Polysemy and translating the potential meanings of the Holy Qur’an [Archives:2007/1046/Education]

April 30 2007

Essam Hassan Al-Mizjaji
Ph D scholar
Sana'a University
[email protected]

Translation of the Holy Qur'an, on which I have been preparing my PhD dissertation, is an old controversy that dates back to the era of Khilafa Rashida. In that era many non-Arab countries had been part of one Islamic nation whose constitution used to be the Holy Qur'an. It was revealed to the Arabi prophet Mohammed (Peace and Blessings of Allah be Upon Him) in purely Arabic language to defeat the rhetoric of Arabs who used to be very fluent and eloquent.

The necessity of translating the potential meanings of the Holy Qur'an comes from the enormous number of non-Arabi Muslims. Approximately, three quarters of Muslims population in the globe do not speak Arabic, the language of the Holy Qur'an. This is not to mention non-Muslims from other religions and cultures who want to understand Islam and its teachings especially after the incident of nine/eleven. Accordingly, translating the Quranic text has been essential to deliver the message of Islam to Muslims in particular and the other nations to know the pure teachings of Islam especially in this era where globalization has become the philosophy of the date.

Many constraints are embedded in the process of translating the Quranic text to the extent that at some stage translators concluded that it is untranslatable i.e. it is unattainable to translate the Word of Allah into another language since we ignore the overall potential meanings of the Holy Script. Linguistic and cultural tropes have made the translation of the Quranic text unachievable. This, indeed, is due to the shortcomings in the translated text to attain the overall semantic value as well as to achieve the pragmatic impact that the original text enjoys.

One of these constraints that face translators is multiplicity of the meanings of a single word which is, semantically, termed “polysemy”. Polysemy occurs when a word has two or more related meanings. If you consult a reasonable comprehensive dictionary for any language, you will find numerous examples of polysemous words. The easiness of giving the word additional related meanings allows language to accommodate the newly created functions, concepts and perspectives that accompany the technological progress and cultural changes, I will not say development.

Polysemy is a common feature in most, if not all, of the languages in this globe. Many cognitive as well as communicative factors take share in appearance of such linguistic phenomenon. Some linguists refer it to the inability of the human language to meet the up-to-the-minute innovations and conceptions that take place at every moment of our daily life continually and continuously. This is to say, human mind can not meet such endless nouns, verbs, adjectives etc Others, by contrast, try to justify this phenomenon by attributing it to the overlapping and combination of componential and/or semantic elements of people, objects and phenomena to allow the word to have a denotative meaning and several other connotative ones. Metaphor, personification, pun and other figurative tropes are manifested in this semantic aspect.

The word “Ayah”, for example, in the Quranic text is polysemous due to the multiplicity of its meanings in the Quranic text. When referring to the Interpretations “tafaseer” of the Holy Qur'an, the reader will notice that the word “Ayah” may mean; mark, miracle, lesson and so forth. The reason that stands behind the sensitivity of translating such words is that some meanings of a certain single word are mutually exclusive i.e., Ayah may mean 'miracle' (mu'jezah), which has a positive sense or 'lesson of punishment' ('ibrah), which has a negative sense. When conducting componential analysis of the two words, differences both in its semantic and the pragmatic impact are noticeable. This is to say, an erroneous decision in choosing the meaning will be in violation of the thematic link and the pragmatic effect of the Quranic text.

To sum up, polysemy proves the untranslatability of the Holy Qur'an and since the translators of the potential meanings of the Holy Qur'an depend on interpretations (tafaseer), we can term this as an interpretive translation.