Exegesis and Translation, Part Two


Glasgow University library: MS Hunter 374 fol.4r
A pdf version of parts one and two is available here – exegesis-and-translation-partsone-two.pdf

Exegesis and Translation

Some Personal Reflexions
(Part Two)

Translation and Al-Quran

The problem of sometimes projecting modern interpretations onto ancient texts by the injudicious use, in a translation, of a particular English word is especially relevant in the matter of the Quran, for it seems to be increasingly common for someone reliant on translations – on the interpretations of meaning given by others – to misunderstand the text of the Quran and then, from that misunderstanding, not only form a misconceived (and sometimes prejudiced) opinion about the Quran in particular and Islam in general but also to give voice to such an opinion.

For example, an ayah [verse] often (mis)quoted is Ayah 151 of Surah Al ‘Imran, which is usually interpreted as “Soon shall we cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers.”

However, the word ‘terror’ is an inappropriate interpretation for several reasons. The Arabic of Ayah 151 of Surah Al ‘Imran is:

سَنُلْقِي فِي قُلُوبِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا الرُّعْبَ بِمَا أَشْرَكُوا بِاللَّهِ مَا لَمْ يُنَزِّلْ بِهِ سُلْطَانًا وَمَأْوَاهُمُ النَّارُ وَبِئْسَ مَثْوَى الظَّالِمِينَ

Does الرُّعْبَ imply ‘terror’ as the aforementioned interpretation suggests, along with all that the modern English word terror now implies, as in the difficult to define term terrorism? No, it does not; rather, the Arabic implies the fear/the dread and ‘the astonishment/awe’ – that is, that human feeling inspired by apprehending or experiencing some-thing supernaturally or extraordinarily powerful and numinous; for example, an Ayah (Sign) of Allah, Al-Khaliq, Al-Azim, Al-Jalil. The kind of fear/trembling/awe/astonishment felt, for instance and importantly, by the Apostles when, as recounted in Luke 24.37, they witnessed Jesus alive after the crucifixion.

That is, I suggest that what is referred to in Ayah 151 of Surah Al ‘Imran – as in the other four Ayat where الرُّعْبَ / رُعْبًا occur – is similar to the ‘suffusion with fear’ and the ‘being scared’ that occurs and has occurred, as recounted in both Christian scripture and the Quran, when a mortal is (a) confronted by God/Allah or some-thing divine/numinous/awe-inspiring, and/or (b) has such fear, and such a being scared, thrust into their hearts by God/Allah, as a Sign, a warning, or as mention of their fate.

In respect of Luke 24.37, for instance, the Greek text is:

πτοηθέντες δὲ καὶ ἔμφοβοι γενόμενοι ἐδόκουν πνεῦμα θεωρεῖν

The term ἔμφοβος means ‘suffused with/by phobos’ – held/gripped by fear; timorous – and occurs in Sirach 19.24 and Luke 24.5, the latter of which is very interesting: ἐμφόβων δὲ γενομένων αὐτῶν καὶ κλινουσῶν τὰ πρόσωπα εἰς τὴν γῆν εἶπαν πρὸς αὐτάς Τί ζητεῖτε τὸν ζῶντα μετὰ τῶν νεκρῶν. That is, suffused with phobos, they assumed a posture of submission/reverence/respect by bowing their heads; in effect prostrating themselves in the presence of some-thing divine/numinous/awe-inspiring. Since πνεῦμα – pneuma – implies apparition or ghost, and πτοηθεντες suggests they were ‘scared’ (cf. Odyssey 22.298 – τῶν δὲ φρένες ἐπτοίηθεν) then Luke 24.37 could be translated as “But they, suffused with fear and scared, felt that they saw an apparition.” [1]

My, admittedly fallible, view now – after some years of reflexion and study – is that, in an English interpretation of the meaning of a work as revered, and misunderstood, as the Quran, English words in common usage must be carefully chosen, with many common words avoided, and that it would sometimes be better to choose an unusual or even archaic word in order to try and convey something of the sense of the Arabic. Thus, with a careful interpretation common misunderstandings of the text – by non-Muslims unversed in Arabic – can possibly be avoided, especially if – as might be the case with unusual words – the reader has to pause to consider the meaning or make the effort to find the meaning, if only in a glossary appended to the interpretation. A pause and/or an effort that is suited to reading a work revered by millions of people around the world.

