Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
.
>>   Book Reviews Published Articles
Abstract:
Book review, and a commentary on the need for Baha'i academia aimed at a secular audience, and the possibility of updating the Guardian's translations when English evolves in the future.
Notes:
This article was published in BSR under the title "Translating the Hidden Words: an extended review of Diana Malouf's Unveiling the Hidden Words."

See also Commentary on Franklin Lewis' “Translating the Hidden Words", by Dominic Brookshaw.


Unveiling the Hidden Words, by Diana Malouf:
An Extended Review

by Frank Lewis

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 8
London: Association for Bahá'í Studies, 1998
Unveiling the Hidden Words
Author: Diana Malouf
Publisher: George Ronald, 1997
Review by: Franklin Lewis


Abstract: This article, in the course of reviewing Diana Malouf's Unveiling the Hidden Words, discusses the need for more academic works on the Bahá'í Faith aimed at a secular audience and argued from secular principles. It suggests that Shoghi Effendi's aims in translating works like the Hidden Words was less to fix a particular meaning and theological interpretation than to provide a devotional text that would recreate the psychological and spiritual experience of reading the original. The stylistic choices made by a translator are to some degree independent of the theological or doctrinal meaning of the text, just as a musical composition can be played correctly in various tempi or with various modes of attack. As modern English develops and diverges from the style of Shoghi Effendi's translations, it will be necessary and desirable to provide new "plain" language translations of the Hidden Words and other Bahá'í texts so that they may remain accessible to future audiences.

The Hidden Words is perhaps the most widely read work of Bahá'u'lláh. Most Bahá'ís become familiar with it before declaring their belief in Bahá'u'lláh and continue reading and meditating on the text, even memorising it, throughout their lives. Indeed, the Hidden Words may be said to constitute the bedrock of Bahá'í spirituality and ethics. 'Abdu'l-Bahá has described the Hidden Words as a "treasury of mysteries;" the reader who carefully contemplates the Hidden Words, he tells us, will find the portals of these mysteries open to her. Oddly, despite the popularity and importance of the Hidden Words, or perhaps because of its function within the Bahá'í community as a devotional text (as opposed to a doctrinal or prescriptive text), no book-length study of Bahá'u'lláh's Hidden Words has as yet appeared in English. God Passes By, the official Bahá'í history, provides a short account of the Hidden Words; Ishrâq-Khâvari basically repeats this information in his Ganj-e shâyegân. Fâzel-e Mâzandarâni's Asrâr al-âsâr provides some supplementary information, to which Adib Taherzadeh adds little of anything new in his Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh. There is, however, one important monograph in Persian on the Persian (i.e., not the Arabic) portion of the Hidden Words: Dâryush Maâni's Kanz-e asrâr dar tashrih-e Kalemât-e maknune-ye Fârsi.(2) In English, however, I am aware only of George Townshend's foreward to early editions of the Hidden Words, Jalil Mahmoudi's Concordance to the Hidden Words (1980), and pages 138-47 of my paper "Scripture as Literature," which appeared in these pages last year,(3) itself based upon a paper on the Hidden Words.

A reader happening upon the title Unveiling the Hidden Words in a publisher's catalogue might therefore reasonably suppose this to be the first work of exegesis or the first theological study of the Hidden Words. Caveat lector. After opening the book to its title page, the reader will see the subtitle - "The Norms Used by Shoghi Effendi in his Translation of the Hidden Words" - and discover that this study focuses specifically on the English translator and the translation process. A more descriptive title might have been chosen - something like "Shoghi Effendi's Principles of Translation: a Case Study of The Hidden Words" - but perhaps the publisher (or the author) felt that to market the book as a study of translation would limit its appeal, and therefore chose to focus on the Hidden Words in the title. On the contrary, the author, Diana Malouf, has taken on an important topic and has broken new ground, since no extended study of the history or theory of translation of Bahá'í scripture has as yet appeared.

