Régis Blachère’s French Translation
After presenting the life and work of Régis Blachère, I consider the criticism his translation of the Qur’ān is sometimes subjected to. Consequently, this introductory note differs slightly from the ones found on our website. But the debate, as we shall see, is worthwhile. 1
Régis Blachère: biographical elements
For around forty years, from 1935, when he was appointed at the “National School of Modern Oriental Languages” (École Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes), until his death in 1973, Régis Blachère was one of the most prominent scholars of Arabic studies in France. He successively held the position of director of Arabic Philological Studies at the 4th section of Sorbonne University’s “School of Applied Sciences” (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes) (1942-1968), and the chair of Arabic philology and literature at the Sorbonne University (1950-1970), as well as director of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the “Paris Academy” (Académie de Paris) (1956-1965). He became a member of the “Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres” (Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres) in 1972, but only sat for a year, as he passed away on August 7, 1973.
Born in Montrouge in 1900 from a modest family, Blachère came into contact with the Arab world in 1915 when his father was appointed to the civil service in Morocco. He immediately started learning Arabic. He finished his high school education at the Lyautey High School in Casablanca. Blachère initially wanted to become an interpreter but finally decided, on the advice of his teachers, to become an Arabic teacher, and thus followed the usual career path: a bachelor’s degree in 1922 at the Faculty of Arts in Algiers, an agrégation (a French public education competitive examination) in 1924, and a doctorate in 1936. At the beginning of his academic career he was interested in geography and published in 1932 “Extracts from the Main Arab Geographers of the Middle Ages” (Extraits des principaux géographes arabes du Moyen Âge). He did not abandon the subject, but quickly devoted himself to the three fields in which he contributed the most: languages, literature, and Islamic studies.
In the field of linguistics, his contribution is both theoretical, with the publication of a “Classical Arabic Grammar” (Grammaire de l’arabe Classique) in collaboration with Maurice Gaudefroy-Demombynes published in 1937, and practical with the book “Classical Arabic Elements” (Éléments de l’arabe classique), 1939, “Classical Arabic Exercices” (Exercices d’arabe classique) in collaboration with Marie Ceccaldi in 1946. However, he was never able to finish his ambitious project: the “Arabic-French-English Dictionary - Classical and Modern language” (Dictionnaire arabe-français-anglais - Langue classique et moderne) in collaboration with Claude Denizeau and Moustafa Chouemi (1967-1973). In literature, his main contributions were his dissertation on al-Mutanabbi and the “History of Arabic Literature, from its Origins to the End of the 15th Century AD” (Histoire de la littérature arabe des origines à la fin du XVe siècle après J.C.) published in three volumes, but which in fact stopped with the 8th century. I should also mention his countless articles on poets, poetry and Arabic meter, the first one being published in 1941 under the title “The Main Themes of Erotic Poetry during the Umayyad Century in Damascus” (Les principaux thèmes de la poésie érotique au siècle des Umayyades de Damas). Posessing such a wide-ranging of knowledge in literature and in philology, a field which he attempted to codify in 1945, with his book “Editing and Translating Rules for Arab Texts” (Règles pour éditions et traductions de textes arabes), in collaboration with Jean Sauvaget, Blachère was well-equipped to take up Islamic studies. I can list here his works about the prophet Muḥammad : “The Issue with Muḥammad. Critical Biographical Essay on the Founder of Islam” (Le problème de Mahomet. Essai de biographie critique du fondateur de l’islam), issued in 1952; “In the footsteps of Muḥammad” (Dans les pas de Mahomet), published in 1956, and “Introduction to the Qur’ān” (Introduction au Coran), which came out in 1947. But his greatest piece of work remains his translation of the Qur’ān, which he entitled “The Qur’ān. A Critical translation based on the reclassification of the sūrahs” (Le Coran. Traduction critique selon un essai de reclassement des sourates, 1949-1950). In 1957, a new edition was published entitled “The Qur’ān (al-Qor’ān). Translated from Arabic” (Le Coran “al-Qor’ān”. Traduction de l’arabe), which merged the two previous volumes into one, reusing the usual organisation of the one hundred and fourteen sūrahs, and shortening their presentations. The version I present here is taken from this last edition.
