"Translating the Hidden Words"
Author: Franklin Lewis
Publisher: Bahá'í Studies Review 8 (1998), pages 1-14
Commentary by: Dominic Brookshaw
Revision of the Guardian's translations
Revision of Shoghi Effendi's translations of Bahá'í scripture into English is possible since he did not claim infallibility in matters of translation. In the case of The Hidden Words
, this is attested to by the fact that he revised his own translation several times throughout his life (so previous versions cannot be regarded as infallible
The humble tone of Shoghi Effendi's foreword to his 1931 translation of the Kitáb-i-Íqán
is further proof that he did not consider himself the sole, infallible translator of Bahá'u'lláh's writings.
Shoghi Effendi's fine linguistic talents and his competency as a translator are undoubted. As 'Abdu'l-Bahá's appointed successor and sole expounder of the Bahá'í writings, however, these English renderings possess an interpretative quality that sometimes steers away from literal translation. The Guardian's concern for the flow of the English translation sometimes superseded the need to include every word in the original. Malouf has shown, through her comparison of translations of The Hidden Words by Kheiralla, Fareed, Stannard, and Shoghi Effendi that several distinct renderings are often possible for any particular word or phrase. The incorporation of these diverse readings and the original words in transliteration in footnotes could greatly assist those readers intent on a scholarly reading of the text.
In his review, Lewis appears to advocate not only the possibility of revision of the Guardian's English translations, but also, perhaps, the "dumbing down" of these writings to a level readily understood by a typical American teenager. I would suggest, however, that a higher priority might be to raise the reading sophistication of Bahá'ís, whilst improving the accessibility of existing translations with notes and glossaries.
I agree with Lewis that some revision of Shoghi Effendi's King James style, such as the replacement of the distracting archaisms "thou" and "ye", is both feasible and appropriate at the start of the 21st century. But do we really want to imitate the plain, modern translations of the Good News Bible in English? Shoghi Effendi presumably opted for this archaic style, not because he wanted to make Bahá'í scripture difficult to read, but because he felt it best mirrored the aesthetic quality of the original. Aesthetic compatibility with the original would surely be an important consideration in selecting any English style for the translation of the writings.
Lewis maintains that the "'average reader' in the 1990s…way well come from an unchurched background and may never have read the Bible devotionally…perhaps not at all", as a justification for moving away from Shoghi Effendi's quasi-biblical English. This may be true in western Europe and North America, but in those regions where the majority of Bahá'ís from a Christian background reside (South America and Africa), the average literate believer's familiarity with the Bible is probably much greater.
Lewis also seems to exaggerate the link between medieval and Elizabethan English verse and the translation style of the Guardian. The suggestion that the prose of the King James Bible is as "opaque" to an audience of the 21st century as Chaucer or Shakespeare is for most contemporary Americans or Britons may be overstated. King James English is far more accessible than Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (composed in Middle English), and the latter is commonly studied with parallel modern translations and Shakespeare's plays, mostly in editions incorporating copious notes and glossaries.
Perhaps more importantly it might be argued that re-translation of the Guardian's translations is somewhat premature when many of the writings are not yet published in the original languages, let alone available in English. And what about translations into other major world languages such as Chinese, French, Spanish and Russian? The Universal House of Justice's letter dated 30 June 1999 allows for increased circulation of provisional translations (in English), but new translations still require review in Haifa before they can be published as authorised Bahá'í scripture.
Revision of English translations other than those of the Guardian would appear to be a more pressing issue, particularly Marzieh Gail's translations of The Seven Valleys and (especially) The Four Valleys, and Laura Clifford Barney's translation of Some Answered Questions.
One possible alternative is that more Bahá'ís learn to read Persian and
Arabic, something encouraged by Bahá'u'lláh and recently reiterated by the
Universal House of Justice. This injunction is not simply confined to Bahá'ís
of Iranian ancestry. Many prominent early western Bahá'ís studied Persian in
order to improve their understanding of the writings.
Possible amendments to existing editions
Some of Lewis's objectives might be achieved by the addition of more extensive footnotes to existing editions, not only to list verses from the Bible or the Qur'án, but also to indicate identical or similar passages if they occur elsewhere in the writings. Texts could also be annotated with existing (often as yet unpublished) compilations prepared by the World Centre's research department (the Hidden Words
is a good case in point).
Footnotes could also be added to indicate where phrases or words in the original have been omitted from the translation (cf. note 4). This would provide the reader with a more complete text. More comprehensive indexes of Bahá'í scripture, just now beginning to appear, are vital to increasing the accessibility of Bahá'í translations.
