Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More carnage for translators

Translating religious texts has often been wrought with danger for the translator. William Tyndale's was the first English translation to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, and the first to take advantage of the new medium of print, which allowed for its wide distribution. In 1535, Tyndale was arrested, jailed in the castle of Vilvoorde outside Brussels for over a year, tried for heresy and burnt at the stake. Most well known for his translation of the Bible, Tyndale was an active writer and translator. Not only did Tyndale's works focus on the way in which religion should be carried out, but were also greatly keyed towards the political arena. He wrote, "They have ordained that no man shall look on the Scripture, until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture."

Five centuries later, very little has changed.

In 2007, Ahmad Ghaws Zalmai, a spokesman for the attorney general, helped print 1,000 copies of an Afghan language translation of the Quran. Some of the men of the mosque said the book would be useful to Afghans who didn't know Arabic, so they took up a collection for printing.

Because the translation did not have the original Arabic verses of the Quran, Islamic clerics accused Zalmai of breaking Shariah law by modifying the holy book. Many clerics rejected the book because it did not include the original Arabic verses alongside the translation. It's a particularly sensitive detail for Muslims, who regard the Arabic Quran as words given directly by God. A translation is not considered a Quran itself, and a mistranslation could warp God's word. The clerics said Zalmai, a stocky 54-year-old spokesman for the attorney general, was trying to anoint himself as a prophet. They said his book was trying to replace the Quran, not offer a simple translation.

Zalmai has been in prison for more than a year, along with cleric Qari Mushtaq Ahmad of the Kabul mosque, who asked him to reprint the translation.

Last year, Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh also faced execution for allegedly distributing literature questioning the role of women's rights in Islam that was deemed insulting to the faith.

Under the universal right of freedom of religious expression and even the Constitution of Afghanistan, these men violated no law in translating the Quran as they did.

A little bit of common sense would tell us that if you believed God to be omnipotent, then you'd have to believe that you were a tad above omnipotence to be able to "warp God's words" by translating them into another language. Besides, even if Zalmai and his crew had put the Arabic text alongside their translation, the average Afghan would have no clue whether theirs was a faithful rendering of the text, since they cannot read Arabic. Besides, one would have thought the Almighty to be able to smite the translator outright, and not need the support of rather ignorant clerics for that!

Reminds me of the translation by Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, who cause a furore in 2007 by translating the notorious 4:34 verse to mean "send away" instead of "to beat" (we are talking domestic violence here). The discussion of the verse by Dr. Bakhtiar can be found here. Mohammad Ashraf, the the head of one of Canada's leading Muslim organizations said he would not permit Bahktiar's translation to be sold in the bookstore of the Islamic Society of North America (Canada). His logic? "This woman-friendly translation will be out of line and will not fly too far," he says. "Women have been given a very good place in Islam."


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