In his foreword of the first volume of his translation (1949), Régis Blachère listed clearly the obstacles he encountered, and the method he had used and followed to overcome them: An ideal translation of the Qur’ān should (…) both respect the literary form of the book and convey all of the explicit and implicit content. Unfortunately, this double task turned out to be unrealizable. Even though he admitted he could not “render the internal characteristics of the language, the verses’ rhythm in the earliest Meccan sūrahs, the effects of rhymes and assonances, the vocalic sound of some terms: everything that makes the Qur’ān a form of incantation”, he was nevertheless very attached “to a translation that sticks to the text, to evoke what is the Quranic language, its oratorical, energetic or passionate characteristic (...) without any great effort”. He also stated: One can manage to follow the evolution of the text by keeping the inversions or words put at the beginning of a sentence to signal its importance. Without going to great lengths, it is easy to render the conciseness or strangeness of some idioms specific to the original text. At the risk of going against some of our phrasing, one can even attempt to make the reader feel a remarkable aspect of the Quranic style: the recovery of the same or derived term from a single root word in the same sentence. It is obvious that this difficulty is not only specific to the translation of the Qur’ān; whoever translates a great civilizational or literary text such as The Bible, The Iliad or the Sirat al-Zahir Baibars, must admit that the form of the text cannot be transposed as it is in the targeted language. In Blachère’s own words, the only thing left is “the duty of exactitude regarding the content of the message received by Muḥammad”.
The solutions he advocated in order to fulfill this duty are as follows. First of all, “the uncertainties and difficulties of the text must be perceived”. These difficulties may appear in a single passage, and the solution would be written in a note. If they are found throughout the whole text, they should be largely covered in an explanatory excursus. Concerning the translation of nominal phrases, which often appear in the eschatological developments or in predictions, Régis Blachère used the future tense. For the translation of verbs in the past tense in the eschatological developments, he used the present tense. “I have also taken as a rule not to have recourse to a periphrasis where Arabic uses a single word”, which was not always possible. “It was deemed necessary to assign in French correspondents derived from the same root, to Arabic terms also belonging to a single root. Thus faḍḍala and the name faḍl have been translated as “favoriser” (to favor) and “faveur” (favor). Moreover, Blachère strove as often as possible to find distinctive equivalents in French for Arabic synonyms: thus qawl, “parole” (speech); kalima, “mot” (word), “arrêt” (judgment). “I have also set the rule that a same Arabic term should constantly have the same French equivalent”; a very important decision as we shall see afterwards. “In desperate cases, I thought we could use certain unusual terms such as “aumôner” (to proceed to almsgiving), “audient” (hearer), “absoluteur” (absolutor), choices that probably upset our taste, but which have the advantage of evoking the same Arabic term. In the same way, there is no nominalized participles and adjectives that French usage does not accept with this meaning”. It is undeniable that these desperate solutions, while aiming to making the French text to “stick” to the Arabic, contributed in giving an archaic and outdated aspect to Blachère’s translation that could discourage some readers. But thanks to this method, Blachère succeeded in creating a style as unique as the original which established the same distance between the translation and standard contemporary French, and as well as the sacred distance that exists between the original text and standard contemporary Arabic. This clearly appears when one refers to Denise Masson’s translation, which seems to reduce this distance and rewrite Blachère’s translation in standard French, probably winning over readers, but at the same time losing on the essential.
The translation’s merit: the example of nabī ummī
Régis Blachère’s translation received a passionate reception among academics as Henri Laoust reminds us here: This translation is, as Dr. David Cohen puts it, a model of accuracy both in the terms used and in the movement of the sentences. In many passages, this exactitude resulted in unusual structures, sometimes elliptical, sometimes archaic. Yet, the linguistic norm is never violated. In each and every case, the translation reflects the original text the closest way possible. Every ambiguity, obscurity, or incoherence is present in the text itself as it appears to us today” (Journal Asiatique, 1974, p. 6-7.) To this judgement, which I endorse, I would add that it has almost become common practice, when translating a Quranic verse, to consider how R. Blachère himself understood it. Yet, However, his translation has been criticized with online comments reading, for instance: More than a century after Kazimirski, Blachère brought his contribution by publishing a translation in 1951, and again in 1957, that drew from the different European schools of philology. Being an excellent Arabist, he was also the author of an Arabic grammar manual that remains a reference among French universities. However, an excessive attention to the form and structure of sentences obviously lead to a translation close to the original text but that failed to transcribe the beauty of its “form”. In addition, by staying too close to the text itself, it actually did not take into account the centuries of exegesis undertaken by Muslim scholars, and that could have enlightened the reader about the way Muslims read and understand their sacred book. However in 1959, the translation by professor Hamidullah, an Indian Muslim living in France, paved the way to a series of translations written by Muslims who take into account the Muslim written tradition while adopting a rigorous philological approach. Blachère is criticized for giving a “philological” translation solely based on linguistic evidence which does not take into account the way Muslims read and understand their holy book. The translation of sacred text cannot only be a mere translation, it also has to be an interpretation. This clearly comes out in the translation of the expression nabī ummī: “Prophet of the Gentiles” according to Blachère, but “illiterate Prophet” according to the traditional Muslim translation. This constitutes a case of conflict of interpretation and of translation that is quite representative, and thus merits further development.