Closely linked to indexes are glossaries, which the Guardian recognised as instrumental to aiding the western reader's understanding of otherwise obscure Persian and Arabic terms (cf. Kitáb-i-Íqán
). Glossaries of rare or archaic words in English, if added to Bahá'í texts, could be very effective in making Bahá'u'lláh's writings more accessible to younger readers. Moreover, recent translations of scripture from the Bahá'í world centre seem more accessible than before, such as the Kitáb-i-Aqdas
(in both English translation and Arabic text with Persian notes).
Arabic to Persian translation
Questions of the accessibility of Bahá'í scripture are, however, not solely confined to English translations. The Guardian prohibited the translation of Arabic writings into Persian, providing an interesting parallel for native Persian-speakers with western Bahá'ís.
Bahá'u'lláh himself translated parts of or entire tablets from Arabic into Persian,
and Persian to Arabic translation has been permitted with major works such as the Kitáb-i-Íqán
, published in Arabic at the
request of the Guardian.
Persian translations of Arabic writings, if they do exist at all, however, are not readily available, let alone published. Persian-speaking Bahá'ís are therefore required to learn Arabic to read the Kitáb-i-Aqdas
, say their obligatory prayers or recite special prayers for the fast and other holy days. Establishing Arabic as a liturgical language among Persian-speaking Bahá'ís is not dissimilar to the insistence on the part of most Muslims that all believers read the Qur'án in Arabic, even if their first (or only) language is different.
Shoghi Effendi repeatedly urged the Iranian Bahá'ís to learn Arabic and to teach it to their children from an early age, primarily because the majority of the Bahá'í writings were revealed in that language. The Guardian also believed that widespread competency in Arabic among the Bahá'ís in Iran would be beneficial to the community as a whole, presumably in terms of deepening knowledge and faith. Shoghi Effendi's commitment to Arabic was no doubt largely based upon numerous pro-Arabic comments made by Bahá'u'lláh himself. Whilst Bahá'u'lláh felt Persian to be "sweeter" (ahlá) than Arabic, he believed Arabic to be the "better" or "more excellent" (ahsan) language. Bahá'u'lláh went so far as to say that all should learn to speak Arabic because it is the "most comprehensive" (absat) of the world's languages, and that although in this day the Tongue of God (Lisán'ulláh) has spoken in both Persian and Arabic, Persian has always been and – like all other languages – will ever be limited (mahdúd) and – by implication – inferior, to Arabic.
These recommendations of literacy in Arabic, however, may be less relevant to other Persian-speaking countries, such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan, where the local forms of Persian (Dari and Tajik) are less Arabicised than Iranian Farsi. Lewis objects to the use of King James Bible-style translations at the end of the 20th century when the reader "may very well come from an unchurched background and may never have read the Bible devotionally… perhaps not at all," how much more so in former Soviet Tajikistan where anti-religious communism held sway for fifty years? Most young Tajiks have probably never read the Qur'án, and I suspect that most Bahá'ís there opt to read Bahá'u'lláh's Arabic writings in Russian translation.
I would suggest that, if Arabic to Persian translation is not appropriate for devotional use for the time being, then perhaps a provisional rendering could be printed alongside the original as parallel text. Bahá'u'lláh's Persian is pitted with Arabic phrases, so footnotes with Persian translations – however approximate – would dramatically enhance the accessibility of the writings.
- Shoghi Effendi first published an English translation of The Hidden Words in 1923. He added a revised foreword in 1925. In 1929 a fresh translation, revised with the "assistance of some English friends", was published in London. This version was revised at least once more by the Guardian towards the end of his life and republished in 1954. Cf. Bahá'í Studies Bulletin [BSB] 5/1-2 (1991): 90, excerpt from a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, 14/8/1930.
- "This is one more attempt to introduce into the West, in language however inadequate, this book…The hope is that it may assist others in their efforts to approach what must always be regarded as the unattainable goal -a befitting rendering of Bahá'u'lláh's matchless utterance", Kitáb-i-Íqán (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1989), my italics.
- BSB 5/1-2 (1991): 89 excerpt from a letter of the Universal House of Justice (8/12/1964) "where a passage in Persian or Arabic could give rise to two different expressions in English he [the Guardian] would know which one to convey".
- E.g. The Hidden Words, Arabic no.1: "…ancient, imperishable and everlasting". The original has four adjectives: "dá'iman báqiyan azalan qadíman". See also the short obligatory prayer: "…to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth". The original Arabic has an additional phrase: "wa da'fí wa iqtidárika" (to my weakness and Thy power). Presumably the Guardian felt the sense of this phrase was covered in the other two.
- Cf. Diana Malouf, Unveiling the Hidden Words (Oxford: George Ronald, 1997) 67-90.
- The Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Haifa, 1992) is a rare example of a well-annotated Bahá'í text.
