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Proceedings of the
Koran and its Western translations
Those who trace the history of books are perhaps afflicted with too intense a sensitivity to the material aspects, as may be the case in my response to this invitation to speak about translations of the Koran. How did the first translators work? What manuscripts might they have had available? These are the questions I propose to consider, rather than the intrinsic value of one version or the other. As for the history of translations of the text of the Koran, this is relatively well known, and it has been a number of years since the Istanbul Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, better known as the IRCICA, began a far-reaching programme of research which is resulting in the publication of bibliographies of Koran translations: a first volume appeared in 1986, devoted to printed versions,[i] followed in 2000 by a second which catalogues manuscript translations into fifty-eight languages,[ii] but does not tackle Turkish, Persian or Urdu, each of which is to have a volume to itself. That shows how copious the subject matter is, even if we rule out anything later than the seventeenth century. However, we need to distinguish clearly between those manuscript translations made for Muslim readers whose usual language was not Arabic and those made by non-Muslims. Until quite recently, the former were not dissociated from the Arabic text, but accompanied it in a subordinate status, being not only in a smaller character but also following its order exactly: each Arabic word has its translation directly beneath, with no regard for the natural word order of the target language,[iii] and it was left to the reader to construe the right order for these words. It is the second group that concerns us here; and they are more limited in number, as I deal only with the Middle Ages and the beginnings of the modern period. I also limit myself essentially to manuscripts, though to take account of the overlap that occurred at the end of this period, I cover the oldest printed translations; on the other hand, I do not deal at all with partial translations made during the period in question.
In order to translate, it is of course necessary to have an original to hand, but in the particular case of the Koran it was difficult for non-Muslims to have access to copies of this text: hindrances arose from more than one source. As Marie-Thérèse d’Alverny points out in her masterly study of two medieval Latin translations, ‘the oddest stories were current . . . in the Christian world about the “barbarian Saracens” and especially about their Prophet, stories spread . . . by people ignorant of the historical truth.’[iv] The swiftness of the Muslim expansion in the seventh century, the difficulties and vicissitudes of the Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula, all encouraged Westerners to suppose that the text that inspired their adversaries contained powerful sorceries, and that conviction persisted for some time. Early in the twentieth century a Spanish scholar of Arabic studies found the following note on a Arabic manuscript conserved in Valencia University library: ‘I, Jaime Ferrando, found this book in [the village of] Laguar, after the Moors had left for the sierra, in the house where Milleni of Guadalest lived, the king they had chosen; as it is in Arab characters, I have never found anyone who can read it. Tengo miedo no sea al Alcoràn de Mahoma. I fear it may be the Koran of Muhammad!’[v] (It was in fact a grammar.) It was to eliminate just this peril that Cardinal Cisneros had the Arabic manuscripts in Granada burned after the capture of the town by the Spaniards and the fall of the last Muslim state on the Peninsula.[vi] This mistrust was by no means confined to the regions where Islam and Christendom came face to face. In 1542, when Theodor Buchmann, better known under the name ‘Bibliander’, wanted to print a Latin translation of the Koran in Basle, those who opposed this emphasized the dangers that the text represented. Arguing before the city council, which was to decide whether to authorize the business or not, they stressed the assaults on Christ’s person and gospel which the text contained; there were manuscript translations already, they observed; what need was there to make more prevalent, by printing, a text which would only cause scandal?[vii] As late as the end of the seventeenth century Ludovico Marracci, in the preface to his translation, was still obliged to argue against the interdiction on the publication of the text of the Koran issued under Pope Alexander VII.[viii]