Shoghi Effendi as translator

One might expect a study of the English rendering of Bahá'u'lláh's Hidden Words to begin with the history of the source language text (the Arabic and Persian Kalemât-e maknune), or with a chronological overview of its English translations. Instead, Malouf signals the paramount importance that will be given to Shoghi Effendi and his translation by beginning her study (after a brief introduction) with a chapter on Shoghi Effendi's education and literary training. She concludes with appendices on "The Appointment of Shoghi Effendi as Guardian and Expounder of the Bahá'í Faith" and "Shoghi Effendi's Accomplishments." Malouf does discuss the versions of other translators (67-90), but she does so primarily to define and highlight the qualities of Shoghi Effendi's translation.

Malouf's organisation of her material reflects an important conceptual premise, one with which most Bahá'ís will readily agree. In the introduction Malouf argues from a theological premise that Shoghi Effendi's translation is unique, because no one else in religious history "has been both translator and authorized interpreter of a major religion's scripture" (2). As "infallible" interpreter, Shoghi Effendi's translations of Bahá'í scripture "cannot be disputed as to meaning and import" (6). Malouf gives two reasons for the importance of examining Shoghi Effendi's principles of translation: 1) the translation of scripture "carries more weight and importance than other literary texts," and, 2) since Shoghi Effendi is, from a Bahá'í perspective, a "divinely authorized Expounder," the norms he follows in translating will prove instructive in helping "to build a viable theory of translation" (7).

At this point, I feel a few remarks are called for about the various goals of Bahá'í scholarship and academic study of the Bahá'í Faith, before proceeding on to the specifics of the book under review. Malouf accepts a certain theological postulate as an article of faith and then applies an academic theory to tease further implications from it. This methodology, while appropriate for an exclusively Bahá'í audience (indeed, this would appear to be the model of "Bahá'í scholarship" recommended by the Universal House of Justice), will not likely appeal to or convince a wider audience which does not hold the same assumptions on faith or as a matter of doctrine. If Shoghi Effendi's translations are to contribute to a wider theory of translation norms, valid for non-believers as well as Bahá'ís, they will obviously have to do so solely on the grounds of merit, and not because Bahá'ís believe Shoghi Effendi to be an infallible interpreter. The argument of this book, then, is tailored to a thinking Bahá'í reader, introducing him or her to certain aspects of translation theory, for which it relies upon academic authorities. Not only its theological assumptions, but also its reliance upon some sources which, though familiar to a Bahá'í audience, would not be considered current or authoritative among scholars of middle eastern studies, for example, further delimit its target audience.

Unveiling the Hidden Words appears as volume two of the George Ronald Bahá'í Studies Series, a series which claims to be "especially interesting to those with an academic interest [sic] in the Bahá'í Faith, those who wish to undertake a serious study of the religion and those who want to study it at a deeper level than is possible with introductory books." The description of the series goes on to say that "Libraries and academic institutions will find the series a particularly useful addition to their collections." If so, one must assume that the intended audience includes non-Bahá'í academics and college students who will begin their inquiries not sharing all the same faith presumptions as a believer. To speak to this audience, however, a methodology that brackets questions not open to objective standards of proof, and hypotheses that cannot be "scientifically" falsified would be more appropriate and effective. If we hold that believing Bahá'ís must not bracket questions of faith, if certain articles of belief are not open to rational inquiry or the assumption of reasonable doubt, this will effectively ensure that all academically reputable works about the Bahá'í Faith will be written by non-Bahá'ís.

Secular readers or those not sharing any a priori theological assumptions about the nature of Shoghi Effendi's translations or his authority to correctly (or "infallibly") interpret Bahá'í texts are unlikely to feel that Unveiling the Hidden Words has addressed their particular concerns or assumptions. Although Shoghi Effendi's translation of the Hidden Words is obviously the most important one for the Bahá'í community, not only for theological reasons, but because it is the most stylistically accomplished and the most widely available one (indeed it is the only one still in print), an academic discussion of the semantic fidelity and literary success of the various translations cannot be based upon 'Abdu'l-Bahá's appointment of Shoghi Effendi as Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, or on the presumed difference in Bahá'í parlance between "Expounder" and "Interpreter" (34-36, an argument which relies upon dictionary definitions in English but does not even make recourse to the words in their original language).

