The following in an excerpt from the Introduction of A.J.Droge’s translation published April, 2013 pp xxxv – xxxvii
About this Translation
No one style of translation fits all texts, and some texts admit of a variety of different styles of translation. Mine aims not at elegance but strives for as literal a rendering of the Arabic as English will allow. The poet and philosopher Rudolf Pannwitz has written that ‘the basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.’1 One of the many challenges of the Qur’an is that it is unpredictably complex, evocatively associative, and polysemous. For these reasons, as well as more demanding theological ones, most translations cut, compress, paraphrase, and invent freely. I have taken a different approach. My goal has been to make the translation literal to the point of transparency, as well as to maintain consistency in the rendering of words and phrases, and even to mimic word order wherever possible. The result is a kind of Arabicized (or Qur’anicized) English which strives to capture in translation something of the power and pervasive strangeness of the original. In other words I try to give the reader not only a sense of what the Qur’an says, but how it says it. Some may find the translation overly literal, even a bit awkward in places, but my hope is that more will gain access to the Qur’an’s distinctive idiom in a rendition that strives to remain as close as possible to the way it is expressed in Arabic, with only a minimum of smoothing and polishing.
This is what I have reached for anyway, even if ultimately it may have been beyond my grasp. I readily acknowledge that there are more than a few words, phrases, and occasionally whole sentences whose meaning has simply escaped me. At those moments I felt acutely the exasperation voiced by the historian Ernst Badian over another ancient text: ‘It survives only to taunt us with our ignorance.’2 There is some solace in knowing that I am not entirely alone in my uncertainty and ignorance. In the case of some words I transliterated (conservatively), in other instances I followed my predecessors (sheepishly), in a few places I conjectured (tentatively), but in each case this is registered in the annotations for the reader to see. Finally, the reader should be on alert for words and phrases not in the original Arabic, but which have been added for the sake of clarity. These are enclosed within parentheses. In this way, it is hoped, the reader will be able to distinguish the bones from the plaster of paris.
As the reader opens this edition and turns to a particular sura, s/he will find that it is provided with its own introduction and its relative dating in the opinion of scholars. Here I follow in the footsteps of the Cairo editors. They introduce each sura by giving its name, followed by the marker ‘Meccan’ or ‘Medinan’ to indicate its place of revelation, and finally the name of the sura which was revealed immediately before it. For example, this is how they introduce Q19:
Sura of Mary – Meccan – except verses 58 and 71, which are Medinan – it was revealed after ‘the Creator’ [i.e. Q35].3
In parceling out suras between Mecca and Medina, the Cairo editors drew eclectically on several traditional sources, so the chronology of the suras in their edition does not correspond exactly with any one traditional list. The same eclecticism applies to the editors’ identification of Medinan verses ‘inserted’ into Meccan suras and of Meccan verses ‘inserted’ into Medinan suras. Because what I am presenting is a translation of the Cairo edition, I thought it worthwhile to provide the reader with this information. In addition I also indicate how (some) secular scholars come down on the issue of dating suras. (The reader will soon discover that in most cases there is very little difference between modern and traditional systems of dating.) It is my hope that readers will find this information useful, but I should point out that I do not subscribe to secular scholars’ attempts to place the suras in chronological order, any more than I do to the Cairo edition’s chronology of the suras. In any case readers should know that this information is not part of the Qur’an itself, but a product of tradition. Merely as an aside, it appears that none of the suras of the Qur’an manuscripts discovered in the Great Mosque of ?an‘a’ is identified as ‘Meccan’ or ‘Medinan.’