Thus the Christians feared to hold in their hands this disturbing and most mysterious book. For their part, the Muslims were afraid, also, of allowing copies of the Koran to fall into the hands of unbelievers. We often find, on the binding of a Koran or on the first opening, a quotation from Surah LVI: ‘Only those who are pure may touch it’.[ix] But as this type of admonition was unlikely to be sufficient to ensure that no Koran would ever pass into hostile hands, the authorities took other measures to hinder such transfers. Some were of a general nature: a treatise on market regulations, written in Muslim Spain in the twelfth century, advises that Arabic manuscripts of scientific works should not be sold to Christians or to Jews, to ensure that they do not claim authorship of the works.[x] In the second half of the thirteenth century, in 1285, the Marinid ruler Abû Yûsuf Ya‘qûb made a peace treaty with the King of Castile, Sancho IV: one clause provided for the Christian sovereign to restore any Arabic books that might be found in the possession of his Christian or Jewish subjects.[xi] The Koran is at the head of the list, followed by Koranic commentaries and books concerning the religious law, but works of grammar and literature are also included. According to the Arabic chronicler, thirteen cartloads of manuscripts were handed over in this way, including some copies of the Koran. Towards the mid-fifteenth century, one of the translators whose contribution I shall mention shortly tried to get hold of a Spanish translation of the Koran, but was informed by his envoy that this request had been greeted with hostility by the Muslims.[xii] Later still, in the sixteenth century, the traveller Nicolas Clénard experienced in Fez how difficult it could be for a Christian to procure works in Arabic.[xiii]
Access to the text, therefore, was difficult, with recalcitrance evident on both sides: a refusal to admit knowledge, and a refusal to allow access to the means of knowledge. For the Middle Ages, we only have evidence from a fairly late date of the efforts made by those who, regardless, sought to obtain copies of the original text, but in the libraries of Europe there are copies of the Koran which bear the physical traces of having passed through Western hands at a fairly early date. Their history cannot always be traced in much detail, but their evidence does allow us to identify the main routes along which these manuscripts were circulated despite the hindrances set in their way here and there. War and its attendant practices provided a regular source for a limited market for collectors of curiosities, men of the Church and scholars. Charles V’s expedition against Tunis in 1535 was an opportunity for getting hold of a number of manuscripts: we may mention here the three volumes numbered Arabic MSS 438, 439 and 440 of the National Library of France [Bibliothèque Nationale de France, BNF]; these found their way into the hands of Cardinal de Granvelle before ending up in Paris.[xiv] The fighting against the Ottomans around Vienna and in Hungary allowed many soldiers who took part in these campaigns to seize copies of the Koran: thus the manuscript Laud Or. 246 in the Bodleian Library at Oxford was acquired in 1593 by a Hungarian, who gave it to the German Arabic scholar, Jacob Christmann of Heidelberg.[xv] Among this group we should perhaps also include a fragmentary copy kept until the start of the last century in the great mosque of Damascus, which bears on one of its pages a single Latin word, written by a medieval hand: it is tempting to infer that this is a Koran taken by Crusaders and later recaptured by Muslims.[xvi]
Purchased copies are less easy to identify. For the period we are concerned with, I have not come across any manuscripts that can be confirmed as having been purchased, either in Spain or in the Orient.
Finally, there is copying: a common means of procuring a text of the Koran. The scholars of Europe are particularly well represented in this group, sometimes setting renegade Muslims to work, as shown by Arabic MS 560 – a collection of extracts from the Koran, with a note informing us that they were transcribed by François de Boulogne, ‘a Turk whom Étienne Hubert, died 1614, professor of Arabic at the Royal College caused to be brought out of the ranks of the King’s guards. In MDCXII.’[xvii] But more numerous are copies made by European hands: from the BNF collection alone, we could point to Arabic MSS 468, 493 and 507, all of which appear to date from the seventeenth century. The first of these provides, along with the Arabic text, an interlinear translation into French.[xviii] This was also how Juan de Segovia, of whom more later, had a copy made of a Koran which he had found in 1437 in a German library.[xix] The publication of the Arabic text by the printing house of Paganino dei Paganini in Venice at the start of the century was a complete failure[xx] – to such an extent that this edition was long thought to be a myth! It did nothing for the diffusion of the Arabic text.
