:: Muwaṭṭaʾ Roundtable :: Who Are We Writing for When We Translate Classical Texts?

By Marion Katz (New York University) 

Perhaps more than any other genre of academic writing, translations of primary sources raise questions about audience and purpose. In a Venn diagram of potential audiences for our scholarly output, our fellow subject specialists would usually occupy (for better or worse) the central position. It is true that in a field like pre-modern Islamic history the circle representing our immediate colleagues would be a small one, but reaching and persuading them (and the graduate students who are on their way to joining and replacing them) is often the central criterion of an academic publication’s success. It’s precisely these people, however, who are least likely to be in need of a translation. We all use translations in our undergraduate teaching; sometimes this involves relatively short selections, but the availability of full translations of basic sources makes it possible to design much more ambitious projects requiring students to mine the texts for themselves. Beyond these immediate circles of colleagues and students, however, the potential audiences are more diverse, and the kinds of translations that will best serve them vary widely.  The new Royal Moroccan translation of Mālik’s Muwaṭṭaʾ identifies its intended audience as “nonspecialists seeking deeper familiarity with Islamic law,” including scholars and students of legal history and religious studies (p. 4). Another obvious constituency is English-speaking Muslims. Each of these groups may come to the text with different backgrounds and needs.

The new translation of the Muwaṭṭaʾ has an introduction that thoughtfully explains the project from its inception; it also includes an English translation of the introduction to the new Royal Moroccan edition of the original Arabic text. Interestingly, these pieces frame the Muwaṭṭaʾ in two complementary ways. The introduction to the Arabic text emphasizes the religious authority of Mālik ibn Anas and the Mālikī legal school and the strength of their historical association with Morocco. While acknowledging this motivation for the overall project, the introduction to the English translation emphasizes instead that the Muwaṭṭaʾ’s “collection of conversations, stories, and legal opinions coalesces into a powerful narrative space that can project the reader, like a time traveler, back into the world of the first, second, and third generations of the Muslim community of Medina.” (p. 1). If the Arabic introduction operates within a framework of madhhab authority and regional pride, the English introduction thus gestures towards the Muwaṭṭaʾ as a foundational document of a universally relevant primordial Islam. This framing, which is presented briefly but prominently in the opening page of the translation, suggests the work’s potential appeal to Muslims who do not identify with Mālikism or subscribe to a classical Sunni model of religious authority. However, the English translation’s dominant framing is as a document of Islamic legal history, and the introduction skillfully places it within an overview of the relevant English-language academic literature.

Throughout, editorial choices signal the project’s orientation to an academic audience. One is the use of full transliteration. The over-use of diacritics has recently been subject to some thoughtful critique; as Juliane Hammer puts it in her rendition of the traditional “Note on Transliteration,” scholars sometimes display their expertise with diacritics “in part as proof that we are aware of the complex rules guiding our field and the languages associated with it.”[1] In a work inherently aimed at readers who are not proficient in classical Arabic, transliteration will not play its most obvious role (full convertibility, and thus the ability to locate a word or proper name in the Arabic sources). However, combined with the choice to provide full isnāds (chains of transmission, here mercifully short due to the Muwaṭṭāʾ’s early date), the diacritics serve as a constant reminder of the Arabic original. Another way in which the translation systematically evokes the original Arabic is by providing an Arabic transliteration of the entire text of every prayer or invocation, allowing English-speaking practitioners to pronounce a reasonable approximation of the original words.

If the use of full diacritics emphasizes the foreignness of the text, the translation’s English voice is consistently fluent and idiomatic, with flashes of lightness and humor. Informed that he has inadvertently broken his Ramadan fast before sundown, ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb replies, “Calm down; this is not a big deal” (p. 264). In one report, a disgruntled wife is described as having “said her piece,” a phrase that contrasts with Aisha Bewley’s awkward (if literal) rendition that she “mentioned what Allah willed that she mention.”[2] In some cases, the translation’s prioritization of accessibility leads to a clear preference for what Laurence Venuti has called “domestication” over “foreignization.”[3] Consider the translation of the following report:

According to Mālik, Hishām b. ʿUrwa reported from his father that a transgender man (mukhannath) was with Umm Salama, the wife of the Prophet (pbuh). He said to ʿAbd Allāh b. Abī Umayya while the Messenger of God (pbuh) was listening, “ʿAbd Allāh, if God grants you victory at Ṭāʾif tomorrow, I will show you the daughter of Ghaylān: when she walks toward you, she is a real beauty, but when she turns her back to you, she is even more of a sight to behold!” The Messenger of God (pbuh) then said, “Men such as these are not of the sort who should be present with you in private.”  (p. 638)

