The Qur’aan is more than the sum total of its words, grammatical constructions, figures of speech, rhythms, and rhymes. It is a message, a direct communication between God and man, and it is a permanent inimitable literary miracle. Neither the Arabs of the past nor the present were able to meet the open challenge concisely expressed in the verse:
“And if you all are in doubt about what I have revealed to My servant, produce a single soorah like it.”
and the verse:
“Or do they say that he has invented it? Say to them, ‘Produce a single soorah like it.'”
The Qur’aan cannot be translated; any attempt to do so is folly. Arabic grammatical constructions, figures of speech, rhyme, and rhythm cannot be expressed in other than Arabic. Besides, in translation the Qur’aan’s inimitable quality is lost and its challenge becomes meaningless, for no translator, no matter how great his literary skills are, can claim inimitability. The Qur’aan cannot be literally translated because Arabic words often have more than one literal meaning, not to mention their figurative meanings. And, many Arabic constructions contain subtle shades of meanings which cannot be expressed in another language. No translation can be called or considered to be God’s word. God’s word is the Arabic Qur’aan, as He Himself said,
“Verily, I revealed it as an Arabic Qur’aan.”
Attempts to catch the charm of the Qur’aan in loose or free translations are also presumptuous, misleading, and doomed to failure. “The inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy” exists only in the Arabic. Any degree of success will only dupe readers into thinking that they are experiencing the Qur’aan, whereas in reality, they are experiencing the feelings of the translator and his literary skills. Even claims to translations of the Qur’aan’s meanings are false because the author of such translations chooses meanings which he feels are appropriate in the case of Arabic words which have more than one meaning and words which have no non-Arabic equivalent. He also chooses between literal and figurative meanings and translates the one which he considers appropriate. All translations are in fact tafseers, some more accurate than others. Most translations list in their forewords the names of the classical tafseers and lexicons on which they relied. This may seem to be a very fine point, but if it were put in another way perhaps the difference would be more obvious. The mufassir speaks in an explanatory way as if to say:
“This is what I understand from the verse.”
The translator speaks as if he has completely understood the verse’s meaning and translated it as if to say: “This is what the verse means.” The difference between the two approaches is quite vast. Hence, translators should emphasize in their prefaces and titles the fact that this is their personal understanding of the Qur’aan. Perhaps the best approach for a translator would be to simply translate the basic text of the classical tafseers using footnotes to explain other possible meanings and the context of the passages where necessary.
This is not to say that existing “translations” are of no value whatsoever and that those who do not understand the Arabic should stop reading them. Existing “translations” serve to convey the basic message of the Qur’aan to those who cannot get it from the Qur’aan themselves. However, the reader should bear in mind that what he or she is reading is not a translation of the Qur’aan or all of its meaning, but only an explanation in another language. Learning Arabic to whatever degree possible should be among the goals of all Muslims in order that they may hear Allaah’s words exactly as they were revealed.