While this mode of theological discourse is validated within the Bahá'í community, the vast majority of potential academic readers do not share the assumptions of this discourse. One might imagine a different book, proceeding from a more widely shared set of assumptions, that marshalled its evidence differently (particularly by engaging in more intensive discussion about the various strategies and assumptions of the other translators of the Hidden Words), gave equal weight to all the various translators of the Hidden Words, and yet still came to the same conclusions. The author, of course, was under no mandate or obligation to write this other book for a different audience, but it seems to me that her publisher, by including the book she did write in the George Ronald Bahá'í Studies Series, with its claims to wider academic appeal, has inadvertently mischaracterised the author's work and invited it to be judged by a standard to which it did not intend to conform. Though primarily a publisher of Bahá'í materials, George Ronald is not an exclusively parochial publisher. It knows how to reach an academic audience, as it did with Moojan Momen's An Introduction to Shii Islam (1985), now widely used as a classroom text in university courses by non-Bahá'ís. It is hoped that Bahá'í authors and publishers will continue to produce works that address an audience with no prior theological commitment to the Bahá'í Faith.

Having dispensed with these curmudgeonly remarks, let us now turn to the book that Malouf did write. In chapter one Malouf traces the education of Shoghi Effendi and the literary, political and religious sources he read. Malouf relies upon Ruhiyyih Rabbani's The Priceless Pearl, as well as a few previously unpublished documentary sources, including the personal reminiscences of Ali Nakhjavani. (This chapter, from pages 9 to 35, has 69 footnotes, more than one-third of the total citations in the 190 pages of narrative.) The information she assembles, as well as the perspective she gives on the Guardian's intellectual development, is quite fresh; these pages alone (9-34) will provide, at least for Bahá'ís, sufficient reason to read or purchase the book.

Malouf details how carefully 'Abdu'l-Bahá and the other members of Shoghi Effendi's extended family groomed him for his future duties with the most highly regarded education possible in the Levant, featuring mostly European and American schools. Shoghi Effendi learned to chant Bahá'í prayers under the supervision of 'Abdu'l-Bahá himself, and from the time he was a baby, a professional Koran reciter was hired to chant the Koran to him. It was no doubt in this manner that he acquired his ear for musical phrasing, in Persian, Arabic, and English. We may agree with Malouf that 'Abdu'l-Bahá was young Shoghi's primary mentor in morals and manners, but her assertion (14) that 'Abdu'l-Bahá also tutored Shoghi Effendi in other subjects is unsubstantiated. Mirzâ Asad Allâh Qommi, an elderly Bahá'í, tutored the young man in Persian. In 1902, when Shoghi Effendi was only six, Lua Getsinger, an American pilgrim, taught English to many members of the holy family, who obviously felt at an early date that English would be an important language to know. After this, foreign governesses taught Shoghi Effendi French (though one of them was Italian by nationality). Beginning in 1907, Shoghi Effendi attended a Jesuit school and then a French Catholic school, though he enjoyed neither. Eventually, he attended the Syrian Protestant College, later called the American University in Beirut, where he obtained his degree in 1918. Finally, he studied for a year and a half at Balliol College, Oxford.

Malouf drives home the multi-lingual environment of those days. Shoghi Effendi must have spoken Persian at home, Arabic in school, Turkish on occasion to government officials and visitors, as well as French and English to western pilgrims. According to his widow, Shoghi Effendi performed his addition in rapid French (25), a fairly sure sign that he first learned his mathematics in one of the French Catholic schools he attended in Haifa or Beirut. But the primary language of instruction was to be English, as Shoghi Effendi directed his entire education toward, in the words of Ruhiyyih Rabbani, "fitting himself to serve the Master, interpret for Him and translate His letters into English."(4) As Dr. Fallscheer reports, 'Abdu'l-Bahá had once said that because English is a world language, he wanted his future vizier - Shoghi Effendi - educated in England itself.(5)