In the matter of Ayah 151 of Surah Al ‘Imran, a possible interpretation of meaning therefore is:

Into the hearts of they who disbelieve We shall hurl redurre because they, without any authority revealed about such things, associate others with Allah; and for their home: The Fire, that harrowing resting place of the unjust.

Here, I have used the unusual English word redurre, with a meaning of ‘awe combined with a trembling fear’. A word suggested by its occurrence in religious works by Richard Rolle and John Gower, and also by texts such as Morte Arthure [2] and which word therefore places this Ayah from the Quran into the correct context, which is that of a religious revelation, a spiritual message, comparable to that of Christianity, and of the particular ontology that Islam offers as answers to questions concerning the meaning and the purpose of our mortal lives; of how that purpose may be attained; and thus of what wisdom is. Answers which have nothing whatsoever to do with ‘terrorism’, or even with ‘terror’ as that word in now commonly understood.

The Art of Translation, and A Question About Time

One question of possibly projecting modern interpretations onto ancient texts by the injudicious use of a particular English word, occurred to me some twenty years ago during my translation of the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles, and concerned the Greek word χρόνος. This is almost always translated as ‘time’, a word we now associate with a regular linearity – of past-present-future – measured in terms of the minutes, hours, and fixed days, of a reliable timepiece such as a watch or clock.

In the classical world of Homer and Sophocles, this type of reliable, linear, regularity was almost unknown, with χρόνος thus sometimes denoting some ill-defined period – long or short – and with the passing of a year, for example, often determined by the changes of the seasons, and which seasons themselves were marked in their arrival by the appearance of certain constellations in the night sky, something beautifully expressed by Aeschylus at the beginning of the Agamemnon:

θεοὺς μὲν αἰτῶ τῶνδ᾽ ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων
φρουρᾶς ἐτείας μῆκος, ἣν κοιμώμενος
στέγαις Ἀτρειδῶν ἄγκαθεν, κυνὸς δίκην,
ἄστρων κάτοιδα νυκτέρων ὁμήγυριν,
καὶ τοὺς φέροντας χεῖμα καὶ θέρος βροτοῖς
λαμπροὺς δυνάστας, ἐμπρέποντας αἰθέρι
ἀστέρας, ὅταν φθίνωσιν, ἀντολάς τε τῶν.
καὶ νῦν φυλάσσω λαμπάδος τό σύμβολον,
αὐγὴν πυρὸς φέρουσαν ἐκ Τροίας φάτιν
ἁλώσιμόν τε βάξιν: ὧδε γὰρ κρατεῖ
γυναικὸς ἀνδρόβουλον ἐλπίζον κέαρ.

Again I have asked the gods to deliver me from this toil,
This vigil a year in length, where I repose
On Atreidae’s roof on my arms, as is the custom with dogs
Looking toward the nightly assembly of constellations
And they who bring to mortals the storm-season and the summer:
Those radiant sovereigns, distinguished in the heavens
As stars when they come forth or pass away.
And still I keep watch for the sign of the beacon,
The light of the fire which will bring report of Troy,
Announcing it is captured.
For such is the command
And expectation of that woman with a man’s resolve.

However, in Oedipus Tyrannus, Sophocles has the memorable phrase καί μ᾽ ἦμαρ ἤδη ξυμμετρούμενον χρόνῳ, indicating something not only about χρόνος but also about the classical world and (importantly) about the character of Oedipus. The phrase is therefore worth quoting in context:

