Compact Qur’an: Surah 109 and Isaiah 24:16.

A few weeks ago I gushed about the value of writing concisely.  Today I had another moment of bliss.  I was translating Surah 109 for my Arabic class:

Say: O ye that reject Faith!
I worship not that which ye worship
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
To you be your Way and to me mine. (Yusuf Ali translation)

Verses like this made me think the Qur’an was shoddy poetry.  To English ears, this surah sounds bad both semantically and syntactically.  It has too much semantic repetition, and the syntax is just confusing.  But in Arabic, the same verses have a concise beauty to them.

English prides itself on its huge vocabulary.  English wordsmiths can choose from several words with the same meaning but slightly different connotations or sounds.  So this kind of repetition sounds bad to English ears.  Teachers correct it.

Similarly, English requires too many syntax words for this surah to translate well. Take the verse“I worship not that which ye worship.”  Phrases that “that which” are clumsy and give me a headache.  But in Arabic, it works:

Laa a-‘budu ma ta-‘buduna
Not I-worship that you-worship

Qur’anic Arabic does not need as many syntactic words as English does.  There are only two.  The verbs contain their subjects, so you do not need words for “I” and “you.”  A verse that requires 7 words in English can be expressed by 4 in Arabic.  Yet these 4 words evoke so much: Muhammad’s repudiation of Arabian Jahiliyyah polytheism, his relatives shunning and outcasting him, the hatred and ridicule he faced on a daily basis for the revelations he preached.  There is a lot packed into these punchy four words.  The awkward syntax is not a defect of the Qur’an but a limitation of English.

As for the semantic repetition, I was immediately reminded of Isaiah 24:16:

bogedim bagadu ubeged bogedim bagadu
For the treacherous deal treacherously, the treacherous deal very treacherously. (NRSV)
The deceivers deceive, and with deception the deceivers deceive. (my rough translation)

When this verse came up in my Hebrew class last fall, the entire class laughed, because it sounded so silly!  It has a noun referring to actors performing an action, the verb for that action, and another noun referring to the action.  In Hebrew, all three of those words would come from the same root — in this case B-G-D.  This is possible to do in English, but as you can see above it seems ungainly.  As above, English requires more words.  A word-for-word translation would look more like this:

Deceivers deceive, and deception deceivers deceive.

In both Hebrew and Arabic, the compactness of these verses is made possible by the linguistic structure of the languages.  Neither translates very smoothly into idiomatic English.  Yet I love the compactness these Semitic tongues enable.  After reading flowery Greek and Latin prose in my classics courses, they are a breath of fresh air.

9 thoughts on “Compact Qur’an: Surah 109 and Isaiah 24:16.

  1. Brian

    Hmm… I’m not quite getting the sense of how these verses are supposed to sound when spoken aloud. Could you explain a little bit more about where the emphasis should go? How does verse work in Arabic and Hebrew, compared to, say, Greek?

    By the way, what exactly is the meaning behind what Isaiah is saying? Could you provide a bit of context about the whole “deceivers deceiving with deception” business? That is, is there literary and/or theological significance in the way he presents his verses?

    1. Post author

      Hi Brian! You’ve stumbled into a very huge topic with your first question. I can’t make comments about all Hebrew and Arabic poetry. but the poetry I have seen (that of the Hebrew Bible) is based on parallelism. In this poetic technique, successive phrases echo the words that come before, often by repetition (usually with slight word changes) but also sometimes by contrast. This might help:
      It is not run on rhyme, as English poetry traditionally is. Nor is it based on meter as the Homeric verse we read is.
      I don’t know about the Qur’an as a whole, but this surah seems to show the same techniques as some biblical poetry I have seen. The structure of the languages allows for punchy, compact verse that repeats words.

      Isaiah is (if I remember correctly) mourning and warning what will happen to Jerusalem in the future. This verse was just one part of a lengthy prophecy.

      1. Brian

        Ah, thanks for showing me that link. In English translation, it looks like Biblical verse is based solely on meaning, but I suppose what you were saying above is that the actual Hebrew would be able to convey part of that by using repetition of sounds in a way that English can’t. Interesting.

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  6. Chip Camden

    Lorna sent me a link to your blog — what a find!

    Isaiah isn’t unique here. Hebrew uses the device you mention quite a lot (combining different forms of the same root in the same phrase). It’s often used for emphasis, as in Genesis 2:17.

    One modern English example that is current today is “haters gonna hate” — which uses the redundancy (as it is seen in English) to make a point about expectations, rather than for intensity.

    1. Post author

      Chip! I am glad you found your way here. I’ve been following your blog too. Your story is really fascinating!

      I like the modern English example. I’m really hoping to get into arabic at some future point (perhaps grad school) and explore more of these similarities. This summer it will be mostly German.


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