The Hidden Words as literature

In chapter three, "The Hidden Words," Malouf describes the literary nature of the Hidden Words in the original Arabic (she does not discuss Persian). Since her discussion relies in part on a paper written by this reviewer, including most of the major points she raises, one might imagine that I find myself in warm agreement. Unfortunately I must conclude that I was insufficiently clear in expressing the points I wished to make in that paper. Malouf asserts, for example, that "the use of saj'(6) is found throughout the Hidden Words" and that the Hidden Words is therefore "in the literary tradition of Arabic letters inspired by the Qur'án" (45). But the Arabic Hidden Words (the focus of Malouf's study) actually employ saj far less than the early suras of the Koran or later Arabic belles lettres, such as the Maqâmât of Harîrî and Badî al-Zamân Hamadhânî. It is rather the Persian Hidden Words, as I tried to point out in the paper from which Malouf quotes, that make heavy use of the saj style of parallel and rhyming prose.

Furthermore, the Hidden Words do not greatly resemble the Koran in terms of either style or structure, though individual verses of the Koran may bear some resemblance to individual Hidden Words. Rather, the Arabic Hidden Words resemble the Nahj al-balâgha (the Peaks of Eloquence, a compilation of speeches and sayings traditionally ascribed to Alî, the first Imam of the Shiites), and the hadîth qudsî, or traditions attributed to the Prophet wherein God (rather than Muhammad) is understood to be the speaker. These sources employ saj only lightly, but they do resemble the Hidden Words in the form of their address "O Son of Man," "O People", etc., and in their moral and spiritual maxims. These, and not the Koran, should be seen as the direct stylistic paradigm for the Arabic Hidden Words. The Koranic style is much more in evidence in Bahá'u'lláh's Kitâb-i-Aqdas.

Malouf argues that in the Hidden Words Bahá'u'lláh has created a new, unique and possibly inimitable genre within the Perso-Arabic literary tradition (64). She even states that "The Hidden Words does not have a literary counterpart in Arabo-Persian literature" (61). As evidence in support of this theory, she gives a very interesting extended quotation from E.G. Browne about his efforts to discover the provenance of the Hidden Words (61-64). It seems to me, however, that Browne's passage relates not to the style of the work, but rather to its name. He did not suspect that Bahá'u'lláh "plagiarized" the Hidden Words from some other work, as Malouf suggests (63). He was simply unsure whether the work was a translation or an original composition.

Browne knew that this book was called by the Bábís "The Hidden Book of Fâtima" and he was aware of a Shiite tradition about the existence of a book by this name, supposedly revealed to Fâtima by the angel Gabriel to console her over the death of her father, Muhammad. Browne had never seen the text of this apocryphal Shiite "Book of Fâtima," but he did see four samples from Bahá'u'lláh's Persian Hidden Words which 'Abdu'l-Bahá quoted in the Travellers Narrative. Seeing that 'Abdu'l-Bahá described them as coming from Bahá'u'lláh's "Hidden Book of Fâtima," Browne naturally thought it might be a Persian translation of this purported Shiite work, which would have had to be in Arabic if it was revealed to Fâtima. Browne checked with a standard reference work to find out if any other manuscripts of this Hidden Book of Fâtima were attested in Arabic, so that he might have a look to determine if Bahá'u'lláh had translated it to Persian. Browne found that Fayz-e Kâshâni had written a work by the name Kalemât-e maknune in the 17th century, but after examining this, he determined that the two works had little or nothing in common.

All of this simply tells us that the Hidden Book of Fâtima is an apocryphal text; no copies of a text with this name ever existed, only the myth or memory of such a text existed, which the Hidden Imam would bring with him upon his advent. The passage says nothing, however, about the uniqueness of Bahá'u'lláh's style. While Browne does elsewhere praise Bahá'u'lláh's style, he does not claim that Bahá'u'lláh invented this style or this genre out of whole cloth; rather, Browne sees Bahá'u'lláh as an outstanding representative of the neoclassical movement (bâzgasht) in Persian literature.

