Some non-Muslims/non-Arabs/non-Arabic speaking people often assume that simply reading a translation of the Quran is enough to gain a thorough and complete understanding of it. However, this is not the case, as will be explained below.
Arabic is a rich language, with many words for one particular thing – yet all of these are not absolutely synonymous. Rather they have different shades of meaning, and go into more depth than a single word would often do in English. For example, there are several words for sleeping in Arabic, which each have a subtle yet significant difference: eg. sleeping whilst laying, sleeping whilst sitting, sleeping whilst dreaming, etc.
But is this also consistent with the Quran?
Yes, it is. One will come across various words/ayaat in the Quran where reading a translation will provide a superficial meaning and deprive the reader/listener from the true beauty and depth of the words of the Quran. The following is an example of this:
Surah al-A’raaf says in ayah 198 (Quran 7:198):
وَإِن تَدْعُوهُمْ إِلَى الْهُدَىٰ لَا يَسْمَعُوا ۖ وَتَرَاهُمْ يَنظُرُونَ إِلَيْكَ وَهُمْ لَا يُبْصِرُونَ
“And if you invite them to guidance, they do not hear; and you see them looking at you while they do not see.”
Here, the verb ‘to look/see’ is mentioned 3 times, translated as follows: “…you see them looking at you while they do not see”. As we can see, each time the word appears equivalent.
However the Arabic words used are different in all 3 cases, and are as follows (respectively):
رأي = to observe/contemplate
نظر = to look/see
بصر = a deep perception, to see something whilst having a deep understanding thereof
As such, one can see that the translation of the ayah is certainly not as rich as the original Arabic version of it.
Why are translations inadequate, why don’t they elaborate to make the difference clear?
To produce a high quality of work, regardless of what it may be, one is required to be consistent. In addition to this, one is required to be accurate and concise.
When translating the Quran, the translator has to consider all of the aforementioned, and strive to complete the task despite the extensive length of the Quran. If he/she elaborates (on the shade of meaning of a word) in one place, the equivalent would be required of many such places. This isn’t akin to the notes in brackets of those such as Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan, which serve as clarification of what is being spoken about, requiring a lesser extent of description. Rather every few words of the Quran would entail elaborate discussion.
So why be concise? Well it makes the translators task a lot easier (despite still being extensive) and conforms to the concise nature of the Quran in its original language.
If this is the case, why bother with translations?
Despite the deficiency in depth, translations still provide much of the message of the Quran. Its just that the message might not be as effective due to the omission of things consistent with the original form.
Translations enable people of many languages to be able to read the Quran and understand much of its messages and instructions. It is ultimately much more beneficial than not translating, as many people would not be able to understand the Quran adequately until learning Arabic.
Indeed, it is as Marmaduke Pickthall said:
“The Koran cannot be translated. That is the belief of old-fashioned Sheykhs and the view of the present writer. The Book is here rendered almost literally and every effort has been made to choose befitting language. But the result is not the Glorious Koran, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Koran — and peradventure something of the charm — in English. It can never take the place of the Koran in Arabic, nor is it meant to do so.”