May 2005, Vol. 6 No. 6
Staff Profile: Henry Matthews
Chronicle of Higher Education to Feature AUB in a Series of Stories
In the Memory of Nurse Mazen El Zahabi
Two New Appointments at the Office of Financial Planning
AUB Book Club Celebrates First Anniversary
Women’s League Elects New Board
Graduate Education Students Present Research Results
Technical Problems Mar Drama Club’s Newest Productions
All-Female Cast Stars in Richard II Play Reading
Book Review: Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings by Muhammad Ali Khalidi
Custodial Services Workshop Promotes Health, Safety, and Cleanliness
An Artist Explores His Arab Roots
Translating the Koran in Christian Europe during the Renaissance was a risky business, sometimes leading to a few days in prison. But the book almost always turned out to be a bestseller, making the exercise worthwhile, though not devoid of inaccuracies, according to Renaissance scholar Alastair Hamilton, who mixed wit and erudition in the lecture he gave to a small but attentive audience in West Hall on April 12.
Professor Hamilton’s lecture, entitled “The Quran in Early Modern Europe,” was presented at the invitation of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES). Hamilton was introduced by Tarif Khalidi, the Shaykh Zayid Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at CAMES, who described the British scholar as a “Renaissance man” because of his wide-ranging interests, which include the Copts of Egypt and the Maronite monasteries of Lebanon.
Hamilton is the C. Louise Thijssen-Schoute Professor of the History of Ideas at Leiden University in the Netherlands and the Arcadian Visiting Research Professor at the School of Advanced Studies at London University. Professor Hamilton explained that because of the obstacles to printing the Koran in a Europe that did not want the Muslim religion to reach a Western audience, translators often resorted to “linguistic compromise” as a way to appease restrictive authorities.
One of the most notable early translations into French, made by Andre du Ryer, used Christian terminology to explain Muslim concepts to endear the subject to a Western audience. However, this “linguistic compromise” introduced inaccuracies in the text, said Hamilton. Du Ryer, who had spent more than a decade in the Ottoman Empire, was viewed somewhat suspiciously and considered a “libertine.” For this reason, du Ryer felt compelled to placate the Christian authorities, Hamilton explained, saying, “He compromised in a most disgraceful manner.”
For instance, circumcision was referred to as a Muslim “sacrament,” and the ablutions which Muslims perform before prayer were explained as a ritual for “washing away sins.” “Considering how many times a day these ablutions were performed, this would lead one to think that they (Muslims) had lots of sins to wash away,” said Hamilton, mocking the logic behind the explanation and eliciting laughter from the audience.
But du Ryer would sometimes tone down the impact of these inaccuracies in translation with annotations in the margins of his book. For example, the Arabic phrase “salla ’aala al-nabi” was erroneously translated as “prayed for the Prophet,” but du Ryer would also include marginalia with a more faithful translation, saying: “according to Muslim sources, this phrase means ’invoked blessings on the Prophet.’”
Du Ryer’s orientialist past might have forced him into compromise with distrustful authorities, said Hamilton. But even a more conservative scholar, such as Ludovico Marracci, an Italian cleric who was very close to the Pope, acquiesced to pressures, albeit for different reasons. Marracci, who could afford not to compromise with the authorities, chose to do so because his motive for translating the Koran was to explain it to Christian missionaries, whose goal was to reach Muslim masses in order to convert them. “He was part of the propaganda machine of converting people into Christianity,” said Hamilton.
Unlike Du Ryer, Marracci had never set foot outside Europe and was a self-taught Arabist. For this reason, he relied on tafseer to translate the Koran the way Muslims understood it, something which also sometimes introduced inaccuracies, as tafseer sources were not treated critically. Marracci’s translation, which took more than 20 years to complete, was into Latin, the international language of scholars at the time.
Nevertheless, the various inaccuracies that were introduced in translations of the Early Modern European period were not responsible for the negative perception that the West later developed toward Islam, said Hamilton.