Without taking anything away from the beauty of the Hidden Words, we may admit that it does have its antecedents, as I argued in the paper from which Malouf quotes. These prototypes include Ansâri's Persian Monâjât, Ibn Atâ Allâh's Arabic Kitâb al-hikam, and other compilations of pithy statements or Sufi meditations. Persian collections of such sayings were sometimes circulated under the title Kalemât-e qesâr (Aphorisms or Short Words); some manuscripts of the sayings of Shams-e Tabrizi (disappeared c1248) circulated under this name and excerpts from the sayings attributed to Ali or to Ayatollah Khomeini have also been published under this title. One work of the famous Ibn Arabî bears the title Kalimât Allâh, so along with Fayz-e Kâshâni's Kalemât-e maknune, we may even perhaps speak of a "Kalemât" genre of literature. There are also a number of works of belles lettres, such as Sadi's Golestân and Qâ'em-Maqâm's Monshaât, which may constitute models for the Hidden Words if not in name, at least in terms of style.

On the question of Qâ'em-Maqâm Farâhânî's influence on Bahá'u'lláh, Malouf argues that the extent is unknown (64). In the absence of concrete evidence, of course, judgements that the style of so-and-so directly influenced a given author tend toward the subjective, and I am not aware of a direct statement from Bahá'u'lláh that indicates a conscious effort to emulate Qâ'em-Maqâm's style. However, since Bahá'u'lláh's father, Mirzâ Bozorg, received letters from Qâ'em-Maqâm, we may conclude that Bahá'u'lláh had seen some of this correspondence and was familiar with the new style of politics and the pen which Qâ'em-Maqâm championed. There is, therefore, a personal link, as well as a general stylistic affinity between Bahá'u'lláh and one of the seminal figures of the neoclassical movement in Persian letters.

While George Ronald should be commended for agreeing to reproduce Arabic text in Unveiling the Hidden Words, the results are rather disappointing, with ligatures and sometimes even dots missing and, conversely, with a number of extraneous marks in virtually every passage (the passages appear to have been offset from already flawed exemplars). Readers with no knowledge of the Arabic script might also have benefitted to some extent from a transliteration of all the passages and phrases discussed, allowing them to compare the different translations for similar words. Malouf follows the official Bahá'í transliteration system as regards names and words, which I believe George Ronald follows as its house style (this review has pointedly chosen not to follow this system [apart from Bahá'í words], but to follow two separate systems, one for Persian and one for Arabic, as most academics now do, that better represent the sounds of the respective languages). However, Malouf adopts a simplified form of transliteration without diacritical marks for the passages of the Arabic Hidden Words which she discusses stylistically.(7)

Previous translations

Chapter four compares the various translations of Ibrahim Kheiralla, Jean Stannard, Aminulla Fareed, and Shoghi Effendi. This section (67-90), along with the final appendix (191-215), with its side-by-side comparison of five versions of the first twenty Arabic Hidden Words, is absolutely fascinating. The Bahá'í community is generally unaware of the extent to which these early translations laid the groundwork for Shoghi Effendi's translation of the Hidden Words. Sometimes Kheiralla or Fareed first hit upon the phrasing that Shoghi Effendi later adopted, though each subsequent translation tends to improve upon its predecessors (as is often the case with successive translations). Though Malouf concludes that Shoghi Effendi's English version should be seen as a new translation rather than a revision of the earlier translations (78), she does show Shoghi Effendi hard at work on revising his own translation.

The versions of the different translators naturally reflect their various agendas. Kheiralla followed a method of teaching the Bahá'í Faith in which seekers had to sit through many weeks of classes going over prophecies of the Bible before learning the name of the new prophet, Bahá'u'lláh, which held for him a certain mystical power. Not surprisingly, therefore, he begins his translation with a transliteration of the greatest name, "El-Behi-ul-abha" and sets out to provide American readers with a text in the style of the King James Bible suitable for reading aloud. In a nod to Kheiralla, Fareed retains the mystical name in its transliterated state as the headword of his translation, but he alters the spelling and gives the meaning of the phrase - "He is the Glory of the Most Glorious." Fareed brings more concision to the text, making it feel slightly less like a translation, and introduces each separate paragraph with a number.

