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Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Arabic to English Translators guide

Okay, I am writing this as a person who has been translating since 2006. In that time I have come to understand certain things and facts about translation. More importantly, I wanted to combine all the relevant information about translating. So any translator can use them as a guide to assist themselves.


Before you even think about translating you have to know basics about Islamic knowledge: fiqh and aquida. If you are going to translate advanced text then you need to learn the text, up to an advanced level. This applies to whatever field you are translating. Tafsir learn tafsir and so forth. It is best to study the text with a teacher.

If you are not familiar with terminology that is used in a subject then you have to leave translating the document or study it or have someone you can ask. The risk here is translating something in the wrong manner because you were not familiar with the subject. 

You need to make sure that you have the best version of the text. This might mean getting more than one printed text. Try to find pdfs because there are many online. Check and keep checking the text. Do this before doing any translating. You need to make sure of this before setting off. If you do not then you might be setting sail with a boat with a hole in it. I mean a text with lots of mistakes.


The text needs to be something useful and something that has not been done before. The book market is slow, so particular books sell better than others. Useful books of Fiqh do not sell unless its for the madrasa market. 


This often occurs with non-muslims who translate Islamic texts. They lack the understanding of basic concepts and then convey incorrect concepts. Some translators remove all the religious terminology. The text Instruction of the student falls into this type. Where the translators have removed religious terminology which is disappointing because its for Muslims, so they need the terminology. Although, the translation is very good, there are troubling parts which have been missed out and removed. A French expert on the works of Ibn 'Ajibah (may Allah show him mercy) also has this problem. He makes a mistake every time he uses salawat because he simply did not understand it. 

There comes a point that even the most battle hardened translator must ask someone. Using commentaries is the best option, if you have access to them. There are many books available online. 


The translators English needs to be as high as possible. So further studies in basic English are needed for some. Even a poor translation has benefits but a stronger translation means the text will sell better than a weak one. Reading classical English texts can help one form sentences and so forth. That is the inexpensive method of improving ones English.

When translating

The important thing about translating is the actual text. The first question you must ask yourself is: has it been translated before. If it has then do not touch it because no one will pay or publish the work. If you are paid by a publisher then go ahead but if you are doing it yourself then do not bother. The only exception would be if the text was very poorly translated. Even then you need to find a publisher. 

You should have as many classic dictionaries as possible: Mukhtar Al-Sihah, Al-Qamus Al-Muheet and Hans Wehr are just some of the dictionaries you should have. There are internet dictionaries but use these sparingly. If you find a word in a Arabic to Arabic dictionary then know you might need to look up the word in an Arabic to English dictionary later! Watch out for place names.


Once you have chosen a text then spend a long time searching for previous translations. 
Then look for more than one version of the text. This way you compare the information from one text to another. Dar Al-Kutub Al-Ilmiyyah and Dar Al-Fikr are two publishing houses with publications of classical works but have questions raised against them. Chapters, lines, paragraphs and so forth are missing from them. So if you have one these publications then check it without another version. An internet search can turn up a manuscript copy or even a earlier copy. I worked on a translation by comparing four publications of the same text from four different publishers. You should have at least two versions to compare.


If you are relying on a publisher then know that they take their time and can pull the plug at any time and keep the money. So get a contract between you or you might get a shock

Most publishers are interested in money alone. So consider self publishing because you could be waiting for years for some publishers and even then they could pull the plug on the project and leave with no reward for your work.

Adding Arabic

Most students of knowledge, as well as many others, want to see the original Arabic sources. The problem with this, is that people want the vowels present. Sometimes, the Arabic text does not have the tashkeel. 

So the original text of the hadith must be found and avoid guess work. Though this is often why the original Arabic is not used. It unduly delays the translation because it can take hours to find the text and then the reference of the text could be wrong. So to avoid all this, the Arabic text could be left out. This is your choice but checking the Arabic text, once its typed in, adds another layer of work. 


This is where the translators knowledge comes out. The greater the sources referred to often means that the translator has more knowledge. The lack of use of the footnotes means the translator is not bothered about adding notes or are unable to add footnotes. Often, references can be found in different versions of the same text. When I was translating the forty hadith commentary by Ibn Daqiq Al-'Id on Imam Al-Nawawi's compilation, I used another work to add  references. 

Problem is that not many people read the footnotes, so do you want to waste time adding them? I add as much footnotes as possible, seen as we live in time where people need references. Some translations that were done in the eighties and nineties did not have much foot or end notes. Also, do you want footnotes or end notes. My personal preference is footnotes because end notes takes time to find the note. Footnotes are right before you and it makes the text look bigger!   

Getting paid

Have written agreements with publisher and other parties. Its up to you if want a certain payments when certain parts are completed or payment upfront. This is all up to you but know many people who want projects do not want to pay reasonable prices. I was offered a 'generous' £1 per page to translate. I turned it down and that should not come as shock. 

Make things clear to avoid any time of confusion. Also, know people will do anything to get out of paying you. People owe me money for fees on translation that they have not paid. Get paid before hand over the work.

After completion

Review the text as many times as possible. Review the text slowly, read it out aloud or print it out. Keep your brain fresh and maybe ask someone to review it with you. 

One of the best ways of reviewing a text is to teach it. If you are qualified to do so, of course. Once you are happy with it then involve an editor then finally a proofreader. Go over their corrections and try to improve yourself. 


They are often people who are interesting in making money and not in paying the translator. They often exploit the work by not paying royalties and not paying anything for the work.

I often get tired of dealing with publishers because of their slow work rate. This is often due to the fact that they are working on more than one work at a time. Your work is often a long way down in the priorities. So you have a choice either to self publish or wait for years for the publisher. You can publish on the internet via text sharing sites such as scribd or kindle ebooks. Keep the rights of your text and keep the copyright. Publishers often do not care about the rights of the translator nor are they concerned with law. 

They might also want extra work to be done on the translation. Like adding biographies and additional notes. This can take extra time and even then the publisher can still back out of the translation. I worked for six months adding things to a text but then the publisher changed their mind and left my work hanging in the wind. I was not best pleased to say the least!

Review the texts after a few years and try to improve them, if its possible.

Final points

I hope this is useful for budding translators because its a small minefield and there is a distinct lack of professionalism in the book publishing market. Most people want to make money and will do it any cost. The publishers in particular. Most of them have nullified their good actions.

Yet, they are unaware that sincerity is paramount in any Islamic activity and the lack of sincerity means the reward is nullified. For such people its better to have the intention and not do any Islamic work. Than to do work with bad intentions such as earning money. The work needs sincere intentions and if there is not then it entails punishment because of the exploitation of others, and taking money from people unjustly