The Divine Languages

Magical languages abound in the fantasy genre. In Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, the Ancient Language is a magical tongue with which people can do magic, in which it is impossible to lie, and in which people have true names that can be used to control them.[1] J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series contains magical spells which students learn, with great emphasis on proper pronunciation and wand movement.[2] There is an implied (and sometimes forthrightly stated) premise of the universes in these stories that certain words and languages contain power unimaginable. There are magic spells and words imbued with properties that can be used to perform feats of which mere mortals in our own world can only dream.

In our world, however, setting aside for the moment our human tendency to find beauty in the language with which are familiar or which has become associated with some special ceremony or event or literature, there are no magical languages. There is certainly great power in words, but there is no language which enables us to perform supernatural acts. Though this may seem an obvious statement, a common apologetic argument about religion (especially religions which have a scripture considered divinely inspired) is the claim that holy books must be read in a certain language in order to be fully understood. There are those who claim that anyone who reads their holy book in a different language cannot possibly understand it and cannot comment on it knowledgeably.

I would be amiss if I failed to address the fact that there is, indeed, inevitably something lost in translation when one cannot read the original. As John Ciardi wrote, in a note prefacing his translation of Dante’s Purgatorio, “Any theoretical remarks offered by a translator are bound to be an apology for his failure. Obviously no sane translator can allow himself to dream of success. He asks only for the best possible failure.”[3] Certain words do not have an equivalent in another language (while others have several to choose from), certain phrases or expressions in one language may be confusing if translated literally, and certain historical references may not be readily understandable to modern readers. Then, there is the question of how to best convey the original author’s style of writing, the question of how to best translate and format verse, and so on and so forth, until we reach a nearly interminable list of ways in which translation can be challenging. Inevitably, there are certain aspects of the original which may not survive the translation and which may need to be mentioned in footnotes so that readers can understand some of the changes which were made. This does not mean, however, that translation is useless or should not be attempted. It also does not mean that people who cannot read the language in which a text was originally written should be told that reading it in translation leaves them unable to have a legitimate opinion about it. It certainly does not mean that there is somehow one language, to the exclusion of all others, in which the Almighty chose to speak to humankind.

I am motivated to write this, in part, by my memories of my own attempts to read the Qur’an in Arabic. I still remember the feeling of frustration at not being able to understand the contents of the Qur’an, especially considering that this was claimed to be an absolutely wonderful, perfect text upon which to base one’s life. It felt rather like being asked to love a book I had never read. I had been taught the letters and how to sound out the words, and did eventually finish reading the whole thing in Arabic (under the guidance of various family members), but I had no idea what the words meant. If I were to place in front of an English-speaking person a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses[4] or Virgil’s Aeneid[5] in Latin (in a readable typeface), that person could likely sound out the words (albeit probably with incorrect pronunciation), but most people would not know what the words mean. That is similar to how I felt while reading Qur’an, but at least with Ovid and Virgil, the alphabet would at least be somewhat familiar due to its similarities with the American English alphabet. A more appropriate analogy would be if I taught you an alphabet you had not known before, and taught you how to sound out the words. Due to the letters being dissimilar to the ones I used in daily life, in addition to my complete lack of understanding of what I was reading, I’ve forgotten at this point how to even sound out the Arabic words. Though I regret this, I cannot claim it somehow lessens my knowledge of the contents of the Qur’an compared to the knowledge I had before, because I had no idea at all what the Qur’an said while reading it in Arabic. While reading the Qur’an in English, my knowledge about its contents has increased compared to when I was reading it in Arabic. It does not seem to me an extreme statement to declare that a person who reads a text translated into their native language will know more about it compared to someone who doesn’t understand the original language but recites it in the original language anyway.

Not only does the prospect of only being allowed to read a book in a language one does not understand sound absurd from a secular standpoint, but when that book is a religious text, it creates problems within the religion. For me, while I feel it is beneficial to read texts in their original languages if possible (for the reasons explained above), there is no concern in my mind about not following the teachings of Islam while reading the Qur’an in English. I am an atheist and don’t feel the need or desire to follow the teachings of Islam. From a religious perspective, however, the attempts to restrict the religious texts to one language can unfairly exclude members of the religion who do not know that language. Irshad Manji, in her book The Trouble with Islam Today, relates an incident when she asked her madressa teacher why girls cannot lead prayer and he told her to read the Qur’an. She writes,

I tried, though it felt artificial since I didn’t know Arabic. Do I see you nodding your head? Most Muslims have no clue what they’re saying when we’re reciting the Koran in Arabic. It’s not that we’re obtuse. Rather, Arabic is one of the world’s most rhythmic languages, and weekly lessons at the madressa simply don’t let us grasp its intricacies. […]

Over time, this read-the-Koran response generated more questions: Why should I perpetuate the fib of reciting Arabic if it makes no practical sense and strikes no emotional chord? Why must we suspect that every English translation of the Qur’an “corrupts” the original text? I mean, if the Koran is as straightforward as the purists tell us, then aren’t its teachings easily translated into a thousand tongues? Finally, why should stigma stalk those of us who haven’t been weaned on Arabic when the fact is that no more than 20 percent of Muslims worldwide are Arabs? Translation: At least 80 percent of us aren’t Arabs. “Know your Islam,” they say blithely. Whose Islam? Is this a faith or a cult?[6]

