Tag Archives: Isaiah

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.