We have to conclude that in spite of the difficulties intentionally placed in the way of the circulation of Koranic manuscripts, copies were available before the sixteenth century. Two volumes in the BNF illustrate this. The first, Arabic MS 5935, contains part of the text of the Koran: in the fifteenth century, its owner had had it bound – by a French artisan, to judge by the style of the binding.[xxi] More interesting is Arabic MS 384.[xxii] This Koran, probably copied in Egypt in the twelfth century, has copious marginal glosses in the Latin of the late thirteenth or fourteenth centuries – direct evidence of careful study of the text by some clerics. In 1454, in a letter addressed to Juan de Segovia, Nicholas of Cusa was in a position to direct his correspondent to three libraries holding a copy of the text – not counting the library at Basle, which was available to the translator at Aiton in Savoy.[xxiii]
The places where Christendom and Islam found themselves face to face are naturally those where the exchange took place. Spain played a crucial role in this, at the start of the period we are considering, with its additional advantages at that time of the presence of Muslims who could speak Spanish and a strong contingent of clerics driven by a desire to understand. The translation of the Koran by Christians for the benefit of other Christians was in fact part of a broader movement, which may have begun as early as the second half of the tenth century, but which was given a decisive boost by the taking of Toledo in 1085 and the arrival there of intellectuals such as Raymond, its archbishop from 1125–52, and his successor John (1152–66). The Latins turned the presence of Arabic-speaking Christians (the Mozarabs) and Jews to good use: they would get them to translate from Arabic into the vernacular, and then a cleric would turn this into Latin. There began a full-scale hunt for texts, scientific or philosophical; it was part of a real curiosity about ‘others’. During this same era, firmly marked by the spirit of the crusades – or more generally by attitudes of warlike confrontation – there were individuals capable of conceiving another approach, in which the translation of the Koran represented an indispensable stage. It should, however, be quite clearly understood that at no time was there any idea of questioning the superiority of Christianity: the purpose was to equip oneself with the means of convincing the opposite party, of bringing them over to one’s side, converting them for the sake of their salvation – in a word, of achieving the same end by other means.
If we disregard an early attempt at a partial translation under the reign of Alfonso I of Aragon (1104–34),[xxiv] the first great effort was initiated by the Abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable (1092–1156).[xxv] In 1141, during a journey he undertook in Spain to look into the affairs of the Benedictine order in the Peninsula, he became convinced that it was necessary to understand the Muslims in order to convert them; he was of the view that theologians must be allowed to get to know their doctrines if they were to prepare effective arguments. In the context of the movement for translation of Arabic texts we have just described, he was sure of finding people competent to carry out this project successfully, and did indeed meet two scholars, the Englishman Robert of Ketton and the Dalmatian (or Carinthian) Hermann, who had come in search of Ptolemy’s Almagest. Offering sufficient inducement, he recruited them and managed to add a Muslim to his team, one Muhammad. This was just as well, for the language of the Koran is difficult and within Islam has given rise to a specialist literature of glossaries and commentaries, and this information was largely out of reach for Robert and for Hermann. Worse still, there were no dictionaries at that time, only the most meagre glossaries at best, while the tafsirs – Muslim critical interpretations – were certainly easier to come by and were able to illuminate subtle passages with their explanations. No doubt it was to cope with these difficulties that the Abbot of Cluny engaged a Muslim to help the two translators.
The 1162 manuscript in the Arsenal Library is without doubt, as d’Alverny suggested, the original of the translation made at the instigation of Peter the Venerable.[xxvi] The result shows the concern of Robert of Ketton and his assistants to impose coherence and clarity, even at the cost of introducing elements that do not appear in the original and comments to explain obscure passages.[xxvii]
This translation, which forms part of an ensemble of texts on Islam known as the Corpus Toletanum, played a considerable role in European awareness of Islam not only in the Middle Ages but also in the modern period. In the form of extracts, sometimes linked with other texts of a polemical nature, it was subsequently translated into the vernacular and spread by printing.[xxviii] Most important of all, it had the privilege of becoming the first full translation printed by Bibliander – an edition which saw the light of day in Basle, in 1543 – though it cost him no small difficulty on the ideological front.[xxix] The first translation into a modern language, that of Andrea Arrivabene which appeared in 1547, was in fact an Italian version of Robert of Ketton’s, despite the translator’s claims.[xxx]
The Christian defeat at Alarcos in 1195 rekindled Christian efforts at reconquering, and the Archbishop of Toledo, Rodrigo Jimenez de Rada, played a crucial role here. It was this great man, together with the Archdeacon Maurice, who commissioned a second translation, from a Mozarab, Marco de Toledo, who finally finished the task in 1209 or 1210.[xxxi] His work differs from Robert of Ketton’s in its greater faithfulness to the source text, ‘following the word order of the Arabic sentence, at the risk of seeming incoherent and confused’.[xxxii] The work of Marco de Toledo, whose accuracy is appreciated today, did not have the same success as the Corpus Toletanum.