Malouf characterises Stannard's attitude toward translation as one of "awe" for the Holy Word (73) and finds it "puzzling" that she should have revised Fareed's translation in a way that often adopts less aesthetically satisfying readings (77). Yet Stannard's objective was obviously not to provide a text for devotional or liturgical usage, but to provide a doctrinally or theologically more correct reading, as evinced by her addition of notes and an appendix with comments from 'Abdu'l-Bahá to explain difficult points. Since both Kheiralla and Fareed proved suspect in their allegiance to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, many Bahá'ís perhaps came to doubt that they had faithfully translated the texts of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Stannard therefore tried to provide greater theological and conceptual precision. Note that two years after the final version of Shoghi Effendi's translation appeared in 1929, Fareed had his translation of the Hidden Words republished in California as Bahá'U'llah's Hidden Words... translated from the original Arabic and Persian by Ameen Ulla Fareed, M.D.(8)

After publishing his first translation of the Hidden Words in 1923, Shoghi Effendi revised it in 1924, slightly again in 1925, and significantly once again in 1929. A minor revision was undertaken in 1954. The 1925 revision was assisted by J. E. Esslemont (1874-1925), who knew Persian and spent the months November 1924-February 1925 in Haifa acting as Shoghi Effendi's secretary. Malouf concludes that this revision was relatively minor (102). For the 1929 revision, Shoghi Effendi consulted both George Townshend (1876-1957) and Ethel Rosenberg (1858-1930). Townshend, an Irish cleric whom Shoghi Effendi called "the best living Bahá'í writer," provided comments via correspondence. Rosenberg, who enjoyed a reputation among Bahá'ís for her English (and French) style, knew some Persian, and when she visited Haifa in 1927, Shoghi Effendi apparently discussed his translation with her word-for-word.

Malouf is greatly to be thanked for making available a sample of the various English versions of the Hidden Words which circulated among early western Bahá'ís. I found myself wishing that all five of these translations had been reproduced in parallel in their entirety. Because the Persian Hidden Words feature a greater degree of imagery and employ more complex symbols, it would have been especially instructive to see how various translators (Fareed, Stannard, Shoghi Effendi) tackled the Persian. Easily half the book could have then been devoted to a close analysis of the stylistic and terminological differences between all the versions of each and every Hidden Word, such as Malouf does for a small portion of the text (140-62). Since Shoghi Effendi, Ethel Rosenberg, Laura Clifford Barney, and a number of other influential English-speaking Bahá'ís who visited Haifa had a command of French, it would have been instructive to include the French translation of the Hidden Words by Hippolyte Dreyfus (1873-1928) and Habib-Ullah Chirazi (Paris: E. Leroux, 1905) among the various English versions presented in parallel. Quite likely Shoghi Effendi knew this translation and perhaps occasionally consulted the French for suggestions on the wording of the English.

Shoghi Effendi's style of translation

Chapter five, "The Theory of Norms," brings in to play academic translation studies, relying upon the linguistic based theories of Catford, Toury, Nida, and Evan-Zohar and the concepts of equivalence, dynamic equivalence, and adequacy. Malouf argues (117) that literature is a system of intersecting and overlapping systems of language, a rhizomic polysystem of sub-discourses. She points out that translations of non-canonical works tend to reflect the more conservative values or subsets of the target language's polysystem (translated works already accepted as part of the canon of the target language can, on the other hand, afford to take more chances). Since Shoghi Effendi intended to have the works of Bahá'í scripture enter the English canon, it made sense to choose a conservative style of translation.

While this much is certainly true and may help in part to explain Shoghi Effendi's choice of the language of the King James Bible for his translation, there are also other, perhaps more salient, factors to consider. One was that most English Bahá'ís in those days came from a church background and would have grown up reciting scripture, probably in the King James version or from the Book of Common Prayer. The language of the King James Bible was therefore deeply ingrained and recognised as scriptural language par excellence, particularly for devotional or liturgical purposes. This style had already been adopted by Kheiralla and Fareed and the individuals who assisted Shoghi Effendi with the revisions all shared an affinity for this style of English. Furthermore, Shoghi Effendi's own tastes tended to the classical. Personal inclination, therefore, in addition to any utilitarian aims, shaped or even determined the choice of language style.