παῖδες οἰκτροί, γνωτὰ κοὐκ ἄγνωτά μοι
προσήλθεθ᾽ ἱμείροντες: εὖ γὰρ οἶδ᾽ ὅτι
νοσεῖτε πάντες, καὶ νοσοῦντες, ὡς ἐγὼ
οὐκ ἔστιν ὑμῶν ὅστις ἐξ ἴσου νοσεῖ.
τὸ μὲν γὰρ ὑμῶν ἄλγος εἰς ἕν᾽ ἔρχεται
μόνον καθ᾽ αὑτὸν κοὐδέν᾽ ἄλλον, δ᾽ ἐμὴ
ψυχὴ πόλιν τε κἀμὲ καὶ σ᾽ ὁμοῦ στένει.
ὥστ᾽ οὐχ ὕπνῳ γ᾽ εὕδοντά μ᾽ ἐξεγείρετε,
ἀλλ᾽ ἴστε πολλὰ μέν με δακρύσαντα δή,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ὁδοὺς ἐλθόντα φροντίδος πλάνοις:
ἣν δ᾽ εὖ σκοπῶν ηὕρισκον ἴασιν μόνην,
ταύτην ἔπραξα: παῖδα γὰρ Μενοικέως
Κρέοντ᾽, ἐμαυτοῦ γαμβρόν, ἐς τὰ Πυθικὰ
ἔπεμψα Φοίβου δώμαθ᾽, ὡς πύθοιθ᾽ τι
δρῶν τί φωνῶν τήνδε ῥυσαίμην πόλιν.
καί μ᾽ ἦμαρ ἤδη ξυμμετρούμενον χρόνῳ    73
λυπεῖ τί πράσσει: τοῦ γὰρ εἰκότος πέρα
ἄπεστι πλείω τοῦ καθήκοντος χρόνου.
ὅταν δ᾽ ἵκηται, τηνικαῦτ᾽ ἐγὼ κακὸς
μὴ δρῶν ἂν εἴην πάνθ᾽ ὅσ᾽ ἂν δηλοῖ θεός.

You, my children, who lament – I know, for I am not without knowledge,
Of the desire which brings you here. For well do I see
All your sufferings – and though you suffer, it is I
And not one of you that suffers the most.
For your pain comes to each of you
By itself, with nothing else, while my psyche
Mourns for myself, for you and the clan.
You have not awakened me from a resting sleep
For indeed you should know of my many tears
And the many paths of reflection I have wandered upon and tried.
And, as I pondered, I found one cure
Which I therefore took. The son of Menoeceus,
Creon – he who is my kin by marriage – I have sent to that Pythian dwelling
Of Phoebus to learn how I
By word or deed can give deliverance to the clan.
But I have already measured the duration
And am concerned: for where is he? He is longer than expected
For his absence is, in duration, greater than is necessary.
Yet when he does arrive, it would dishonourable
For me not to act upon all that the gods makes clear.


To translate χρόνος in v.73 abstractly as ‘time’ is therefore to overlook not only the context – of a world where the seasons were often determined by observation of the night sky – but also the significance of what Oedipus says. For he has, out of his urgent concern for both his people and himself – out of fear of the wrake of the gods – gone to the trouble to determine how long Creon’s journey should take and to measure/calculate/record, or to have someone do this for him, precisely how long Creon has been away.

A pedantic point, possibly; but one which perhaps illustrates the engaging art of translation and the possibilities of interpretation, and of misinterpretation, that exist.

David Myatt


[1] On a pedantic note, I understandδοκέω as meaning here not the conventional unemotional ‘suppose/thought’ nor (worse) ‘opinion’ but rather as ‘felt’ in the sense of experiencing (as they do) an intense and personal feeling. Hence my rendering that they “felt that they saw…”

[2]  John Gower, Confessio Amantis [written 1390 ce]

That thogh thi love more drawe
And peise in the balance more,
Thou miht noght axe ayein therfore
Of duete, bot al of grace.
For love is lord in every place,
Ther mai no lawe him justefie
Be reddour ne be compaignie,
That he ne wole after his wille
Whom that him liketh spede or spille

(Book 5, v. 4558) The Complete Works of John Gower. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899-1902

Morte Arthure
[written c. 1400 ce]

That thow ne schall rowte ne ryste vndyr the heuene ryche,
Þofe thow for reddour of Rome ryne to þe erthe  [108-109]

cc David Myatt 2013
  This text is issued under the Creative Commons
(Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0) License
and can be freely copied and distributed, according to the terms of that license.
All translations/interpretation of meaning: DW Myatt

Image credit:

Illumination from the MS Anicii Manlii Torqvati Severini Boetii,
De Consolatione Philosophiae cvm Commento,
dated c. 1385 ce, in Glasgow University library: MS Hunter 374 fol.4r