Unfortunately the translation undertaken by Juan de Segovia during the second quarter of the fifteenth century has been lost.[xxxiii] Juan, who was probably a Jewish convert to Christianity, did himself possess a Koran written, according to the catalogue of his library, ‘in very ancient Arabic characters’.[xxxiv] He was convinced that the root of the problem in relations between Christians and Muslims was a lack of knowledge about each other – as prevalent in the one camp as in the other – and it was up to the Christians, possessors of the truth, to begin the work. Having had Robert of Ketton’s translation critically scrutinized, he came to the conclusion that he must start again from scratch. We know from his correspondence how he made use of manuscripts of the Koran: we can see that he relied on his personal copy and on another, belonging to the Basle house of the Mendicant Friars, which he had brought to Aiton.[xxxv] There is no doubt that he wanted, good philologist that he was, to have the greatest possible number of sources, and he was told by Nicholas of Cusa of three other copies of the Koran, one in Bavaria, one in Cologne and one at Roermund in Limbourg.[xxxvi] What appears interesting to me about this procedure is that he had recourse to a specialist, a faqih [holy man] of Segovia, ‘Isâ Gidelli(?), who came, with a fellow-Muslim, and spent four months in Savoy making a copy of the Arabic text and a Spanish translation. I should like to digress slightly at this point, and emphasize the extent to which the translators’ task was made easier by the circulation of Spanish translations made in the Morisco circles for domestic purposes; few examples have survived: one is that of some extracts, now in the BNF, copied at Salonica in 1569 by a certain Ibrâhîm Isquierdo;[xxxvii] another, a complete copy made in 1606, now in the Toledo collection;[xxxviii] and others are aljamiados, manuscripts in which the Arabic alphabet is used to transliterate one of the Peninsula languages: the oldest of these examples appears to date from the fifteenth century.[xxxix] As for Juan de Segovia, the Latin translation he had made appeared as a red interlinear of one in Spanish, with the Arabic text on the opposite page. The line of descent from these models appears reasonably clear. But it was around this time that Spain was completing the Reconquista, and knowledge of Arabic was put to use in converting the Moriscos: this was the particular aim of the work of Pedro de Alcalà who in 1505 published the first dictionary of Arabic, though of an Arabic dialect far from the language of the Koran.[xl]
The next stage of the story takes us to Italy and France. Not long after the labours of Juan de Segovia, and under similar conditions, another Latin translation was made in Italy under the patronage of Egidio da Viterbo (c. 1465–1532).[xli] Here each page has four columns; they contain the Arabic text, a transliteration of the Arabic in Latin alphabet, a Latin translation, and notes. The work was done by a certain Giovanni Gabriele de Terrola, and completed in 1518. A notable figure, Leon the African, was connected with this work as a correcting editor. A Muslim of good family, born in Granada in 1495, he had been captured by a Sicilian pirate in 1518; presented to Pope Leon X in 1520 as a gift, he was baptized and lived in Rome until 1531, when he managed to return to Tunis.[xlii] This was the person who worked with Egidio da Viterbo who, unlike Juan de Segovia, knew Arabic; also the prelate might have possessed the copy of the Koran that is now in the BNF, numbered Arabic MS 405.[xliii] This manuscript, which was already in Italy in 1459, probably formed part of Egidio da Viterbo’s library, for the catalogue reports four volumes ‘in Arabic or Turkish’.[xliv] In any case, it found its way into the hands of some meticulous Western reader who restored certain omissions in the Arabic text.[xlv]
The translations I have mentioned were originally intended for a learned readership: they are in Latin, they reflect the preoccupations of those who commissioned and made them, and they only made an impact on a small number of readers. With the printing press came translations into the vernacular, which were based on the one by Richard of Ketton and spread the knowledge of Islam more widely in Europe.