Shoghi Effendi's mastery of Arabic and Persian, languages in which he wrote stylistically accomplished prayers and letters of his own, is beyond question. His English, even in the first edition of the Hidden Words is more refined than that of Fareed or Kheiralla, and he was probably more widely read than they were in English. In addition to the King James version of the Bible, Shoghi Effendi read whatever classic works Oxford students read in those days, not only in literature and history, but also in economics and political theory. As Malouf rightly points out, the models for translation from middle eastern literature in the days of Shoghi Effendi were Victorian (as reflected in the work of Browne and Reynold Nicholson), even though the Victorian style was itself no longer modish at the time of Browne and Nicholson's later work (91-101). Shoghi Effendi greatly admired the English style of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) and in particular Edward Gibbon (1737-1794); he kept a copy of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) at hand and would repeatedly read aloud from it and comment on its matchless style.

I happen to agree with his assessment, but recognise that my tastes are somewhat old-fashioned. As noted, the western Bahá'ís in the time of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi grew up for the most part in Protestant households and were accustomed to daily reading from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. However, if there is such a thing as an "average reader" in the 1990s, he or she may very well come from an unchurched background and may never have read the Bible devotionally, probably not completely, and perhaps not at all. Even those who do regularly read the Bible are apt to know it these days in one of the "plain" or modern English translations. Asked for their opinion about translations of scripture, therefore, perhaps even a majority of younger Bahá'í readers are likely to find the archaic second and third-person singular conjugations ("dost" and "doeth") and pronouns ("thou" and "ye") of the King James style distracting.

Future translations?

As with all foreign texts which remain part of the canon for an extended period of time (e.g., the Bible, Homer, Dante, Omar Khayyam), new translations are needed every fifty years or so as audiences, styles, diction, and even grammar evolve. Indeed, early 20th century English may seem as opaque to readers 400 years from now as Shakespeare's English seems to young American readers today, or as Chaucer's English seemed in Shakespeare's time, or as the English of Beowulf seemed in Chaucer's day. The translations of Shoghi Effendi (as well as the other translators featured here) will eventually need to be modernised or even re-translated. The alternative is to insist that all future Bahá'ís must learn 19th century English. 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. The result is, of course, rote memorisation and a distancing from the meaning and relevance of the text. My own recent experience in teaching high school age Bahá'ís is that they do not take very well to Shoghi Effendi's translations (let alone his own writings) and the meaning is not fully accessible to them without line-by-line explication. I am afraid this also holds true for many adults and, in 200 years, this problem will be much more acute.

As Malouf points out in her conclusion (179), Shoghi Effendi did not claim that his translations were final and definitive. He even states in the introduction to his translation of the Ketâb-e Iqân, which he published in 1931, that he has made "one more attempt" in language "however inadequate" to render the book into English (previous western translations included one in English by Ali Kuli Khan as The Book of Ighan,(9) and one in French by Hippolyte Dreyfus with Mirza Habib-Ullah Chirazi as Le Livre de la certitude(10)). The comment "however inadequate" certainly reflects the sincere humility of Shoghi Effendi, though I have heard many Bahá'ís dismiss this as self-effacing hyperbole (shekaste-nafsi). Surely, however, Shoghi Effendi would not have made these statements if he felt that his translations, in his role as Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith and interpreter of his great grandfather's teachings, precluded others from publishing their own translations or that his translations might never be improved upon. If there were a theological or doctrinal reason that precluded others from re-translating Shoghi Effendi's translations, as Guardian, he would have said so at this juncture. Yet, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith hoped that his translation(s) would "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."(11)

Translation norms

That being the case, and in view of the fact that canonical texts of literature generally require re-translation every couple of generations, the process of establishing translation norms employed by Shoghi Effendi should not be seen as rigidly prescriptive. They are of interest, both in order to understand and appreciate the literary achievement of Shoghi Effendi, as well as to abstract examples of effective renderings for particularly complex phrases. I am not sure, however, that the linguistic models of translation, the various "norms" and charts with their categories which Malouf painstakingly explains in Chapters 6 and 7, would even help the translator approaching Shoghi Effendi's methods in a prescriptive way. As a practising translator, I conceive the translation process to be much more of an artistic and often ineluctable endeavour than Malouf's models allow for. As in cooking, one follows a recipe only so far; one must add intuitively to taste. Sometimes one must omit: note that in Arabic #1, there are four qualities mentioned in Arabic, which Shoghi Effendi translated word-for-word with four corresponding English words in 1923. But in his 1929 translation, he dropped one of the terms, "heavenly," as unnecessary and inelegant, leaving only three terms for the four in Arabic.

