:: Muwaṭṭaʾ Roundtable :: The Virtues of Translation

By Jocelyn Hendrickson (The University of Alberta)

As scholars of Islamic legal history, one of the most enjoyable questions we ask ourselves from time to time is, “Should I acquire that shiny new edition?” In our book-intensive discipline, “new” texts that were previously available only in manuscript routinely appear on the shelves of our favorite Arabic bookstores and libraries, as do new versions of previously published works. Sometimes these new versions are of greater scholarly merit that what came before, or are more beautiful, or more durable, or unfortunately, none of the above. Regardless of their particular virtues, it is always a delight to compare new and old editions of important works, to discover and appreciate the various efforts that went into the selection of source materials and the preparation of a new edition.

Far fewer of us are tempted to ask, “Should I produce a new critical edition of that text?”, and fewer still, “Should I translate that new edition?” Translation is of incredible value to individual scholars, to the profession, and to the public. Yet it is also a laborious, time-consuming undertaking that has been notoriously undervalued as a scholarly activity, especially by the North American academy. It is therefore at once astonishing and unsurprising that we are only now celebrating the first peer-reviewed, critical translation of so foundational a text as the Muwaṭṭaʾ.

Fortunately, we do have much to celebrate. In the past decade, two high-profile presses have launched book series featuring expert scholarly translations of Arabic and Islamic texts: NYU Press’s Library of Arabic Literature (which also publishes Arabic critical editions) and Yale University Press’s World Thought in Translation. With the publication of the Muwaṭṭaʾ, the Harvard Series in Islamic Law is to be commended not only for bringing us Mohammad Fadel and Connell Monette’s excellent translation of this text, but also for helping to elevate the profile of translation as a vital scholarly endeavor.

The larger debt of gratitude of course is owed to Drs. Fadel and Monette, and their team, for undertaking this multilayered, multi-year process with such seriousness of purpose and generosity of time. Their overarching aim, as noted in the volume’s introduction, is to make the Muwaṭṭaʾ available to a wider audience, including non-specialists and scholars of other legal traditions (4, 34). This focus on the utility of translation to non-specialists is ubiquitous and genuine, however, in my opinion, it also understates the value of this kind of work.

Here I offer five reasons to value scholarly translations, illustrated with examples from the Muwaṭṭaʾ where possible:

  1. The most obvious benefit of a translation is indeed to make a text accessible to readers unfamiliar with the original language. In the case of the Muwaṭṭaʾ, this might include English-speaking Muslims with an interest in Islamic Law, scholars interested in comparative legal history, and students, especially those enrolled in university courses on law. Yet translations can also make texts more accessible to specialists. I read and translate medieval Mālikī legalese myself, but translation into my native English nonetheless renders a text far more accessible. In Arabic, I am likely to treat a legal work like the Muwaṭṭaʾ primarily as a reference work, looking up only those passages relevant to my current research. With the English edition, I am inclined to browse the text instead, reading more broadly in chapters or across themes that happen to spark my interest. Who knew, for example, that with regard to testaments, Mālik considered a woman in her third trimester of pregnancy akin to an active-duty soldier or someone gravely ill (635-6)? All three may freely dispose of only one-third of their property, a rule that recognizes the dangers inherent in childbirth. Curious about other mentions of pregnancy and childbirth, I found that the chapter regarding the slaughter of an animal to celebrate the birth of a child (381-2) repeatedly emphasizes an equivalence between male and female newborns, but only implies the good health of the mother.

Perusing this text will ultimately result in my identifying several passages that I can assign for my students, thus bringing additional primary sources to their attention while saving me the effort of translating new texts myself. If I were consulting the Muwaṭṭaʾ for a research project, I certainly would have recourse to the original Arabic, but even then, the option to cite an existing translation rather than producing my own would save considerable time and effort. This should hold true for anyone teaching in English or trying to reach an anglophone readership, regardless of their own native language.

  1. In cases where a text is relatively inaccessible even in the original – an unpublished manuscript, for example – it is widely appreciated that translation helps render that text available for further studies by other scholars. Less often emphasized is that providing translations of full texts, as opposed to the brief passages cited in the course of an argument, allows for a much fuller critique and validation of our scholarly claims.
  1. A scholarly translation is a serious research project. The text must be understood thoroughly in order to be interpreted in another language. Explanations must be provided for obscure terms and unclear references, any difficulties flagged, up to date language and metaphors employed, and technical terms given consistent and readily recognizable form. Fadel and Monette not only do all of these things exceptionally well, but they also begin the volume with a succinct and transparent description of their methodology.