So far we have been looking at the work of men who were all on the European side of the border between the Dar al-Islam and the Dar al-Harb, the Islamic zone and the zone into which Islam could expand. With the exception of Marco de Toledo, they had procured, in one way or another, the collaboration of a Muslim to overcome the difficulties of the text. In the seventeenth century we encounter the first translators with direct experience of the Muslim Orient, where they were able to familiarize themselves with Islam. This is the case of André du Ryer, who acted as a consul in the Levant before returning to France and publishing his French translation in 1647. This shows some familiarity with the traditional Koranic exegesis of the tafsir – we can deduce this in particular from his treatment of the ‘mysterious letters’ appearing at the beginning of certain surahs.[xlvi] The Franciscan, Germain of Silesia, author of a manuscript translation that I have been unable to examine, was ‘Apostolic Prefect of the Mission to Grand Tartary’ and stayed in Isfahan, Qom and Mashhad around the mid-seventeenth century. He also, therefore, had the opportunity of going further into the interpretations of the text of the Koran.[xlvii] The commentaries were without doubt more immediately useful for the work of translation; dictionaries (the first being the Lexicon of Raphelengius – Francis van Ravelinghen – published at Leyden in 1613), were still not sufficiently developed to be of any great use. The last work I shall mention is the translation by Ludovico Marracci, published in Padua in 1698,[xlviii] which is distinguished by having an edition of the Arabic text facing the translation – like the layout of the work commissioned by Egidio da Viterbo – as well as an impressive apparatus criticus, which Ignazio Guidi has catalogued.[xlix] Marracci himself never left Italy; but there is no doubt that, when there were Christians in Rome who had lived in the Arab world, he knew how to make the most of their presence to resolve the difficulties he was encountering.
This brief survey of the circumstances and methods of work of the first Western translators of the Koran allows us to draw out a few constant features. The method of translation used in Spain by the team brought together by Peter the Venerable is a well-known one; to some extent it was also the one used by Juan de Segovia and by Egidio da Viterbo. It consisted of relying more or less on the skill of those who knew the Koran best, the Muslims; their participation in these enterprises, either directly as translators, or indirectly as knowledgeable sources of advice for the translator, deserves to be emphasized. Because of this, the vernacular became the crossover from one language to another. It would be interesting therefore to know how early a date Spanish translations of the Koran by Muslims began to circulate; they could have played a role in the translations made in [Christian] Spain. With this in mind, we cannot fail to be struck by the fact that the translation by Marco de Toledo seems, in its word-for-word arrangement, to be conforming to a principle observed in the translations made by Muslims for their own use.[l] Indeed, Juan de Segovia tried in the fifteenth century to have an accurate Spanish translation of the Koran sent to him to further his own project, but came up against the Muslims’ opposition to handing over their revealed text to a Christian.[li]
The translators of the modern period, by contrast, ostensibly work alone; but the different circumstances of their age allow them to travel to learn their trade. Yet even so it would perhaps be wrong to underestimate the importance of the Orientalist circles which developed in Europe during those times, offering opportunities for comparing different experiences and profiting from specific skills; du Ryer, Marracci and Germain of Silesia may well have moved in such circles. Whether that was the case or not, there is every reason to conclude that, for the difficult task of translating the Koran, it was understood from very early on that the combination of different viewpoints was of the essence.
I. Binark, H. Eren and E. Ihsanoğlu (eds.), World
Bibliography of Translations of the Meaning of the Holy Qur’an,
Printed Translations, 1515-1980, Istanbul, IRCICA, 1986.