- Franklin Lewis, "Translating", 11. Cf. BSB 5/1-2 (1991): 95 excerpt from a letter of the Universal House of Justice (7/10/1973): "Many of the Tablets…are in exalted and highly poetic language in the original…and you will see…that when translating Bahá'u'lláh's writings into English, the beloved Guardian did not use present-day colloquial English but evolved a highly poetic and beautiful style, using a number of archaic expressions…".
- Lewis, "Translating", 11.
- Cf. BSB 5/1-2 (1991): 92 from a letter of the Universal House of Justice dated 12/8/1973.
- Lewis, "Translating", 11.
- Ibid., 13.
- The Universal House of Justice warns against constantly altering English translations of the Bahá'í writings to suit changes in general writing styles. Cf. BSB 5/1-2 (1991): 95, from a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice (3/2/1988): "Holy Scriptures have a profound meaning for their readers, and to change the familiar words too often can be gravely disturbing".
- The Universal House of Justice is not opposed in principle to the revision of English translations not produced by the Guardian. Cf. BSB 5/1-2 (1991): 92, from a letter to an individual believer (8/12/1964): "In time, of course, old translations into English such as those of the Tablets and Talks of 'Abdu'l-Bahá will have to be revised, but we feel that this is not as urgent as many other tasks".
- Bahá'u'lláh is keen that his followers learn Persian, cf. 'Ali-Akbar Furutan, Lughat-i Fushá va Lughat-i Núrá (Ontario: Persian Institute for Bahá'í Studies, 1992) 10: "the Beloved of the world speaks in the Persian language. It would be praiseworthy in His eyes if His loved ones also converse and write in this language". For the Universal House of Justice's encouragement of the Bahá'ís learning Persian, see their message addressed to the Iranian believers throughout the world, 154 BE.
- For example, John E. Esslemont's knowledge of Persian meant he was able to assist others in the translation of Bahá'u'lláh's writings into Esperanto and English.
- One edition of the Seven Valleys (Oxford: Oneworld, 1992) does include notes, prepared by Michael Sours, but many are too vague to be of any use (e.g. p. 69, notes 20, 23 and 24).
- The first edition of the Selections from the Writings of the Báb (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1976) was not printed with an index.
- Cf. Dawn of a New Day: Messages to India 1923-57 (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970) 85 "Regarding his instruction to the NSA of Iran to the effect that Bahá'u'lláh's writings in Arabic should not be translated into Persian, this applies to the translation of the revealed words into Persian only. Your Assembly, therefore, may proceed with its plan for the rendering of the Tablet of Ahmad, the three daily obligatory prayers and other Tablets, into Urdu". Shoghi Effendi also discouraged the printing of vowels (i'ráb) in some Arabic texts, cf. ibid., 93-95. 'Abdu'l-Bahá also advised caution in regard to Arabic to Persian translation, cf. Má'ida-yi Ásamání part II (New Delhi, 1984) 53-4 on the translation of the Aqdas. Persian paraphrasing of Arabic writings is, however, occasionally permitted: cf. Hadrat-i Bahá'u'lláh: Bahá'í International Community Bahá'u'lláh statement, Persian translation (Oakham: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1992). The disclaimer on p.9 of the statement explains that, since the translation of Arabic writings into Persian is "unseemly" (mamdúh va matlúb níst), approximate Persian summaries of the original quotations have been provided instead, presumably to aid the general reader's comprehension.
- Cf. Adib Taherzadeh, Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, vol.1 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1976) 122-125 on Bahá'u'lláh's own translation of Lawh-i Hurúfát-i 'Állín. Táhira frequently translated the Báb's Arabic tablets into Persian, cf. Martha Root, Tahirih the Pure (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1981) 65 for the effect of her translation of the Báb's writings in Kirmanshah.
- This casts doubt on the myth common among many Iranian Bahá'ís that it is either impossible or improper to translate between the two major languages of the Bahá'í revelation. 'Abdu'l-Bahá's talks are also translated into Arabic: Selections from 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Table Talks, undated Brussels edition from an earlier Egyptian translation.
- Cf. Lewis, "Translating", 11: "Many Muslims similarly insist that all believers read the text of the Koran in Arabic, even if the believer in question speaks Indonesian or Bengali and understands no Arabic".
- Cf. Furutan, Lughat-i Fushá va Lughat-i Núrá 24-5.
- Ibid., 25 "its results in the community would be most useful" (my own translation).
- Ibid., 10.
- Ibid., 22.
- My personal experience in Northern Afghanistan (1995 and 1996) suggested that even university-educated believers have difficulty reading the Persian writings of Bahá'u'lláh, and are confused by the lack of translations from Arabic.
- Lewis, "Translating", 11.
- Qur'ans reproduced with parallel text in Persian were not uncommon in Safavid and Qájár Iran.
- The complexity of Bahá'u'lláh's writings spawned the growth of Bahá'í lexicons such as Shish Hizár Lughat.