Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tarif Khalidi's translation of the Qur'an

Books, books, and more books. You thought that I busy with my jet lag, as I have been updating you on Facebook, but not too busy for book news. I have been reading and enjoying Tarif Khalidi's translation of the Qur'an. This is a major achievement. A landmark in Middle East studies that has barely gotten any attention at all. You are busy with news about lousy and silly books that are written by non-specialists and such. I am an Orientalist at heart (in my belief in real training in Middle East studies and not in the publication of books based on a few stopovers in Arab capitals). And this endeavor is quite something. The field of Middle East studies, especially in American popular culture, has been invaded by non-specialists to the point that there are no lines between specialists and invaders, or Middle East studies intruders, I call them. First, I am really bothered by the blurb on the cover jacket by Reza Aslan. I mean, Reza Aslan would not know a good translation of the Qur'an from a good translation of the Perfumed Garden, for potato's sake. To evaluate, judge and blurb a translation of the Qur'an requires a knowledge that is well beyond that of writers in US popular culture, and that is unrelated to whether I like their politics or not. Some professionalism please. Shame on Penguin for making that mistake. It is insulting on a book of such stature. I did not know what to expect, and I would not render judgment on this because I know and like Tarif (although I was never his student). I met him when I was in high school and I was trying to politicaly spoil (so to speak) all young people that I knew in my school, including Tarif's son. But that is another story. Back to the Qur'an. When my students ask me about translation of the Qur'an, I say: N.J.Dawood (the last Penguin translation) is workable and practical and usable. I have been favoring A.J.Arberry's translation because it is more poetic and literary (Taha Husayn commented once that in the Arabic language there is prose, poetry, and...Qur'an). Yusuf Ali is the most widely used translation among Western Muslims and Western specialists and it is by far the worst translation there is: it is a political translation intended to soften the impact of words on the Western white ear, and it has the poetic beauty of your Tax forms. It is simply inaccurate and should be scrapped although it is promoted by AlAzhar and Saudi Arabia. Enough said. The best thing that I can say about Tarif's translation is that it is accurate. Most accurate. Plus, I checked to see how Tarif handled the more poetic Meccan verses, and he did wonders with them. Look at his rendering of the Surat Az-Zalzalah (I erred earlier in putting Zilzal instead) (The Quake): "When the earth quakes--a shattering quake! And the earth casts up its loads! And man says: 'What ails it?' That Day it shall tell its tales, For your Lord will have inspired it!" Or listen to his translation of the Surat of Tin (The Fig): "By the fig and the olive, And by Mount Sinai, and this city, secure! We created man in fairest proportion, Then reduced him to the lowest of the low, Save them who believe and do righteous deeds, To Them a wage, unstinted." Compare that to Yusuf Ali and the latter sounds like a phone book. I think that Tarif did such an outstanding job because he truly inhabits both cultural (literary) worlds, of Arabic and of English, and it shows. Plus, Tarif (unlike Yusuf Ali) does not have a religio-political (as the French would say) agenda to promote. Tarif: congratulations for a work best done.