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The Qur'an itself has a very simple vocabulary and grammar and is very easy to read. However, translations often use very formal, old-fashioned English with a lot of words that are seldom used in daily life.

What is the explanation for this? Are the translators trying to make the Qur'an look like a mystical book that is difficult to understand?

  • They seem to make it similar to Bible translations. – user73 Jun 25 '12 at 10:47
  • To be more specific, it's possible some translators are consciously imitating the King James Bible, of 1611. However, there are many translations of the Bible in modern English. – TRiG Jul 17 '12 at 22:34
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    There are many Quran Translations in easy to read English. This is one of them ClearQuran.com – Talal Itani Jun 5 '13 at 17:49
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    I highly doubt that any of the translations are to Old English, which is a Germanic language that would be almost completely unintelligible, even to a native English speaker. Rather, the translations are to a highly formal version of Modern English similar to many English translations of the Christian Bible. This doesn't make the question a bad one; I just wanted to clear up an incorrect point. – Daniel Jun 5 '13 at 20:04
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    For example, here is a sample of written Old English. – Daniel Jun 5 '13 at 20:05
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The sad reality is the hadith of rasulullah (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) came true:

You would tread the same path as was trodden by those before you inch by inch and step by step so much so that if they had entered into the hole of the lizard, you would follow them in this also. We said: Allah's Messenger, do you mean Jews and Christians (by your words)" those before you"? He said: Who else (than those two religious groups)? [Saheeh Muslim]

In large parts of the Christian world, the study of the Bible is exclusively for high-ranking officials of the religion alone. Part of this is because of the language: the original language is not latin. The translations, written with the purpose of being exclusionary, is intentionally difficult to understand.

As Muslims, we followed in the same footsteps and used rough, hard to understand translations of the Qur'an that resemble the Bible. This is despite Allah almighty saying in the Qur'an:

Alif, Lam, Ra. These are the verses of the clear Book. (Surah Yusuf, Verse 1)

Other verses mention it was written in "clear Arabic." The Qur'an itself testifies to its ease of understanding and clear, direct, powerful speech -- anyone who speaks a lick of Arabic can see this for themselves.

Also, historically, many of the translations were singular efforts by individuals, sometimes with different goals and interests -- goals and interests not necessarily in alignment with the clarity of the Arabic of the Qur'an. For example, the translation by Yusuf Ali contains, in the footnotes, ideas related to sufism that are not present in the original Arabic text, and can only be justified when the text becomes more obscure.

What I always tell people is what my teachers told me: use the Saheeh International translation. It mimics the direct, clear speech of the Qur'an. Two groups of scholars collaborated on it: a group of Islam and Arabic language scholars, and a group of English language scholars.

Translation will never match the real stuff. But Saheeh International is as good as it gets.

  • Another reason is that most of the translations are pretty old - for their time, they were probably not anomalous at all in the language they used. – Ansari Jun 25 '12 at 19:56
  • I'm confused about what you are saying about the Bible and Christianity. Are you saying the original language of the Bible was Latin? It was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, FYI. – Jon Ericson Jul 11 '12 at 17:58
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    I didn't get to this line, it seems: "The translations, written with the purpose of being exclusionary, is intentionally difficult to understand." That seems a bit like revisionist history, to me. At one point, Latin was the common language of Europe. Translation into Latin was done to make the Bible more accessible. Same with the early (and many later) English translations, such as the KJV. It's just that language changes over time. (But this isn't on-topic anymore. ;-) – Jon Ericson Jul 11 '12 at 18:07
  • @JonEricson I cannot recall where I heard this; that only the Pope and the (not sure what the right word is -- is it bishops? Cardinals?) can interpret the Bible. Anyway, we can discuss this offline, it's not terribly relevant here :) – ashes999 Jul 11 '12 at 18:27
  • @JonEricson. The KJV was actually a little old fashioned even for its time, but that's largely because it borrowed heavily from earlier work by Tyndale. – TRiG Apr 13 '13 at 16:13
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I think this is a great question. I was just wondering this myself. Almost every modern Quran is based off the 1924 Royal Cairo edition which is NOT based on any original manuscript but is written form of the Hafs transmission as recited by Asim (the Hafs 'an' Asim). The only other significant modern Quran is based on the oral transmission of Warsh as recited by Naafi (the Warsh 'an' Naafi). There is no written manuscript which the 1924 Royal Cairo Egyptian printing of the Quran was made from. Therefore, the manuscripts that English Quran translations are based off of is not older than 1924. No one was speaking this outdated English in 1924.

It has struck me numerous times while reading the Yusuf Ali translation that the language is stylized to mimic older works. This is my opinion but there is no reason to use this extinct type of English for any reason other than style. I would not go so far as to say this is done with the intent to deceive the audience into thinking that the translation is much older than what it is but I think it's fair to assume that any lay reader of the Quran would come to that conclusion. Whether intentional or not, I believe that it's very misleading. Abdullah Yusuf Ali started his translation in 1934 and it was published in 1938. Pickthall and Muhsin Khan also use "thee", "verily", etc.

"Knowest thou not that unto Allah belongeth the Sovereignty of the heavens and the earth? He punisheth whom He will, and forgiveth whom He will. Allah is Able to do all things." (Pickthall, Surah 5:40)

"Knowest thou not that to Allah (alone) belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth? He punisheth whom He pleaseth, and He forgiveth whom He pleaseth: and Allah hath power over all things." (Yusuf Ali, Surah 5:40)

Pickthall translated the Quran in 1930.

In the interest of fairness, not every verse is quite as obviously stylized as these but I just took a quick look in a range of 10 ayat and picked one that demonstrated the outdated English. Without knowing that the modern Quran (Hafs 'an' Asim) did not exist in its particular manuscript form before 1924, who wouldn't assume that these translations weren't based off some much older texts, hence the odd English such as what we see in KJV compared to the NKJV which eliminated a lot of the awkward sentence structure and vocabulary but still retained some of it.

I would also assume that the outdated English was used partially to keep some sense of the poetry of the original work but I still think it's misleading.

Like other people said in this thread, early Bible translations were done to be MORE accessible and easier to understand, not harder to understand.

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I do not think any of Quran translations are done by any company and I do not think it is intentional. The reason is simply no recent translator has translated Quran and this shows the laziness of Muslims.

However here is a list of translation that you may find a better translate:

Quran Translations

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