They aren’t actually translations.
Many ‘translations’ of the Qur’an are not translations at all. Even the most commonly used and cited ‘translations,’ such as Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s, are replete with grammatical and conceptual errors, conflated with the individual scholars’ personal opinions–but a few are actual propaganda, subsidized, marketed, and propagated by foreign governments.
A contemporary scholar of Islam, Khaled Abou El Fadl, writes:
“For five years or more now, a beautifully printed English translation of the Qur’an has been distributed for free in nearly every Islamic center in the United States. This Trojan-horse translation is found in every Muslim bookstore and in every English-speaking Islamic center. The authors of the translation are professors at the University of Medina, and the book is printed, no expenses spared, in Saudi Arabia. On the very first page of the printed text is a certificate of authentication and approval by the late ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Bin Bazz, the ‘Head of the Ministry for Islamic Research, Legal Opinions, Preaching and Guidance’ (Idarat al-Buhuth al-‘Ilmiyya wa al-Ifta’ wa al-da‘wa wa al-Irshad). Interestingly enough, Bin Bazz did not know a word of English, but he authenticated the text nonetheless. To be fair, however, the translation is a faithful reproduction of Bin Bazz’s views with all their idiosyncrasies. On the cover of the book is printed the title: Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an in the English Language: A Summarized Version of at-Tabari [sic], al-Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir with comments from Sahih al-Bukhari Summarized in One Volume.
The impression created by this translation is that the reader is not only receiving the insights of the authors as to the meaning of the Qur’an, but is also receiving the insights and implicit endorsement of the text by the esteemed classical scholars al-Tabari, al-Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir, and Bukhari. In the text, the original Arabic is printed in one column, and on the opposite column is an attempt at a verse-to-verse English rendition of the Arabic text. At the bottom of the page, there are hadith-reports purporting to explain and elucidate upon the text. But the liberties taken with the so-called interpretation of the Arabic is nothing short of frightening.
The English text has all the appearances of a translation. This appearance is only confirmed by the fact that the regular English text is full of interjections placed within parenthesis, and these parenthetical interjections purport to be elaborations clarifying the meaning of the translated text. A reader who does not know Arabic is left with the unmistakable impression that what is within parenthesis is a natural elaboration upon the intended meaning of the Divine text.
To demonstrate the corruptions of the text, we will consider a few examples. The authors translated Surat Al-Ahzab (33), verse 59, in the following way:
‘O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.’
In the above translation, the authors assert that God’s command is that women should cloak themselves in a large veil, and cover everything except one or two eyes. The authors liberally equate a cloak to a veil and, according to the authors, God explicitly mandates that the cloaks or veils be drawn over a woman’s entire body. The authors’ assertions are indefensible in light of what the Arabic actually says. A conservative and literal translation of the first quoted verse (33:59) would read:
‘O Prophet tell your wives, daughters, and the women of the believers to lower (or possibly, draw upon themselves) their garments. This is better so that they will not be known and molested. And, God is forgiving and merciful.’
The operative words in the Arabic text are yudnina ‘alayhinna min jalabibihinna. This could mean either “lower their garments” or “draw their garments closer to their bodies.” Jalabibihinna literally means “their garments.” A jilbab, singular form of jalabib, is a garment worn on the body, and not a veil. A jilbab is a garment, like a dress or Arab robe, which has stitches and threads. A single piece of cloth like a chador or ‘abaya, which some women wrap around their bodies in the modern age, would not normally be called a jilbab. Yudnina, literally, means to bring closer or to lower something, in this case a garb. Therefore, one can interpret this verse to require the covering of the legs, or a more vigilant covering of the torso or, simply, modesty, but the original text does not support the authors’ rendition into English.”
[Source] [Italics mine]
El Fadl’s observations throw some light onto a long-drawn history of Saudi-propagated translations that have little to do with the original Quranic text. Untrained readers naturally have difficulty distinguishing between an accurate rendering of the Arabic versus the author’s interpolation. This is why reading a single translation of the Quran can never suffice.
Which translations should we use?
From my experience, the Hilali & Khan, Sahih International, Marmaduke Pickthall, Arberry, Rodwell, Muhammad Sarwar, et al. translations should be avoided. If one is searching for a semi-accurate traditional translation, I would recommend Yusuf Ali’s, although it is written in rather Victorian-sounding English.
Sahih International was actually composed by three women, converts to Islam. This translation has been widely marketed in Saudi Arabia as a so-called “women-manufactured, women-friendly” translation–although its sometimes wild twisting of Quranic verses indicates otherwise.
For a comparison of traditional translations, see the following links:
http://corpus.quran.com/ (includes morphology, concordance indexes, etc.)
For indexing, phonetic cross-referencing, and links to Arabic dictionaries, see the following:
The following non-traditional translations of the Quran are renditions that I find to be fairly accurate:
This translation is by Dr. Nazeer Ahmad and is quite literal, containing few parenthetical additions. I hold it in high regard; it’s one of the (very) few translations I have seen that attempts some degree of honesty.
The Sublime Quran by Laleh Bakhtiar is another reasonably accurate translation, based on intratextual root concordance and textual analysis. It is the only currently available translation that has been marketed as such, based on clear Quranic cross-referencing rather than an amalgamation of personal opinions. Dr. Bakhtiar also has a PhD in Arabic linguistics.
This translation is another option.
The Qur’an As It Explains Itself (see here for pdf file) it not exactly a translation of the Quran, but rather an elaborate commentary. It contains many interpolations, almost as many as traditional ‘translations’ do. I would not recommend it if you are looking for a literal rendition of the text, but it is nonetheless an interesting document for research and comparative understanding.
In the end, all alleged translations of the Quran should be approached with caution.