Keynote lecture by Ahmed Allaithy (American University of Sharjah). Found in translation ‒ the untranslatable Qur’an

No text is its translation. This entails that Arabic Qur’ān is not its English translation. Accordingly, expressions such as translation of the ‘meaning(s) of the Qur’ān’ and ‘translating the untranslatable’ are commonly used in writings on Qur’ān translation. The former reference betrays a sense of reluctance to call a Qur’ān translation what it seems to be, while the latter is aimed to add a dimension of mystery to the Qur’ān and/or its translation. Each expression in its own way implies that rendering the Qur’ān into a foreign language with sufficient accuracy is an impossible task. True as the case may be, it is not common to find research works providing concrete evidence as to “why” the Qur’ān may be considered ‘untranslatable’, rather than making generic and ambiguous references. In a strange way, this untranslatability dimension somewhat explains the multiplicity of both intralingual translations (Tafsir) and retranslations of the Qur’anic text.

Being a text at the highest degree of eloquence, the Qur’ān poses a serious challenge for translators and linguists alike. This research presentation will investigate one of the major problem areas when (re-)translating the Qur’ān, namely, translating the ‘non-existent’. Traditionally, one translates what is there, on the page. In the case of the Qur’an, it is not unusual –and not without problems- to find in the Target Text what is not explicitly stated in the Source Text. If something is not there, how could it be translated? If what is there is impacted by what is not there and vice- versa, does this make the ST as a whole untranslatable? How could there be retranslations of an ‘untranslatable’ text? The existence of actual translations and retranslations of the Qur’ān in almost all living languages seems to challenge the veracity of the expression ‘translating the untranslatable.’ This work deals with these specific problematic issues, be them grammatical, syntactic, semantic, rhetorical or otherwise. An analysis based upon linguistic as well as empirical evidence to this effect is provided. Additionally, light will also be shed on what it is that we have when the ‘untranslatable’ is made available in translation.

The examples analyzed unveil how omission functions in the Qur’ān and its translation and identifies what approaches and strategies have been used to render the non-existent.

About the speaker

Associate Professor at the Department of Arabic and Translation Studies, American University of Sharjah, and President of Arabic Translators International (ATI). Has a PhD in Comparative Translation of the Holy Qur’an from the University of Durham, UK, 1998. Is the General Editor of ATI Academic Series, and ATI literary Series (Arabic Literature Unveiled), former General Director of Dragoman, an international refereed journal of language and translation studies. His teaching and research interests cover a wide range of topics across various disciplines such as Translation, Interpreting and Cultural Studies, Contrastive Linguistics, Quranic and Hadith Studies, Arabic Language, Rhetoric and Heritage.