The Koran has probably had as much effect as any other book that has yet been written. In this it rivals the Bible, the Confucian Classics, Homer and The Book of the Dead, not to speak of the Vedas. Moreover, one cannot yet foresee any term to the period of the Koran’s influence over the minds of a large contingent of the human race. Accordingly, it is important for all of us whose mother tongue is not Arabic to have translations of the Koran that reproduce for us, as faithfully as possible, the atmosphere, spirit, and meaning of the original.
Dr. Arberry’s purpose in making his present translation into English has been – as be tells us in his preface – “to imitate, however imperfectly, those rhetorical and rhythmical patterns which are the glory and the sublimity of the Koran.” He has not imitated them mechanically. For instance, he has sought to reproduce the effect of the Arabic rhymes that punctuate the sub-divisions of many chapters of the Koran, not in English rhymes, but in short lines of free verse punctuating sequences of longer lines. He has also called attention to changes of mood and tempo in the original by making corresponding variations in his own rhythmical patterns.
Dr. Arberry modestly concurs in the orthodox Muslim view that the Koran is untranslatable. The present reviewer’s smattering of Arabic is just enough to allow him to obtain the impression that Dr. Arberry’s interpretation has been successful and has been very well worth while.
In his preface he leads up to the considerations that moved him to translate the Koran himself by way of a review of the earlier translations into Latin and English. He gives the reader the means of comparing these translations with each other and with his own by quoting the renderings, in each, of the passage describing the incident of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife and the passage recounting Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. He also quotes from the prefaces of some of the earlier translations, to show the spirit in which they were made. The Western translators who did their work before the “Enlightenment” at the end of the seventeenth century were ostentatiously hostile. The eighteenth-century translator Sale was fair but perhaps rather supercilious. Some of the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century translators have been preoccupied with the higher criticism and have arbitrarily changed the traditional order of the chapters, and, indeed, of fragments of the chapters, in accordance with what they believed to have been the chronological order of their original emission.
One of the twentieth-century English translators, Marmaduke Pickthall, was himself a convert to Islam, and approached the task of translation in the spirit of humility and reverence with which an adherent of any religion regards his own religion’s holy scripture. Dr. Arberry shows himself sympathetic to this approach. Like Pickthall, he preserves the traditional order of the chapters. His aim is to give, in English, as far as may be, the equivalent of the effect that the original Arabic has produced, through the ages, on the minds and hearts of believing Muslims. This makes sense, because it is the Koran in its traditional presentation that has moved the Islamic World and has thereby made history.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s may be the most widely-used version, alongside Pickthall’s.
Robin Yassin-Kassab has a special liking for the translation by Muhammad Asad (1900-92), originally Leopold Weiss, a converted Polish Jew who studied in Vienna, lived in colonial Palestine and Pakistan, and became Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations.
There have been a dozen translations in the last ten years, including MAS Abdel Haleem, in the Oxford World’s Classics.
Review of Arthur J Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, two volumes, Allen & Unwin, 1955, in The Observer, Sunday April 8 1956