Young Translators Bringing Forth Our Heritage by Saad Ansari

“Reading Malcolm X’s biography changed my life,” a friend once mentioned, making me curious about the power of stories and knowledge to change people. I had just explored the University of Chicago’s Islamic studies library stacks—row and rows of thousands of books in Arabic and other languages, often lonely and unvisited - so naturally I wondered “how many more lives would have been changed if each of those books had made it to someone who needed it?” A book on navigating sorrow and loss might have salved someone’s grief, another on Rabia al-Basri might have spurred an exploration in spirituality, while Imam Razi’s tafsir could’ve sparked a passion for theorical physics. Consider this, the great scholar Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (d. 1449) wrote a book on the Plague after he had lost his three daughters to it. Wouldn’t millions have benefited from his empathetic insights at outset of our own pandemic? (Thankfully, a translator has taken on this text). 

“There are so many patents here that never matched to good business models,” an MIT professor lamented to me “it’s billions of dollars in lost opportunity cost.” The lost value of Islamic texts should feel at least as painful—we lose not only personal change, but ideas from a scholarly tradition that could have changed our societies, and we don’t even realize it. When asked how the Islamic classics had informed a major American Muslim public policy leader, he could only reply “I don’t see how those are relevant.” Meanwhile, Western progressive leaders propose ideas that might have been found in Islamic legal treatises (including the obvious, a 2% wealth tax to alleviate poverty). Fortunately, language barriers can be unlocked and lowered, and have been so before. Great translation movements inspired entire societies in the Middle East, Spain, Indonesia, and more. And can do so again. 

Building an ecosystem of translators…. 

O self, by their taqwā the right-acting have won, 

They see the truth while my heart is blinded by lies, 

As the night veils them, to goodness they run, 

Their light dims even the starry skies!

Throughout the night His remembrance they sing, 

Drawing serenity as each singer hears. 

Besides Him their hearts fill with no other thing, 

Like pearls flow down their tears. 


They illuminate before the sun rises, 

With their prize, robes of the forgiven. 

Alas, O self,’ere the last of life’s surprises, 

Should I not to wakefulness be risen?

Your time has spilt in play and waste, 

So redress matters now with haste!

This poetry excerpt is from Lata’if al-Ma’arif, a book by Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali about the Islamic months and seasons. It was translated by first-time translators working with Turath’s Young Translators’ Program. The program uses a collaborative, team approach to produce ready-to-publish translations and graduate experienced translators. A translation team can consist of one senior translator coaching a team of three or so junior translators, for instance. Training translators in such a team solves a critical problem of scale. Scale, simply put, means more translators to connect the roots of our heritage to our future. 

We’ve learned that nurturing translators rapidly accelerates growth, many aspiring translators are hungry for the opportunity to learn and grow, and collaboration should be at the heart of any institution supporting translators. Here we share some specific lessons about team translation. 

…with a collaborative approach…

Some see translation as a solo linguistic exercise, a transmutation of words from one language to another. Universities structure their programs atop this view. A scholar who previously translated texts was asked why he had stopped and moved onto other projects.”Translations don’t get you tenure” he replied, frankly. 

However, collaboration can produce better translations. It “engages the social aspect of language and comprehension” since it forces translators to think about their audiences immediately, noted Yaseen Andrewsen, a Turath translator, now Oxford DPhil. Tactically, it requires translators to add comments about confusing word choice or sentence structure. The team communicates about these difficult parts, with a senior editor in attendance, and adds new agreed upon decisions to either the style guide or glossary. Neither is translation solely linguistic, although that’s where it starts. Translators intend for their works to reach an audience and to do so are pushed to explore new forms of media, whether audiobooks or adaption to screenplays, to meet their readers where they are. 

Gradually, rules of thumb are discovered to help translators gauge the quality of their work, e. g.”Could someone else reverse translate this back into Arabic accurately?” or “Did the author intend to use this word at this level of specificity?” or “Does this choice add to the reader’s understanding or not?” For some Arabic words that are naturally multifaceted, like birr, endnotes for the reader are added about the specific word selection, as well as explanations for concepts the translators informally use among themselves, like prism words - a word that shows varying facets of itself depending on the context. Birr might be translated as dutiful, pious, righteous, and so on, each translation fronting a slightly different angle of the word. 

The rigorous process also makes better translators, and perhaps insha Allah, better people.”It’s very important to open yourself to feedback” another translator notes. Virtues like intellectual humility balanced with creative courage, fidelity towards the original balanced with empathy for readers are evident and valuable almost immediately. Even the day I am writing this, I listened to three translators eagerly discuss how to translate a three-word sentence for nearly an hour as they cycled through options, pros, and cons. At the end of this session, they thanked each other for how delightful every perspective was. Translators struggling with Arabic can, with practice and effort, become great. However, someone who can’t take feedback and becomes defensive, or won’t sacrifice his or her solo opinion to align with broader editorial agreements will have a hard time. 

Collaborative translating also gives translators a chance to specialize, and benefit from the specialized knowledge of other translators. One of our translators has a sub-specialty in hadith (prophetic narrations), for instance, and helps others with translating and explaining technical hadith terms. Poetry consistently challenges even highly seasoned translators, and many choose to translate it as prose. Turath decided to translate all poetry since the intent of poetry is to aid reaching an audience through phonetic beauty. Without a collaborative approach however, where some translators decided to focus on learning this craft to help the others, such a decision would be very difficult to uphold. 

Therefore, a translation that starts off as, 

The elect of those who fast regularly, their fasting

is guarding the tongue from lies and slander. 

Gnostics and the people of intimacy, their fasting

is guarding the heart from veils and otherness. 

Can keep its meaning and rhyme in English, 

The elect of those who regularly pursue fasting, 

Their fast is to avert slander and lies. 

But Gnostics and the people of intimacy everlasting, 

Their fast is to guard against veils and ties. 

(From the Book of Ramadan in Lataif al-Ma’arif, publishing soon). 

…can inspire change

“People’s hearts are naturally attracted to everything new, and God gives them at each time knowledge clothed in the form best suited to their age.”

(Imam Haddad, Book of Assistance, Tr: Mostafa al-Badawi)

I once visited a Muslim Cham community in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. My host opened his backdoor and fished us some dinner—his house was stilted over a river. I didn’t speak a word of Cham and less than ten of Vietnamese, but by the evening we had figured out a way to communicate. In a masjid with a few others from the community, we opened a copy of the Quran with both Arabic and a Vietnamese translation and pointed out verses which the other would then read in their own language. After a while (not easy), they had managed to express their sense of loss over not having the schooling opportunity to learn Arabic and Cham, meaning they were forced into a situation where they wouldd have to cut off one of two of their original sources of heritage (also, some Cham was written in Arabic script). I pointed to the verse “truly where there is hardship there is also ease.” As they looked to the Vietnamese translation, they visibly seemed more tranquil. If we think about our relationships with our heritage, we should also feel what we are missing, and seek out the relief of reconnection. Our path there is translation and media.


Saad Ansari helps organize Turath’s Young Translators’ Program and edits poetry. He has three kids.  See Book of Counsels in Book Reviews .

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