Rhyming Translations of Qurʾanic Sūrahs

by Devin Stewart*

A curious fact has recently come to my attention, and I suppose it may be news to most readers of this blog. I was surprised to learn that the Austrian Orientalist Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856), best known for his voluminous and detailed history of the

Lithograph portrait of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, by Josef Kriehuber, 1843; image accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

Lithograph portrait of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, by Josef Kriehuber, 1843; image accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

Ottoman Empire, translated forty surahs of the Qur’an in 1811 [Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, “Die letzten vierzig Suren des Korans. als eine Probe einer gereimten Uebersetzung desselben,” in Fundgruben des Orients 2 (Vienna: Anton Schmid, 1811-12): 25-46.] The evidence of his profound engagement with the Qur’an in addition to his other variegated interests is worthy of note, but the most curious feature of his translations are that they rhyme, endeavoring to represent the original Arabic rhyme in German. It is well known—to Germans, at least, perhaps less so to others—that Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), an extremely talented polyglot scholar, poet, and translator, produced a rhyming translation of most of the Qur’an (published posthumously, in 1888). We can compare both scholars’ translations of Sūrat al-ʿĀdiyāt:


Die C. Sura. Die Wettrenner

  1. Bey den Pferden, die im Wettlaufe rennen!
  2. Unter deren Hufen die Kiesel brennen,
  3. Die sich am Morgen wetteifernd zum Laufe drängen,
  4. Die in Staubwolken daher sprengen,
  5. Und die feindlichen Geschwader trennen,
  6. Der Mensh ist gegen seinen Herrn undankbar!
  7. Er selbst bezeugt es als wahr.
  8. Er liebt zu sehr Reichtum und Pracht,
  9. Weiss er denn nicht dass am Tag, wo erhellt wird der Gräber Nacht,
  10. Und wo, was in dem Busen Schlägt, wird an Tag gebracht;
  11. Weiss er den nicht dass an jenem Tag der Herr har auf Alles Acht?

Friedrich Rückert:

  1. Sure, “Die Jagenden”

Im Namen Gottes des albarmherzigen Erbarmers

  1. Die schnaubenden, die jagenden,
  2. Mit Hufschlang Funken schlagenden,
  3. Den Morgenangriff wagenden,
  4. Die Staub aufwühlen mit dem Tritte,
  5. Und dringen in des Heeres Mitte!
  6. Ja, der Mensch ist gegen Gott voll Trutz,
  7. Was er sich selbst bezeugen muß,
  8. Und liebet heftig seinen Nutz.
  9. O weiß er nicht, wann das im Grab wird aufgeweckt,
  10. Und das im Busen aufgedeckt,
  11. Daß nichts von ihnen ihrem Herrn dann bleibt versteckt?

With the exception of Shawkat Toorawa’s recent rhyming translations of surahs into English, I am aware of no rhyming translations in any other European languages. I have several questions for the readers of this blog:

  1. Which of the above German translations is more successful? Why?
  2. Are there any other rhyming translations of the Qur’an out there in French, Italian, Spanish, etc.? (There is another German one, by Martin Klamroth.)
  3. Why might German translators be more apt to pay attention to rhyme than translators working in other European languages?
  4. Why do English translators tend to be so reticent about rhyme? Pickthall, for example, cannot even bring himself to use the word “rhyme” in his introduction:

    There is another peculiarity which is disconcerting in translation though it proceeds from one of the beauties of the original, and is unavoidable without abolishing the verse-division of great importance for reference. In Arabic the verses are divided according to the rhythm of the language. When a certain sound which marks the rhythm recurs there is a strong pause and the verse ends naturally, although the sentence may go on to the next verse or to several subsequent verses. That is of the spirit of the Arabic language; but attempts to reproduce such rhythm in English have the opposite effect to that produced by the Arabic. Here only the division is preserved, the verses being divided as in the Qur
    ʾan and numbered. 

    Are attempts at “rhythm” in English translations of the Qurʾan really so doomed to failure as Pickthall suggests? Is there something about the English language that makes it especially ill-suited to rhyming translation? Or are Pickthall and the others simply being obtuse or myopic?

    * Devin Stewart is Associate Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at Emory University.© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “Rhyming Translations of Qurʾanic Sūrahs

  1. It’s rhyming translate of Qur’an: Teodor Adamoviç Şumovskiy, Çitaya Sivyatçennıy Koran, Moskva – Sankt-Petersburg 1995, 2008.

    Prof. Dr. İsmail Çalışkan
    -Yıldırım Beyazıt Üniversitesi İslami İlimler Fakültesi, Tefsir Anabilim Dalı, Ankara TÜRKİYE
    Tel: +903123241555/3615

    Date: Mon, 23 Feb 2015 03:07:56 +0000
    To: duralaroltu@hotmail.com

  2. It’s rhyming translate of Qur’an in Russian: Teodor Adamoviç Şumovskiy, Çitaya Sivyatçennıy Koran, Moskva – Sankt-Petersburg 1995, 2008.