In verse 75 of sūrah 3, Āl-ʿImrān, Blachère translated the word ummiyyīna by “Gentiles”: لَيْسَ عَلَيْنَا فِي الْأُمِّيِّينَ سَبِيلٌ, “There is no blame upon us concerning the Gentiles”. He translated the latter word as “a person alien to the Jewish religion”. The same definition is given by the Trésor de la langue française dictionary with this quote from Vidal de La Blache: “One must keep in mind how persistent was the division into Greeks and Barbarians, Jews and Gentiles, Chinese and other men”. Besides, in the commentary of Muṣḥaf al-muyassar by ʿAbd al-Ǧalīl ʿĪsā, which reflects the Azharī doxa, he specifically defined ummiyyīna as “all nations except the Jews”. Hamidullah also translated “All this because they said: “There is no blame upon us concerning the Gentiles”, reusing the term “Gentiles” employed by Blachère. However, in the version revised by the Muslim World League through the “King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’ān”, the verse is translated as follows: “There is no blame upon us concerning these (Arabs) who hold no book”. One can observe an mutual understanding on the fact that ummiyyīn designates people that are not Jews (more precisely, in the Complex’s version, “Arabs who have no book”, which is more of a comment than a translation).
In verse 158 of sūrah 7, al-’Aʿrāf, Blachère, being faithful to his first option, translated the expression فَآمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ النَّبِي الْأُمِّيّ by “believe in Allah and his apostle, the Prophet of the Gentiles”. Thus, Muḥammad is the prophet of nations other than the sons of Israel. However, in the translation given by the “King Fahd Complex”, this verse is rendered : “So believe in Allah, and in his messenger, the illiterate prophet”. As for Denise Masson, she translated this same expression by “the Prophet of the Infidels” (le Prophète des Infidèles). She gave to “infidel” the meaning found in the Trésor de la langue française dictionary: “one who is alien to the religion considered true”. One can therefore assume that Masson was also referring to “non-Jews”. But this could seem quite unfortunate because the term “Gentile” used by Régis Blachère has the advantage of being fairly known in the Christian tradition, which designates Saint Paul as the apostle of the Gentiles, i.e. the non-Jews. Saint Paul himself gave his own name: “because the one who made Peter the apostle of the circumcised, made me as well the apostle of the Gentiles” (Galates, 2, 8).
In any case, Masson’s translation lead to a rather original editorial twist. Indeed, her translation was published with the approbation of the vice-president of the Higher Islamic Council of Lebanon and professor at the Lebanese University, Subhi El-Saleh. It seems however that the latter did not notice the translation of the verse in question : “Believe in God and in his messenger, the Prophet of the Infidels”. After the general outcry that followed, a small piece of paper was stuck on each copy specifying that “the Prophet of the Infidels” was a mistake and that the correct rendering was “the prophet who does not know how to read nor write”.
To sum up, Blachère’s version and the traditonal Muslim translation both match on the meaning of the plural form of the term ummī: it designates non-Jews called Gentiles in Blachère’s translation. However, in the singular form the interpretations differ. Régis Blachère’s interpretation is the same in the singular as well as plural forms: “the prophet of the Gentiles”. It follows the rules stated earlier: “I have also set the rule that a same Arabic term should constantly have the same French equivalent”. On the contrary, here is what can be found in the most common Muslim translations: “the Illiterate Prophet” or “the Prophet who does not know how to read nor write”. One may wonder how the same word can have two such different meanings in the singular and plural. In this regard, Blachère’s translation has the merit of being coherent.
