Good translations of the world's religious texts?
July 15, 2006 10:12 PM   Subscribe

Gandhi suggests that every person should read the major religious texts of the world, translated by people who wish to convey the beauty of their religion. I'd like to start with the Qu'ran and the Bhagavad Gita (though suggestions for the others are appreciated). Find me some good translations!

Gandhi's stipulation about translators wishing to convey the beauty of their religion is, I believe, an inclination towards a translation that includes something of a positive bias in the word choices. While perhaps less technically accurate, the goal of this project is to find out what various peoples love about their religions, rather than be as academically correct as possible.
posted by sdis to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
(Translations into English, to be clear)
posted by sdis at 10:16 PM on July 15, 2006


Sacred Texts should be a nice place to start.
posted by Gyan at 10:27 PM on July 15, 2006


Don't forget to read some secular texts in the original language. Just for balance. Ghandi would have like Bob, I think. Sorry for the anti-answer. It used to be Saturday night.

There are loads of significant texts here. The King James Bible is in there somewhere.
posted by persona non grata at 12:11 AM on July 16, 2006


I've read some of the translation of The Koran by N.J. Dawood (mine is the Penguin Classics 1997 edition), and I thought it did a better job at rendering the language into graceful English than other translations I looked at. It seems to be trying to preserve the literary merit of the writing, which is somewhat different than the beauty of the subject.

I was just looking for an edition to read because I thought I should read some of The Koran. Someone who has studied it in depth or comparatively may have better suggestions. But they don't seem to have commented yet.
posted by aneel at 12:38 AM on July 16, 2006


The Ahmed Ali translation(different from the popular Yusef Ali/Abdullah Yusef Ali translation) of the Qur'an is great. It's written in clear, readable English and focuses on providing a clear translation of the meaning rather than the more literal, almost word-for-word translation many other translations use that make them very awkward and unnatural to read. It also has a minimal amount of foot notes, using them only when absolutely necessary. The Yusef Ali translation has nice, flowery language but it just has so many footnotes that the flow is frequently broken, and most of the footnotes end up just giving the author's opinion on something or relating the verse to some other literary works, or whatnot. I've never seen the Dawood translation myself, but to my understanding there is some controversy about it becaues he presents the chapters out of order. You're going to get tired of hearing about how the Qur'an isn't translatable but it's really true. There are so many layers of meaning in many instances that a translator is forced to choose one over the other, plus one of the major sources of the beauty of the Qur'an is the actual sound of the words being pronounced in Arabic (Qur'an means recitation), so you might find it beneficial to listen to some recitation in Arabic after or while you're reading.

There's one little thing about the Ahmed Ali translation, and I don't know why he did this, maybe he had a reason, but sometimes he doesn't translate the word Ar-Rahman, so I'll just tell you that it's one of God's names and it is commonly translated as the beneficent, though it's one example of a word that would really require a whole paragraph to translate!

Just a couple of little things about reading the Qur'an, and there is probably a lot more you should know, but these come to mind right away so I'll just mention them to get you started:

1. The word "We" is used to refer to God sometimes. It isn't a plural, it's the royal we, and it could be confusing in some places if you didn't know that;
2.) The first verse of a lot of chapters consists of a few Arabic letters, and no one knows what they mean but they have to be included because it was part of the revelation. So that's why you'll see things like "alif lam mim" or something similar at the beginning of some chapters, and why these verses won't have been translated.
posted by leapingsheep at 1:44 AM on July 16, 2006 [1 favorite]


Can't say about the BG, but while I studied with the Naqshbandi Sufis, they gave me a copy of The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an, by Abdullah Yusef Ali. It has the Arabic, the English translation as well as annotations in the form of footnotes. I trust it as a true representation of the intent of the book.

That said, I was also told to read the Koran in at least two different languages: Arabic and your native tongue. Like me, you may not be that serious.

"translated by people who wish to convey the beauty of their religion"
My experience with this group was one of magic and touching inclusiveness. Everything they did was to enable all the faithful(of any/every religion) to come together in creating a better world. I trust them completely in regards to humanity/humanism and the spreading of beauty through their faith.
posted by a_green_man at 1:45 AM on July 16, 2006


"... While perhaps less technically accurate, the goal of this project is to find out what various peoples love about their religions, rather than be as academically correct as possible."
posted by sdis to religion & philosophy


What I have to add to the comments of others in this thread, is based on your larger stated goal, as above:

There is, I think, a certain fetishism some religions exhibit towards their written texts, that is entirely absent from other religions. Jews, Muslims, and Christians are all known as "people of their book" and each of these religions have adherents who ascribe significant religious power to actual copies of their preferred text, and have rituals that proscribe how it is to be stored or even handled.

