Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s Romanization

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

Literally:  in-name/Allah/the-merciful/the-compassionate

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.


4 Responses to “Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s Romanization”

  1. Tim Says:

    First of all, I enjoy the blog. On the transliteration of the basmalah, though, there is an issue of register. I’m not sure if you have any background in tajwiid, but the issue of waSl (وصل) is extremely important, and so the transliteraters of your Qur’an took pains to represent the sounds accurately.

    Strictly speaking, bismillah, ar-ra7maan, ar-ra7iim is an error from the standpoint of Qur’anic Arabic. bismillah ends in a case vowel /i/, and we then try to pronounce the first two words together: bismillahi + ar-ra7maan. However, the first /a/ on ar-ra7maan is only a helping vowel on a hamzatu-l-waSl, and both the hamza and the vowel disappear when preceded by any other vowel > bismillahirra7maan. As far as where you put the word breaks in, it’s a moot point as the actual flow of sound should be unbroken, with no attention paid to word boundaries until the reader takes a breath.

    In summary, Qur’anic phrases have counterparts in spoken language that can be quite different, and your transliteraters have done a very precise job at transliterating Qur’anic Arabic.

  2. Nijma Says:

    How fascinating, Tim, thank you so much.

    “The flow of sound”–I like that.

    No I’m not that familiar with tajwiid. Unfortunately it seems to be most available to those who agree to convert to Islam. Too bad everyone isn’t more like Rumi.

    Googling وصل (WaSl) gets some 26 million ghits. The only meaning I can find (Wiktionary) is “to arrive”. That seems terribly incomplete if it’s an important theological concept.

    According to Thomas Patrick Hughes’ Dictionary of Islam, in hamzatu ‘l- Wasl (sorry, I can’t seem to find a character for the s with the dot under it) the hamza is replaced by i.

    It’s frustrating not to be able to use the transliteration to either follow along with the recitation or to read Koran out loud for myself and be understood by a native speaker, but I also understand why accuracy is important in a sacred text.

    • Tim Says:

      waSl is the Arabic counterpart to liaison in French – it’s the way you pronounce words seemlessly together. So I guess the meaning of ‘arriving’ is that you arrive directly from one word to the next without stops.

      Hughes’ definition of hamzatu-l-waSl is a bit incomplete. In fact, it is a hamza that disappears whenever any vowel comes before it, be it Damma, hamza, or kasra, like in these three examples (all Classical Arabic):

      baytu-r-ra2iisi fii shaari3i-th-thawra. (The President’s house is on ath-thawra st)
      ra2aytu bayta-r-ra2iisi fii … (I saw the President’s house …)
      dhahabtu 2ila bayti-r-ra2iisi fii … (I went to the President’s house…)

      In each example there is no hamza pronounced on the alif-laam of ar-ra2iis, and the only mark of definiteness on ra2iis is the doubling of the raa2.

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