Thursday, May 26, 2011

Translations of Power

I don't speak Arabic, or Persian. Or quite a number of other languages, too. In fact, I only speak English, and am passable in the native language of Gibr. (That's Gibberish, in case you are unaware of it.)

Because I am linguistically challenged, I have been asked a number of time about which translation of the Qur'an I prefer to use. Of course, I've also been asked the same thing about the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao te Ching, and so on. At the time I couldn't think of a reasonable answer, since I don't really have a preferred translation, so I did the most appropriate thing I could think of: I forgot about the question. (Sorry if you're one of those who asked.)

But as I was reading Rejoice in My Gladness, the Life of Tahirih, I realized how I can answer this. It is really quite simple, and I'm surprised I hadn't thought to mention it before now.

In fact, it brings to mind the Tao te Ching, for that was the first book that made me aware of the importance of a good translation. What I do is I read the same passage in different translations and see if there is one that calls to my heart. Simple, no?

You see, it was back around 1982 when I first realized that there were different translations of the Tao. One opened with the line, "The Way that can be spoken is not the constant Way." I love that line. It really touches me. It's poetic, simple and beautiful.

There was another translation that read "The Principle of Nature may be discussed; it is not the popular or common Tao." That doesn't quite do it for me. "God can neither be defined nor named" is a sentence I can agree with, but it doesn't seem to quite say the same thing. It is more of an interpretation than a translation. And "The Providence which could be indicated by words would not be an all-embracing Providence" is just not poetic at all.

And that, dear Reader, is how I select my translations. They have to really touch my spirit, for if they don't, why would I expect to be inspired by them? (Oh, and I also have a similar method for my choice in dictionaries. I have a few words that I look up to see how they are defined. If I like the definitions, then I generally like the dictionary.)

With the Qur'an, the passage that I read is Surah 97, Al-Qadr, the Night of Power. You can go to to see various translations of it, but I'll put a few of them here. Afterwards, I'll write a bit about why I chose that one, and what it means to me.

The first of the five verses, in the six translations on that site, read as follows:
  1. Indeed, We sent the Qur'an down during the Night of Decree. (Sahih International)
  2. Verily! We have sent it (this Quran) down in the night of Al-Qadr (Muhsin Khan)
  3. Lo! We revealed it on the Night of Predestination. (Pickthall)
  4. We have indeed revealed this (Message) in the Night of Power: (Yusuf Ali)
  5. Surely We revealed it on the grand night. (Shakir)
  6. Surely We sent it down on the Night of Determination; (Dr. Ghali)
There aren't that many differences here, except for the translation of the word "qadr".

The second verse basically asks what the Night of Power is, in various ways in the different translations.

The third verse says that it is better than 1000 months. Most translations actually say that: "The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. "But there is one that goes a bit more in depth and reads, "The night of Al-Qadr (Decree) is better than a thousand months (i.e. worshipping Allah in that night is better than worshipping Him a thousand months, (i.e. 83 years and 4 months))." Let's just say that I've skipped that translation, for it is too explanatory for my liking. I mean, why not just say "decree" instead of putting it in brackets? And yes, I can do the math and figure out how long 1000 months is, too. But is it a literal number? Is it exactly 83 years and 4 months? Or is it a simple way of saying that this night is better than a much longer period of normal time? After all, there would be at least 83 "nights of power" in those 1000 months. But I digress.

In the end, there are only three translations on that site that I care for. When we read verse 4, it reads as such:
  1. The angels and the Spirit descend therein by permission of their Lord for every matter. (Sahih International)
  2. The angels and the Spirit descend therein, by the permission of their Lord, with all decrees. (Pickthall)
  3. Therein come down the angels and the Spirit by Allah's permission, on every errand: (Yusuf Ali)
The final verse says that it is peace, until dawn, or morning, depending on the translation.

In the end, I think I prefer the Yusuf Ali translation, which he published under the title, "The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an". I thought that was kind of cool, because, to him, the Qur'an is only in Arabic. Everything else just conveys the meaning of it. And I like to compare his version with the Pickthall translation.

So here they are:

We have indeed revealed this (Message) in the Night of Power:
And what will explain to thee what the night of power is?
The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
Therein come down the angels and the Spirit by Allah's permission, on every errand:
Peace!...This until the rise of morn!

Lo! We revealed it on the Night of Predestination.
Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Night of Power is!
The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
The angels and the Spirit descend therein, by the permission of their Lord, with all decrees.
(The night is) Peace until the rising of the dawn.

There you have it: The entire Surih of Al-Qadr, in two translations. But what does it mean?

You can easily search the internet for all sorts of stories behind the history of it, but I think it refers to the Bab. And the tremendous trials that occurred during His advent. It was all comparatively peaceful up until that moment.

But getting back to the idea of translation for a moment, this also explains why I so love the Guardian. Not only were his translations accurate, as opposed to interpretations of what the Writings said, they were also beautiful. They uplift, educate and inspire, all at the same time.

When I read an early translation of the Hidden Words, and then read the Guardian's, there is no comparison. "I have created thee rich: why dost thou make thyself poor?" Well, you see, I had to pay rent, and buy some food. But Shoghi Effendi translated it as "I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty?" So much more beautiful.

Or in the Kitab-i-Iqan, we read that the seeker "must cleanse themselves of all that is earthly - their ears from idle talk, their minds from vain imaginings, their hearts from worldly affections, their eyes from that which perisheth." An earlier translation said that they "must sanctify and purify themselves from all material things; that is, the ear from hearing statements, the heart from doubts which pertain to the veils of glory, the soul from depend upon worldly belongings, the eye from contemplating mere transitory words." What a difference.

I mean, I am very grateful for the wonderful work done by the early translators, but I am so much more grateful for the translation work of the Guardian.

In English, at least, there is no question of which translation to use for the Baha'i Writings. Maybe one day I'll learn to read Arabic or Persian and read the Writings in the original. But until then, I will rely on translations. Just like I do with all the other sacred books out there.

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