The Buddhists and Shinto practitioners I've known have always suggested that experiential religious practice, in the form of meditation and the quiet striving of an individual spirit directly and genuinely seeking enlightenment, are the truly valuable aspects of religion in the human experience. Buddhists have religious texts, but few are considered canonical, and the study of any of them is secondary to the practice of meditation.

In other religious experience, such as totemic religions, the concept of religious text is entirely absent, and power and ritual in tangible form finds expression in art, song, dance, and oral recitation. Totemic religions even sometimes see attempts to create written, immutable scripture as sacrilege; such attempts are viewed as efforts to destroy what is sacred, and to kill the belief of those the religion relies on for continuation, or to make weak the hearts and minds of the people who are the living vessels of the religion.

So, if you concentrate only on reading religious texts in your search for what people love about their religions, you'll largely miss the practice of religions to whom text is not only unimportant, but a source of schism and error. And you'll miss much beauty, and the power of spirit moving in the moment unconstrained by codes and symbols.
posted by paulsc at 6:33 AM on July 16, 2006


sdis, you can obtain a free copy of the Book of Mormon here.
posted by rinkjustice at 6:50 AM on July 16, 2006


I second leapingsheep's Ahmed Ali recommendation for the Qur'an. The translator is a novelist if I recall correctly.
posted by gubo at 7:08 AM on July 16, 2006


I very much like The Message as a translation of the Bible. Wikipedia.
posted by WCityMike at 7:20 AM on July 16, 2006


I highly recommend The Message of the Qur'an, translated by Muhammad Asad. There are many translations of the Qur'an, and I have several others, but this is fully annotated with the traditional commentaries, making it invaluable for understanding how the text has been interpreted.
posted by languagehat at 7:41 AM on July 16, 2006


Michael Sells' Approaching the Qur'an introduces the early verses and comes with a CD of field recordings of recitations in Arabic, to hear the sound of the poetry that gets lost in translation.

[rinkjustice, this question is about translations of religious texts from other languages into English; the Book of Mormon is already in English. I know you like to prosleytize at the drop of a hat, but AskMe's not the place.]
posted by mediareport at 8:42 AM on July 16, 2006


[rinkjustice, this question is about translations of religious texts from other languages into English; the Book of Mormon is already in English. I know you like to prosleytize at the drop of a hat, but AskMe's not the place.]

Oops, mybad.
posted by rinkjustice at 10:39 AM on July 16, 2006


Eknath Easwaran's translation of The Bhagavad Gita does a good job of putting forth the salient points of the text in very accessible prose. Then there is also Mahatma Gandhi's own translation of the Gita, with his notes.
posted by sk381 at 11:30 AM on July 16, 2006


This is a good site for comparative reading of translations: USC Compendium of Muslim Texts. Scroll down to "Translations of the Quran" - they offer a verse-by-verse comparison of the Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, and Shakir translations.

(I personally find it very useful to compare multiple translations side by side - you get a much more complete feel for the work by seeing how different translators have made differing decisions about a particular passage or the meaning of a particular word.)
posted by jaed at 3:26 PM on July 16, 2006


mediareport: technically, the Book of Mormon in English is a translation, right?
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:10 PM on July 16, 2006


Crap. That should've had [/DevilsAdvocate] at the end, but with angle brackets instead of [].
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:10 PM on July 16, 2006


thanks all! mark as best answer isnt working particularly well tonight, but I've gone with Gandhi's Gita translation and the Ahmed Ali Qu'ran translation. When I get through those, I may get some of the other excellent suggestions. Thanks again
posted by sdis at 10:52 PM on July 16, 2006


Possibly not a major religion but Ursula K. Leguin's translation of the Tao te Ching is top notch. If the other translations out there are the standard to judge by then Leguin's effort is something along the lines of a loving interpretation rather than a strictly faithful translation. Very well done, though, and the audio version (read by her) is well done, too.
posted by kaymac at 10:28 AM on July 17, 2006


technically, the Book of Mormon in English is a translation, right?

Only Joseph Smith knows for sure. But until we find the gold whatchamiggers in ancient Egyptian/Hebrew/whatever he says he saw, all existing versions we have are in English, and there are no translation issues involved.
posted by mediareport at 8:03 AM on July 18, 2006


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