And You See the Mountains, Imagine Them Fixed

Translations are a puzzle. Say you’re reading Talal Itani’s translation of the Qu’ran (because you realized you haven’t read the central text of the world’s 2nd largest and fastest-growing religion) and come across Surah 24:43:

            Have you not seen how God propels the clouds, then brings them together, then piles them into a heap, and you see the rain drops emerging from its midst? How He brings down loads of hail from the sky, striking with it whomever He wills, and diverting it from whomever He wills? The flash of its lightning almost snatches the sight away.

You’re first confused because Muhammad was born and died in what we today call Saudi Arabia, a place not typically associated with weather conditions like hail. You find that there were two hailstorms last year, one described with typical sensationalism as “freak,” and the other described with atypical sensationalism by invoking biblical plagues. You believe it’s tongue-in-cheek. Then they say it makes “a literal reading of the bible more credible.”

Well, anyway, now you know that that’s a commonly agreed upon perception. Britannica mentions winter rains, spring hazes, and dust storms, but nothing about hail. So hail is around rare-but-not-impossible. Not to mention that the Bible mentions hail, like in the Exodus epigraph of the plague-ridden article, and the Qu’ran is inspired by its fellow Judeo-Christian holy books. So that checks out.

But you want to be safe since you’ve already had some translation concerns with Talal. In Surah 7:41, you remember, he wrote “for them is a couch of hell.” Which was weirdly modern. You checked islamicstudies.com, which had “Hell shall be their bed.” Then Quran.com, which had decided “They will have from Hell a bed.” Translation is an art, you understand. Talal’s version has you thinking of a Simpson’s couch gag though.

So you decide to look that those sites’ versions of Surah 24:43. Islamicstudies.com has it as:

            Do you not see that it is Allah Who gently drives the clouds, then He joins them together and then turns them into a thick mass and thereafter you see rain-drops fall down from its midst? And then He sends down hail from the heaven – thanks to the mountains – and causes it to smite whom He wills and averts it from whom He wills. The flash of His lightning almost takes away the sight.

While Quran.com’s translation goes:

            Do you not see that Allah drives clouds? Then He brings them together, then He makes them into a mass, and you see the rain emerge from within it. And He sends down from the sky mountains [of clouds] within which is hail, and He strikes with it whom He wills and averts it from whom He wills. The flash of its lightning almost takes away the eyesight.

All you can think is “m…mountains?”

Now translation as an art has a long history. Generally this attention is from the side of translator who acts out their thinking in a translator’s preface or squeeze it at the end of an introduction. Sometimes there are footnotes, endnotes, and translator notes. Sometimes literary giants like Borges and Nabokov step in to declare their philosophy of language, literature, and translation. At issue seems to be how proximate or distant the translator is from their translation. Does it accurately reflect the culture, spirit, letter, tone, etc. of the source material? In what way is it ‘honest?’

Even Talal, in his way, opens his translation with this issue. He says that he is an “Electrical Engineer” who read the Qu’ran in 1992 “in order to discredit it.” Eventually he was converted–presumably through countless rereadings of the text–and decided to to translate it because “he gave up all hope of finding [a translation] that is at the same time highly accurate and very easy to read.” He concludes this introductory page with a “Words of the Translator:” “The Quran is a Reminder. It contains Mercy and Healing, and it is beyond doubt from the Lord of the Worlds.”

In this Itani reveals two beliefs. A translation should be about accessibility. His Goodreads bio states this as wanting to translate the Qu’ran into “clear and easy-to-read modern English.” While he opens the Qu’ran by stating he is an “Electrical Engineer,” this bio also notes he is a software developer. If there is one thing software developer’s care for, it’s fluidity. The programmers I’ve known would likely take to heart what the God Entity says to Bender in the “Godfellas” episode of Futurama: “when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” In essence, Talal sees Qu’ranic language as needing to be pared down for the average Arabic-illiterate reader in order to reveal and conceal the invisible hand behind it.

How does Talal meld this simplification mindset with being “highly accurate?” In the above surahs his translations seemingly range from jarring at best to inexact at worst. Assuming he’s not fundamentally wrong about the content of the Qu’ran (he’s spent 15 years studying it) it brings us back to the question: in what way is it an ‘honest’ translation?

On his site he clarifies. At the top of the page he says of the ClearQuran that “it is purely a translation.” Scrolling down, he recounts his experience of leaving his native Lebanon and Muslim family at 18 “seeking peace and education.” He led a secular life until he was awed by a fortuitous copy of the Qu’ran. He taught himself Arabic. Once the book became ingrained in him to the point of being able to quote and debate passages from it with others, he began to notice how other translations didn’t mesh with his vision. “Some have the translators personal words inserted in them,” he thought. So he decided to create a translation that “says exactly what the Arabic says” and “should be good for my 19-year-old daughter to read.” In turning to the Qu’ran, Talal re-turns to the issue of lineage. His abandoned family and his budding one. The “Qu’ran” becomes a literal “Reminder,” and his translation takes on the tone of a nostalgic project.

