-Kahf) was Alexander the Great.

    Literary masterpiece or not, his decision to adhere to archaic Shakespearian-style English makes also makes for difficult reading. In fact, an atheist that I used to frequently interact with online and who was an English teacher (with whom I otherwise got along quite well with) wrote the following:

    “What I will say, though, is that I can only assume that all literary excellence is lost the moment the Qur’an is translated into English. The four translations I’ve read are really not good pieces of writing. The Yusuf Ali translation is particularly ugly, and I would encourage the Muslim community to drop it out from dawah duties straight away. “

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