I wonder if Shoghi Effendi's primary intention was to "clarify and interpret the work so that there is no mistaking the meaning," as Malouf asserts (140). It seems to me that Shoghi Effendi would have done an annotated translation, something along the lines of Jean Stannard's, had his primary intention been to give a theologically precise and ironclad explanation of the meaning. Although Malouf asserts that Hidden Words is a "difficult text to understand," this holds true only insofar as the meanings it conveys are profound spiritual and psychological insights. It is not a particularly difficult text stylistically or grammatically and, though many of the terms used have a long history in Islamic theological discourse, Bahá'u'lláh tends to use them in a non-technical way, so that a rigorous grounding in Islamic theology or gnosticism is not necessary for the reader of the Persian or Arabic.

This is not a legal text with specifically enjoined and proscribed behaviours, or precise instructions or theological cruxes. Rather it is a meditative text whose meanings are provocative and expansive. It therefore requires an artistic and elastic translation, exactly the kind of thing Shoghi Effendi provides. I think that Shoghi Effendi's objectives were much more artistic and psychological than they were geared toward ensuring that "there is no mistaking the meaning." He wanted to recreate the experience of reading the Persian or Arabic originals for an English reader. Like any good artist, he aimed for a true transposition into English of the beauty and profundity of the text and the psycho-spiritual reaction it engenders.

We might think of the meaning of a text as the notes of a musical score. Every conductor will bring a different idea about tempo, attack, instrumentation, etc., to bear on the performance of those notes. All listeners with some musical training will objectively agree when certain notes are missed or wrongly played in a given performance; so too, those steeped in both the target and source language of a translation will know when the translator has got the meaning wrong. However, a large part of the quality of a rendition of a piece of music pertains to tone and tempo, qualities which belong more to the realm of taste and style than to the realm of meaning and error. Even where the composer has left guidelines, style is never pre-determined. "Allegro," "pianissimo," and "con espressione" do not mean the same thing for every conductor or every listener. The same holds true for translation.

Shoghi Effendi has not played a single wrong note in his translation of the Hidden Words. Beyond this, he was minutely concerned with matters of tone, tempo and style in his translation, and I agree with Malouf that his translation has been immensely successful, both on technical grounds and on these rather ineluctable artistic criteria. But that does not necessarily make his choices of tempo and style prescriptive. These elements are independent of the notes, the part of the text that pertains to the interpretation of the meaning of the text. He has fixed the actual notes to be played in the composition, but as the literary polysystem of English continues to evolve, it will become desirable (and it already is for some readers) to play these same notes in a different tempo and with a different attack, and provide a re-translation into a contemporary style of English, one appropriate to scriptural style, but the style of scripture as envisioned by an unchurched audience of the 21st century for whom the language of the King James Bible is as opaque as the language of Chaucer or even Shakespeare is for most contemporary Americans or Britons.

Malouf states that she does not see the possibility or likelihood of re-translation of Shoghi Effendi's English version of the Hidden Words "in the foreseeable future" (180). She is greatly to be commended for raising this issue and walking through the arguments, but I feel in the end that her conclusion is based more upon theological rather than stylistic grounds. If no new English translation of the Hidden Words is attempted for the next 200 years or so, this will probably have more to do with Bahá'í tradition, the honour and respect accorded to Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, and his position as appointed interpreter of Bahá'í scripture, than with the stylistic or linguistic preferences of the Bahá'í community. Language is continually evolving and the relative position of various styles within the literary polysystem of English will probably undergo a great deal of evolution and require a revised or renewed translation of this canonical Bahá'í text.

Back to:   Book Reviews Published Articles
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
 
.
. .