This report involves two striking editorial choices. One is the use of the word “transgender,” which is used in this chapter to translate both muʾannath and mukhannath.  The word’s obvious advantages are its familiarity and its inoffensiveness. The flip side of these benefits is its erasure of difference, both between the gender categories of the modern English-speaking world and those of seventh-century Arabia and between the two Arabic terms muʾannath and mukhannath. The second interesting choice is the rendition of the person’s praise of Bint Ghaylān. In the original Arabic, he declares that “she comes towards you with four, and goes away from you with eight.”  Aisha Bewley translates this statement  as an admiring reference to the woman’s rolls of fat (the standard interpretation in the commentarial tradition): “She has four folds on her front and eight folds on her back.”(p. 317) What is gained in the new translation is transparency; what is lost is alterity. The reader understands that the mukhannath is describing the woman lustfully, but is not asked to envision a standard of physical attractiveness that may feel alien to many modern English readers.

Another editorial choice that increases the transparency of the translation is the occasional incorporation of clarifying material from the commentary tradition.  For instance, in one report the Prophet is quoted as saying, “The believer endures the inevitable losses of children and relatives with fortitude and patience, until he meets God free of sin.” (p. 216) The phrase “with fortitude and patience” is not in the original Arabic, but is a reasonable inference that can easily be found in commentaries like that of al-Bājī (d. 474/1081).[4] In another report, ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb’s daughter Ḥafṣa is delightfully described as “blunt and bold like her father” (p. 266) – another natural inference, made explicit by al-Bājī,[5]  where Arabic text merely comments (rather tartly) that Ḥafsa “was her father’s daughter” (kānat ibnat abīhā). Helpful interpolations of this kind are not marked as such, in keeping with the translation’s overall preference for a fluent and uncluttered presentation. Another “domesticating” editorial choice is the use of modern metric measurements (e.g., “600 grams (five awāq) of silver,” p. 221), similarly produced with the help of information from pre-modern commentators.

The translation thus both pervasively evokes the Arabic original through diacritics and collapses its distance from the modern English-speaking reader through maximally “domesticating” translation strategies. Despite its clear preference for clarity and accessibility, however, it also signals that the Muwaṭṭaʾ is a scholarly text that uses technical vocabulary. In this respect it draws primarily on the language of modern law, a decision that both clarifies the text for readers with legal background and underlines the editors’ view of the Muwaṭṭaʾ as a fundamentally legal text.  In the translation, a person may “exercise an option” (p. 432), engage in an “arm’s length transaction” (p. 584), or “sue” for the “right of first refusal” (p. 648). The subject that Bewley translates with the exoticizing term “blood-money” (p. 358) is rendered in the new translation as “compensation (ʿaql) due for battery” (p. 677). The new translation’s legal focus also emerges from the footnotes, which offer lucid explanations of the principles and distinctions underlying some of the more opaque rules. While the translation regularly uses terminology that facilitates connections with modern law, however, it does not as often draw terminological connections with parallel religious phenomena (or with the contemporary study of religion). Ritual, theological, or ethical reports are also much less likely than ones that fall within the purview of modern western law to receive detailed commentary or clarification of principles in the footnotes.

The new translation of the Muwaṭṭaʾ makes bold and distinctive editorial choices that will maximize its accessibility to a broad audience, while also raising provocative questions about what such a translation can and should be. My use of the terms “domesticating” and “foreignizing” evokes Venuti’s critique of the widespread contemporary preference for fluency and transparency in English translation. However, one may wonder whether in the current political climate there is any need to further “foreignize” the religious and intellectual world of early Islam. Facilitating access to Islamic legal literature by English-speaking scholars of legal history can only be a step in the right direction. In a translation produced in part by and for Muslim believers, the kind of domesticating translation that Venuti critiqued in English translations of the Bible may also have a very different political valence in 21st-century America.



[1] Juliane Hammer, American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), p. ix.

[2] Malik ibn Anas, Al-Muwaṭṭa of Imam Malik ibn Anas: The First Formation of Islamic Law, trans. Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley (New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 227.

[3] See Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London: Routledge, 2017), ch. 1 (pp. 1-34).

[4] Sulaymān ibn Khalaf al-Bājī, al-Muntaqā, ed. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Qādir Aḥmad ʿAṭā (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīya, 1420/1999), 2:28.

[5] Bājī, Muntaqā, 2:68.

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