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Jewish music and art in Western Mass

The fatiha in Hebrew; thoughts on poetry, scripture, translation

In our second Qur'an class we focused on the fatiha, the opening sura of the Qur'an. Its seven short verses make use of poetic techniques, especially assonance and rhyme. It's chock-full of Hebrew-Arabic cognates, and we talked about some of those. (We also talked about Aramaic-Arabic cognates; Bill explained that some words, including salat / set daily prayer and zakat / charity, come to Arabic from Syriac, which was the language of the early Christians and is related to Aramaic.)

I was so fascinated by the linguistic similarities that when I got home I googled "Hebrew Qur'an," and learned that the first official translation of the Qur'an into Hebrew is underway. (Other Hebrew translations have been available for some time, but are considered by some Muslims to distort the meanings of the text.)

Because the first few lines of the fatiha were so intelligible to me, I wanted to read the whole fatiha in Hebrew. At first I couldn't find a translation online, so I wondered, could I create one of my own? As I read about the etymology of the Arabic words I became increasingly intrigued by the linguistic overlaps, so I decided to give it a shot, as an exercise to help me understand the text more deeply. The last couplet proved the most difficult, but when I got stuck there, I tried searching for the first line as I'd rendered it in Hebrew, at which point I found three Hebrew renderings of the fatiha, here [עברית]; and then a friend pointed me to another, here [עברית] (with bonus commentary in Hebrew, if you're both interested & fluent.)

With assistance from those webpages, from this post about al-Fatiha which offers a close analysis of each Arabic word, and from Israeli friends whose Hebrew is better than mine by far, here's what I came up with. I offer this as food for thought and as a springboard for conversation; no offense is intended, and if I've mangled either language, I do apologize!

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِيمِ

bismi llâhi r-rahmâni r-rahîm - in the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Caring

 בשם אלהים הרחמן והרחום / B'shem Elohim ha-rachaman v'ha-rachum

الْحَمْدُ للّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ

al-hamdu li llâhi  rabbi l-âlamîn - praise be to God, lord sustainer of the worlds

התהלה לאלהים רב כל עלמים / ha-t'hilah l'Elohim rav kol olamim

الرَّحْمـنِ الرَّحِيمِ

r-rahmâni r-rahîm - the Compassionate, the Caring

הרחמן והרחום / ha-rachaman v'ha-rachum

مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ

mâliki yawmi d-dîn - master of the day of judgment

מלך יום הדין / melech yom ha-din

إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ

iyâka na`budu wa iyâka nasta`în - to you we turn to worship/serve; to you we turn in time of need

  אותך נעבד; אליך נשוב / ot'kha na'avod; alecha nashuv

اهدِنَــــا الصِّرَاطَ المُستَقِيمَ

ihdinâ s-sirâta l-mustaqîm - guide us on the straight road (road of uprightness)

הנחנו בדרך הישר / hanchenu b'derech ha-yashar

صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنعَمتَ عَلَيهِمْ غَيرِ

sirâta l-ladhîna an`amta `alayhim - the road of those to whom you are giving

בדרכם של אלה אשר נטית להם  / b'darcham shel eleh asher n'tiyat lahem

المَغضُوبِ عَلَيهِمْ وَلاَ الضَّالِّينَ

ghayri l-maghdûbi `alayhim wa la d-dâlîn - not those who receive your anger, who have lost their way.

אשר לא חרון אפו עליהם ולא מן התועים / asher lo charon apo aleihem v'lo min hato'im.

Attempting even this small translation makes me hyper-conscious of the language of these lines. "In the name" is pretty straightforward (and the Hebrew words there match the Arabic ones closely), but by the second word I'm already making complicated choices. Some translations transliterate the word Allah into Hebrew characters, as one might phonetically render any name. Others use Elohim, one of the names of God in the Hebrew scriptures. Others say ha-El, "the God," since that's what "Allah" means. In choosing to use this Hebrew name for God to render the Arabic name for God, I'm implicitly making a theological statement: that God is God, regardless of what name we use.

I rendered nasta`în as nashuv because the English translations I read suggested that the Arabic root signifies turning toward God in a time of need. The Hebrew root I chose is the root of the word teshuvah, repentance or return, which is much on our minds at this time of year. It doesn't imply "in a time of need," necessarily, but I like the resonance of it. At the end of the next-to-last line, some of the translations I found online add a word, chesed, which means lovingkindness. It's not in the Arabic, which simply says "those to whom you are giving," but to my ear it sounds strange without a direct object: giving what? I went back and forth on that, but decided in the end to preserve the open-endedness of the Arabic. It felt like a more faithful translation, though in the strictest sense any translation of the Qur'an is an interpretation anyway, since only the Arabic text is considered God's revealed word.

As we worked through the Arabic words in class this week, I felt electrified by the experience of  beginning to understand the translation. Spoken Arabic is almost completely opaque to me, and written Arabic even more so. (Wow, did I become aware of that in Jerusalem this summer!) But there's a big difference between encountering Arabic in the streets, and encountering Qur'anic Arabic in this way.

I aspire to be the kind of rabbi who understands (and speaks) some Arabic, someday. At my visit to the All Nations Café, I was moved by the number of participants who were trilingual. Hearing Israelis and Palestinians translating comfortably between Arabic, Hebrew, and English was incredibly powerful for me. So I loved hearing these Arabic verses, which are holy to my Muslim friends, rendered slowly  in a way that allowed me to see the connections between Arabic words and Hebrew words.

When I was a student at Bennington, several of my teachers encouraged us to make the translation of poetry a regular part of our writing lives. It enriches one's attentiveness to linguistic detail, they said, and it gives one a deeper appreciation both of the original poem in the foreign tongue, and of translations into one's own language. I haven't done much poetry translation, and I'd certainly never tried before to translate from a language I do not speak into a language where I still feel like a relative beginner! (And I'm also aware that the Qur'an presents itself as something other than poetry; I don't wholly understand the importance of the distinction, but Bill has flagged it as something we'll be learning more about in the weeks to come.)

Still, this process makes me feel differently about these opening verses of the Qur'an. I know them in a new way now. As a poet, and as someone who's in relationship with my own tradition's holy texts, that's a fascinating place to be.

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