Providing models for the translation of technical legal terms alone is a praiseworthy endeavor. Our translators have clearly given very serious thought to each term and to its presentation, noting that they have chosen terms that will be intelligible to legal scholars in general, not just specialists in Islamic law (3-4), and that they repeat the Arabic transliteration of the term once per chapter (5-6). The volume’s glossary is a fantastic reference for single terms and short phrases; longer phrases key to understanding Mālik’s presentation of different materials are routinely provided in transliteration and are discussed in the introduction to the translation.

Even a cursory glance at the footnotes provided in this volume will make plain the effort and expertise that Fadel and Monette have invested in explicating the references, historical contexts, and underlying logic of this text. These notes range from offering simple definitions of ahl al-kitāb (people of the book, 247 n301) and the practice of cupping (260 n317), to explaining why pilgrims in a state of ritual consecration might worry about washing their heads too vigorously (282 n357-8), to providing a complex discussion of the considerations involved in a deathbed adjustment to a manumission contract (460 n664).

Our translators note that they have departed from the literal meaning or grammatical structure of the original Arabic where advisable, in order to better convey the tone and sense of the text in English (3). As just one example of a useful departure from the literal meaning of the text, Fadel and Monette translate the Ṣalāt al-Khawf not as the Prayer of Fear, but rather as the Prayer of Danger. As they note, this prayer is clearly intended for soldiers who are on a battlefield, readying for combat with an enemy force (181 n177). Considering the problematic contexts in which “fear” is invoked in the contemporary American legal context, replacing this term with “danger” makes good sense.

Giving the translators’ methodological introduction prominence at the beginning of the book is an especially welcome decision. An exercise I conduct with my own students teaches them how to judge a book by its cover – by which I mean evaluating the publisher, knowing what to look for in a bibliography, identifying various types of scholarly apparatuses, attending to the original language and publication date of the text, the author’s credentials, and so on. I provide pairs of books for this exercise, carefully selected to reveal the importance of each item on our list. My favorite instructive example of a translator’s methodology is the one found in Coleman Barks’ The Essential Rumi (HarperCollins, 1995). Tucked in the back of the book and titled “A Note on These Translations and a Few Recipes,” Coleman’s note – the part that is not recipes – reveals that he has no knowledge of the poem’s original Persian, nor any desire to acquire such knowledge. He has simply reworked the existing English translations of other scholars, and happens to have made Rumi one of North America’s best-known, best-selling poets in the process. The meticulous, multi-layered, years-long translation and annotation process described in Fadel and Monette’s introduction makes the Muwaṭṭaʾ the perfect volume to pair with Coleman’s Rumi, to showcase what a serious, scholarly translation looks like.

  1. Translations forge relationships and promote the value of particular texts, manuscripts, authors, and institutions. In this case, the Harvard translation of the Muwaṭṭaʾ is intimately linked to the Royal Moroccan Edition (RME) of the Arabic text, to the Kingdom of Morocco’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, and to Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane. The importance and production process of the RME are made clear not only in the translators’ methodological introduction (1-2) but also through their abridged English translation of the Arabic editorial team’s introduction to the RME. The clearest single relationship that emerges in these pages is that between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Mālikī school of law. The RME editors note the early devotion of scholars in the Islamic West to Mālik, then highlight the special role of Maghribīs in recognizing the pre-eminence of Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā al-Laythī al-Maṣmūdī’s recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ, in preserving its textual integrity through the centuries, and in adhering to the Māliki school (47-48). Finally, the Kingdom of Morocco specifically is identified as the inheritor, guardian, and exemplar of this tradition. Accordingly, only manuscript copies of the Muwaṭṭaʾ located in Morocco were used in the RME, their unparalleled reliability upheld as a national point of pride (48-49, 67-72).
  1. Translations are vehicles for new critical essays on the translated text. Fadel and Monette’s introduction to the Muwaṭṭaʾ (7-34) is an incredibly valuable piece of scholarship, offering an up-to-date overview of academic literature on this text. Their emphasis on Mālik’s legal sources and methodology is especially enlightening and will no doubt pave the way for additional scholarship on this foundational text.

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