    Prof. Dr. İsmail Çalışkan
    -Yıldırım Beyazıt Üniversitesi İslami İlimler Fakültesi, Tefsir Anabilim Dalı, Ankara TÜRKİYE
    Tel: +903123241555/3615

    Date: Mon, 23 Feb 2015 03:07:56 +0000
    To: duralaroltu@hotmail.com

  3. As a German, I’d say that Rückert does more justice to the first part of the sura (v. 1-5). For the second part (v. 6-11), I lean more towards Hammer-Purgstall.

    I couldn’t really say that German is particularly well-suited for rhyming. Certainly less so than Arabic and probably also less so than English or French. Having recently tried to translate a bit of contemporary Egyptian poetry, I know that finding rhymes in German can be pretty darn hard! I don’t think that the characteristics of language are the reason for there being rhyming translations in German, but (presumably) not in other European languages, but I don’t know what else is. Interesting question you raise here.

    I know you asked about European languages, but I nevertheless feel compelled to point out that Brett Wilson wrote a piece about Turkish Bektashi-Alevi rhyming translations that will be published later this year, in the third issue of JQS (an issue on Muslim Qur’an translations that I’m guest-editing).

  4. Dear Dr Stewart, your discovery is illuminating and most interesting….I am unable to answer your questions, which I nevertheless found pertinent; however it occurred to me that perhaps a doctoral student could be inspired to take on these questions and this topic as his/her doctoral research question, and the resultant additional queries that such a research would precipitate…..

  5. I will vote for Hammer-Purgstall’s translation as decidedly the more gripping of the two. This results first of all from the pounding, driving rhythm of the first five verses, which suits both the subject and the sound of the opening oath in Arabic. Rückert’s translation sounds placid by comparison. Second, by maintaining the same rhyme through the first five verses, Hammer-Purgstall sets up a dramatic transition in verse 6, which is thus rightly singled out as the fulcrum of the sura. German speakers will have to weigh in on the style and vocabulary. Thank you for drawing our attention to this, Devin.

  6. I must agree with Vishanoff, both in his aesthetic judgment and his explanation for it. I find Hammer-Purgstall’s translation superior. To me, Rückert’s version has more of a genteel limerick quality, which is not appealing and loses the dramatic impact of the shift in verse 6.

  7. Can I suggest that maybe this is less about the nature of any one given language than it is about timing? The German rhyming translations that are cited above are quite old; both nineteenth century. I think that it isn’t so much that Germans are more likely to rhyme the Qurʾān, as people writing before the collapse of rhyming literature in Europe/North America are likely to rhyme anything. Around the turn of the 20th century, poets like Pound and Whitman broke from rhyme, and the break seems to have stuck. This seems especially true of people with high literacy (e.g., academics), while peoples who tended to have a higher residual orality (e.g., African-American and Irish authors) kept up the old rhymes and rhythms a bit longer (and if I may add, they made for better poets because of it). So, since the bulk of Orientalist scholarship before the shift away from rhyme itself was German, it stands that German would be the most likely language of rhyming Qurʾān translations in Western European languages. Now nearly all Westerners have no contact with residual orality at all, and so the rhyme (incorrectly) seems less important. And of course, to make the rhymes means you have to be a bit more slack with other parts of the translation. Speaking of bad translations:

    19. Woe on that day to those who rejected.
    20. Didn’t we create you from a water putrid?
    21. Then we made it an abode guarded
    22. for a measure understood?
    23. So did we measure and we are the best of measurers.
    24. Woe on that day to those who rejected.
    25. Didn’t we make the earth a place-for-resting
    26. for the dead and the living?
    27. And we made the mountains-anchored
    and we poured-out for you water refreshing?
    28. Woe on that day to those who rejected (al-Mursalāt 77:19-28).

  8. Devin, thanks for a fascinating post! Von Hammer-Purgstall is an amazing and weird character in the history of German Orientalism. If I am remembering correctly, he was one of the first modern Europeans to discuss the Ismailis, and I believe he also tackled this weird medieval claim that the Templars worshipped an idol of Muhammad (the “Baphomet”) that they got from the Nizari Assassins. (If memory serves, his book on this subject provided an illustration of a goat-headed figure for the Baphomet that is the source of many modern images of Satan.) His work is surely worth further examination, and his interest in the Qur’an adds another rich layer.

  9. There’s another rhyming translation in German, just stumbled across it: http://menadoc.bibliothek.uni-halle.de/ssg/content/pageview/553950. Martin Klamroth.

    Here’s his take on sura 100:

    Bei den Rennern in schnaubendem Dampfe,
    Die Funken schlagen mit Gestampfe,
    In der Frühe jagen zum Kampfe,
    Die Staub auftürmen,
    Auf ein Heer anstürmen!

    Der Mensch ist gegen seinen Herrn undankbar
    Und bezeugt es selbst als wahr;
    Dem Wohlleben frönt er ganz und gar.

    Weiss er denn nicht, wenn, was im Grab ruhte, wird erweckt,
    Und offenbart wird, was im Herzen lag versteckt,
    Dass dann der Herr seinen Sinn entdeckt?

  10. H-P’s version is a good rhyming translation, but Rückert’s version is poetic, because of his attention to meter. ِThe breathlessness of the charging horses is perfectly captured by him at the beginning and he avoids the convoluted sentences of H-P in the latter part. I vote for Rückert.

Comments are closed.