The case of Talal Itani is emblematic of what Tim Parks notes in his his review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian for NYRB. He wrote that a reader illiterate in the material’s language “must consider the relationship between content and style in the English translation. In a literary text a certain content manifests itself in a certain style.” This tension manifests in Talal’s translation between a desire to restore something lost and modernize for readability. Without knowing Arabic you can see how “a couch of hell” is an ill fit for a book written in the 7th century. It’s unclear whether this is more accurate to the original Arabic, but ultimately it doesn’t matter since it makes the ClearQuran less clear. It’s what happens when, insistent on the purity of “exactly as,” you reveal the sleight of invisible hand. It turn beds into couches and molehills into mountains.

“M…mountains?”

That’s the first issue you have. It’s not clear where these surprise mountains came from. Your best guess is that “loads of hail” in Talal’s translation is a literal translation of whatever the sites considered as having mountain metaphors. But Quran.com brackets “[of clouds]” which suggests it’s not the “loads of hail” that’s a pared down mountain metaphor. Otherwise it would be loads of clouds.

Then you realize that Islamicstudies.com isn’t obviously using mountains as a metaphor. For them the mountains seem to be an active participant, separated by em dashes, that can be thanked. Even the site’s footnote makes it a point of contention: “This may mean frozen clouds which have been called mountains….it may also mean the mountains of the earth which stand high in the heavens….” At best you could argue it’s a metonym for a greater power like the modern meme “Thanks, Obama.” 

That’s setting aside how Talal uses “almost snatches the sight away” instead of the “almost takes away the sight” used almost verbatim by both sites. Which, you think, is strange given how “snatch” is more dramatic. Maybe it matches the flavor of the passage–though also “takes away” might be intended to reflect how blasé the action is for Allah–but it stands out as injecting a nonexistent tone.

You realize that the mountains are permanently caught between their literal and metaphorical possibilities. To be honest, all you can say for certain is that it can hail in Saudi Arabia and this makes a literal reading of the bible more credible. To someone, anyway. You suppose that’s the point. Religion is a translation event–one takes what is handed down and translates it as honestly as possible.

Even though Mohammed’s revelation was verbal and only later turned into the text of the Qu’ran, the Qu’ran itself insists on the revelatory nature of written language–“Recite: and your Lord is most generous, who taught by pen, taught man what he did not know.” This makes reading a doubled revelation, a double translation. Interestingly, the personal story on Talal’s site states that he both listened to the Qu’ran on cassette tapes and read it before converting, imitating both forms of revelation.

It’s telling that the Islamicstudies.com translation of the above surah, 96:3-5, is largely in agreement with Quran.com while disagreeing with Talal’s translation. They write “Recite” whereas Talal writes “Read.” The mountains are caught between two modes of being, the Qu’ran is caught between two modes of being revealed, and meaning is somewhere in this semi-meant semi-being.

Oh well. You think of Merrill’s “Lost in Translation.” You find the opening lines of the last stanza the most memorable:

            But nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation
           And every bit of us is lost in it
            (Or found – I wander through the ruins of S
            Now and then, wondering at the peacefulness)

But you’ve always been fond of those moments before the ruins of S, when the boy is putting together the puzzle with his French Mademoiselle:

            Then Sky alone is left, a hundred blue
            Fragments in revolution, with no clue
            To where a Niche will open. Quite a task,
            Putting together Heaven, yet we do.

And how even at the end of the puzzle these fragments of equivalent sky in revolution – towards a newness or back to a beginning? – reflect Heaven to the boy’s mind. This broken, singular blueness. Most of all though, you’ve always loved how it wasn’t Heaven that completed the puzzle. Rather:

            It’s done. Here under the table all along
            Were those missing feet. It’s done.

How the last pieces of the puzzle, at the boy’s feet, were the missing feet of the puzzle’s figure, as if mocking the pretension to perfect replication. That the man wandering among the ruins of S thinking “or found” mimics this pretension because it is as he wanders, gripped by nostalgia, meditating on the rubble at his feet, that he thinks he’s found himself in translation.

Justin Goodman received his B.A. in Literature from SUNY Purchase. His writing—published, among other places, in Cleaver Magazine, TwoCities Review, and Prairie Schooner—is accessible from justindgoodman.com. His chapbook, The True Final Apocalypse, is forthcoming from Local Gems.

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