If the translation is the heart of this edition, the annotations are its body. Readers will find them keyed to the text and divided according to their boldface topical headings at the bottom of each page. The topical headings are designed to provide readers with guideposts to help them find their way through what can seem, at times, a labyrinthine text. (This is especially so for the first-time reader.) The annotations are not intended to be a commentary, but seek to provide further information on some of the technicalities of the text and to explicate the meaning of obscure passages. On many occasions alternative renderings are offered in the annotations. In general, annotations to key terms are supplied on the first occurrence of the term in a particular sura, so only in very long suras has it been necessary to repeat them. The annotations draw heavily on a range of critical scholarship to which the ‘Guide to Further Reading’ records my debt. I have, however, deliberately resisted the temptation of letting tradition (sira and tafsir) fill in the gaps or predetermine the meaning of the text. In other words I make an effort not to conflate text and tradition. When I do make concessions to traditional interpretations, it is clearly marked by ‘according to tradition’ or ‘this is said to refer to’ etc. Even in the annotations, then, I try as much as possible to let the Qur’an speak for itself. This is accomplished through a system of numerous cross-references to parallel (or at least relevant) passages within the Qur’an, so that wherever possible the Qur’an is able to elucidate the Qur’an. But there is more. The annotations also offer an abundance of comparative references to the ‘scriptures’ of Judaism and Christianity, and sometimes beyond them (even Homer and the Roman poet Ovid get a mention). These comparative references will show the extent to which the Qur’an is part of a much wider conversation than might initially be supposed. Utility has been the watchword throughout. Recognizing that few will read the Qur’an from beginning to end, this edition has been designed to facilitate ready reference. Most of the annotations are cross-referenced, and important ones repeated, so that readers may jump into the text at almost any point and still find their way around. A comprehensive index at the back further enhances the volume’s usefulness.4
Traduttore, traditore. So goes the old Italian pun. Every translation is an act of betrayal, even one devoted to the principle of literal fidelity. Allow me to be the first, then, to acknowledge that the book now in the reader’s hand (or electronic device) is not the Qur’an. My reason for doing so, however, is not based on a notion (for some, doctrine) that the Qur’an is, in its essence, uniquely untranslatable – which is to say, incommensurable. Quite the contrary. It derives from the much less grand recognition that no translation is ever fully adequate, that there will always be discrepancy, and that the adequacy of any translation can and should be debated. Yet by this ordinary, indeed homely admission, I also wish to register my commitment to the possibility of ‘translation’ as such – that is, to a project broader still, of which this book, as well as the series in which it appears, is a part, and to which I hope it will contribute.
‘Language entails translatability,’ as Hans Penner has forcefully argued.5 To insist otherwise – to reject the possibility of translation – is to adopt a model of unintelligibility. Such a premise, as Jonathan Z. Smith has repeatedly cautioned,
denies the work of culture and the study of culture. It sets aside the reason that most of the human sciences are, first and foremost, linguistic enterprises. For it is the issue of translation, that ‘this’ is never quite ‘that,’ and, therefore, that acts of interpretation are required that marks the human sciences. It is thought about translation, an affair of the in between that is always relative and never fully adequate; it is thought about translation across languages, and times, between text and reader, speaker and hearer, that energizes the human sciences as disciplines and suggests the intellectual contributions they make.6
So no, the book in your hand is not the Qur’an, but then what is? What do we mean by the Qur’an, a text which is in itself held to be a translation? That is the really interesting and important question. To play just a little with Smith’s rendition of the Korzybski aphorism about maps: Translation is not text – but translations are all we possess.7
1. Cited by Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator,’ in his Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) 69-82, quotation from p. 81.
2. Ernst Badian, Roman Imperialism in the Late Republic (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1968) 104 n. 26, in reference to a famous inscription (the so-called ‘Pirate Law’) found at Delphi.
3. By systematically working through these headings one can produce a chronological list of the Cairo edition’s 114 suras. Neal Robinson has done us a favor by doing just that, and the reader may find the list in his Discovering the Qur’an: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Press, 2003) 72-73.
4. My recommendation is that users of this edition begin by reading the first short sura (Q1.1-7) and roughly the first half of the second (Q2.1-167), but that is only a suggestion.
5. Hans H. Penner, ‘Interpretation,’ in Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon (eds.), Guide to the Study of Religion (London/New York: Cassell, 2000) 57-71, quotation from p. 69 (emphasis in original). Penner goes on to urge: ‘What we must grasp, and grasp firmly, is the premise that that there is no such thing as “religious language” in need of a special grammar, semantics or code book’ (p. 70).
6. Jonathan Z. Smith, ‘Differential Equations: On Constructing the Other,’ in idem, Relating Religion: Essays in the History of Religions (Chicago/London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004) 230-250, quotation from pp. 246-247. Elsewhere Smith has argued that ‘explanation is, at heart, an act of translation, of redescription’ (‘The Topography of the Sacred,’ in Relating Religion 101-116, quotation from pp. 105-106). I much appreciate his analysis in ‘A Twice-told Tale: The History of the History of Religions’ History,’ in Relating Religion 362-374 (originally published in Numen 48  131-146), especially its peroration: To deny the legitimacy of translation ‘condemns the field [of the history of religions] to live in the world of Borges’ Pierre Menard, in which a tale must always be identically “twice-told,” where a word can only be translated by itself’ (p. 372).
7. See Jonathan Z. Smith, Map is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Leiden: Brill, 1978) 309.