We have a situation in which a great many people who profess that they are adherents of a particular religion have no idea, or only the vaguest idea, what their holy book actually says. It gives lie to the claim that a religion is universal and welcoming to people from all around the world. On the part of religious leaders, the insistence that their religious texts should only be available in one language betrays an ulterior motive of wanting to control doctrine, their desire to control people in this life while citing consequences in the next life as justification. When most of the laity cannot understand the language in which the text was originally written but have been taught their whole lives that they must read the text in that language for their action to really count, it creates a situation in which the laity is almost completely dependent upon their religious leaders to tell them what the text says. They cannot confirm the claims that their religious leaders make about the texts because any argument they make based upon a translation can be dismissed as not being from the authentic version of the holy text. Even in denominations and religions which emphasize that it is not necessary to go through official religious leaders to get to Heaven, even in those which teach that only God can judge one’s innermost thoughts to determine if one is a true believer, religious leaders want to determine who is a true believer in this life, to hold the keys to the afterlife. To add more irony to all this, religious leaders teach believers that they should not care for the opinions of others, should be brave and faithful enough to follow their religion despite what others in society may say to them (especially, as is the case with Islam in the United States, if the adherents are members of a minority religion in their country), but then advise unquestioning obedience (rather than bravery) from followers when the religious leaders themselves are telling them what to do. It is my suspicion that a great many religious leaders know that reading the texts in languages that are understandable to followers will lead to questions — questions that these religious leaders are unable to answer.

Invoking translation erroneously and automatically is also one of many problems in religious apologetics. In response to criticism of a religious text, a common response is to claim that there was a mistranslation. One might be inclined to believe this if explanations were offered, but this is sometimes stated without much further elaboration. There are certainly many translation difficulties in religious texts, as there are in many other books, but sometimes apologists seem to be invoking a kind of supernatural force to change the writing so that it says the exact opposite of what it says. It seems as though anything and everything that is problematic in scripture can be excused as being due to translation difficulties — regardless of whether the text is ambiguous or not. I am not an expert in Hebrew, Greek, or Arabic, but when many translations (even those by groups which aim to be more ecumenical and supportive of equal rights) still contain the violent and discriminatory passages, I’m inclined to think that maybe that’s what the original really does say, since these more ecumenical translators would have favored the more tolerant translation if one had been available. Saying that the original has been mistranslated is a sometimes used as convenient dodge of questions about the horrible verses in religious texts. This is sometimes coupled with the insistence, as mentioned above, that a person cannot really understand the text unless they have read it in the original language, a proposition which sounds absurd when one considers that apologists will elevate the opinions and experiences of believers who read the text in the original language, even those who did so without understanding it, above the opinion of any and all critics who read it only in translation.

Lastly, there is the inevitable observation: God, being omnipotent, should be able to communicate to people in all languages. As Christopher Hitchens put it, “Since Mary must be presumed to have spoken Aramaic and Muhammad Arabic, it can I suppose be granted that god is in fact multilingual and can speak any language he chooses. (He opted in both cases to use the Archangel Gabriel as the intermediate deliverer of his message.)”[7] Given that these religions encourage prayer (personal prayer in addition to the formulaic ones), we can also assume that the god who is believed in will be able to understand the prayers of those who speak different languages. If it’s true that a god created all of humanity and if it’s true that he is also the reason why there are so many different languages on the face of the Earth, whether he created them as a response to the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)[8] or if the diversity of human language is one of his signs (Qur’an 30:22),[9] then there should be no reason why he cannot understand all of them or offer translations of his holy text in multiple languages, so that the people who he claims to love will be able to understand his message. That he does not do this suggests that he is either not omnipotent, not omniscient, or not omnibenevolent — or that these religions are inventions of human beings, and therefore bear the marks of the cultures in which they were created, including their holy texts being written in the languages known by the people who founded them and needing the efforts of translators to make them intelligible to the rest of humanity, much like any other work that is the product of human hands.


[1] Ancient Language. Inheritance Cycle Wiki (Inheriwiki) entry. Retrieved on 30 June 2012 from

[2] List of spells. Harry Potter Wiki entry. Retrieved on 3 July 2012 from

[3] Ciardi, John. “Translator’s Note”. The Purgatorio. By Dante Alighieri (originally written from 1308 to 1321). New York: Penguin Group (USA), 1957, p. ix. Print.

[4] Ovid’s Metamorphoses is available online at

[5] Virgil’s Aeneid is available online at

[6] Manji, Irshad. The Trouble with Islam Today. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003, Ch 1, p. 13. Print.

There is an excerpt from Manji’s book available at The relevant passage is on page 4 of the article, with minor differences from the passage in the published book.

[7] Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007, Ch 9, p. 124-5. Print.

[8] The Biblical story of the tower of Babel reads as follows:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” (New Revised Standard Version, Genesis 11:1-9)

[9] The Qur’anic passage reads as follows: “Another of his signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors. There truly are signs for those who know.” (translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, 30:22)

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