Here is how my copy of Abdullah Yusuf Ali‘s translation of the Koran looks. English on the left, transliteration in the middle, Arabic on the right. (clickable)
For the record, this is the 1991 edition, printed in Lahore, Pakistan. It was a gift from a friend in Amman who was alarmed about my spiritual health. A quick browse though reviews of this translation in Google Books shows some reviewers complaining about the lack of transliteration–apparently some versions were printed with only the Arabic on one side and English on the other–and I thought the transliteration had been discontinued. But a look at this 2007 edition show the transliterations are still alive and well. Okay, alive then. Because the transliterations don’t make much sense to me.
What is interesting about this 2007 edition is not only that transliterations are back in the book, but also that the writer of the “Roman” script, M.A.H. Eliyasee, is credited. You can also see a “Key to Transliteration“, the same one as in my 1991 edition.
Writing Arabic sounds in English is not exactly standardized. Wikipedia lists some sixteen different ways of representing the sounds of Arabic in English. (See Romanization of Arabic) “Romanization”? Whatever.
For example, take the first line of the first verse of the Koran “Fatiha” (Opening). Most verses of the Koran start with the line “In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate.” The Fatiha is no exception. In Arabic, it looks like this: بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Or sometimes like this:
I also had a fancy version of this that someone made for me and posted on the outside of my classroom door in Amman.
Looking at the transliteration, you can see they write it “Bismillaahir – Rahmannir – Rahiim.”
But if you have ever been to any public meeting in an Arab country, they always start a speech by saying, “Bismillah, al-Rahman, al-Raheem”. That’s quite a bit different from the transliteration–and for a very common everyday phrase, at that. How far off is the rest of the Koran?
If they are so careful to preserve the Koran in original form, why are they not careful with representations of the pronunciation?
See for yourself. The Koran is “recited” in different “tonal keys” (maqams) and “variant readings” (qira’at), but as I understand it, the pronunciation is always the same. To listen to Koran with a variety of voices, check out Open Quran (click the “Quran Viewer” icon at the top, then make sure the “Show Quran Reciter” box is checked).
I guarantee you will hear “Bismillah, al-Rahman, al-Raheem” in all of them.