Furthermore, there is tradition attributed to the prophet’s wife Aïcha, by Ibn Manẓūr and Ibn ʿAsākir, and to Ibn ʿAbbās by Buḫārī, in which he said: “Give me a piece of skin (adīm) or shoulder blade (katif) or a sheet (ṣaḥīfa) and an inkpot (dawāt) so that I can write you a document that shall protect you from eternal wandering” (اكتب لكم كتابا لن تضِلوا بعده) [Buḫārī and Muslim] or “a document in which controversies/disagreements are impossible” (لا يختلف عليه اثنان) [Ibn Manẓūr]. It does not seem logical for someone who, before drawing his last breath, asked for writing tools, to be illiterate or uneducated (ummī). As testified by the tradition reported as authentic in sources such as Bukhārī et Muslim, it seems that the Prophet knew how to write, and consequently, he was not illiterate. From this perspective, Blachère’s translation is the one which conforms the most with this tradition.
However, one wonders how to interpret this passage from the sīra, the romanticized life of the prophet written by Ibn Isḥāq (d. in 768), and which
was edited by Ibn Hishām, (d. in 833):
Gabriel came to me while I was sleeping. He was holding a piece of Brocade which was
written on and he said to me:
I told him:
I do not know how to read. I have never read before and do not know how to do it. I do not write nor read. To answer this question, one should compare Muḥammad’s vocation with the biblical prophets’. Moses’ vocation for instance (Exodus, 6, 29-30): Now on the day that the LORD spoke to Moses in Egypt, He said to him, “I am the LORD; tell Pharaoh king of Egypt everything that I say to you.” But in the LORD’s presence Moses replied, “Since I am unskilled in speech, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”. Or even Isaiah’s vocation (in the eponymous book, 6, 1-6): I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne (…) and the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips”. Or Jeremiah’s (in the eponymous book, 1, 5-6): Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth”. One can therefore observe that this is a literary motive that can be characterized as follows: at the beginning of his mission, the prophet proclaims his incompetence.
In the same way as Moses proclaimed he did not know how to speak, as Isiah proclaimed his lips were impure, and as Jeremiah said he did not know how to speak, thus in the sīra Muḥammad proclaimed he does not know how to read. In my opinion, it is in this perspective that one should interpret the dialogue with Gabriel in the sīra. The fact that the prophet said “I do not know how to read” does not imply he was illiterate, but only implies that the author or authors of the prophet’s vocation in the sīra have been inspired by the tales of the vocations of biblical prophets. Which is not surprising, the Qur’ān itself is riddled with references to the Torah. Therefore, there is no reason contesting the translation of nabī ummī by “the prophet of the Gentiles”.
Sūrah 3, Āl-Imrān, is considered Medinan; and thus should be placed in the context of the opposition between Muḥammad and the Jews of Medina. It appears that the priority at that time was not to reuse the literary motive of the incompetent prophet but rather to proclaim that a prophet emerged among the non-Jewish nations, i.e. the Gentiles. As emphasized by Montgomery Watt in his book Muḥammad: Prophet and Statesman: The intellectual or ideational conflict between Muḥammad and the Jews became as bitter as it did because it threatened the core of the religious ideas of each. If prophets could arise among Gentiles, the Jews were not God’s chosen people, and that was tantamount to having no religion left. If Muḥammad was not God’s prophet and messenger, then in his own eyes he could only be a self-deceived impostor. This was the root of the quarrel. 2 From this standpoint, Régis Blachère’s interpretation and subsequent translation are arguably the most coherent.
For more information
The text presented on our website was initially entered by the company Word Pro. It was then revised and encoded in 2019 by Paul Gaillardon. For initial bibliographical references, please see:
Blachère (Régis), Histoire de la littérature arabe des origines à la fin du XVe siècle de J.-C., Paris, Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1952-1966 (vol. 1, 1952, p. 1-30 and p. 1-186 ; vol. 2, 1964, p. 187-453 ; vol. 3, 1966, p. 455-865).
Blachère (Régis), trans., Le Coran. Traduction critique selon un essai de reclassement des sourates, Paris, G.P. Maisonneuve, 1949-1950 (t. 1, 1949, p. 1-13 et p. 1-536 ; t. 2, p. 537-1240).
Blachère (Régis), trans., Le Coran (al-Qor’ân), Paris, G.-P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1957, 748 p.
Cohen (David), “Nécrologie Régis Blachère”, in Journal Asiatique, 222, 1974, p. 1-10.
Elisséeff (Nikita), “Régis Blachère (1900-1970)”, Arabica, 22, January 1975, p. 1-5.
Laoust (Henri), Notice sur la vie et les travaux de M. Régis Blachère, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.
Paret (Ève), “Bibliographie de Régis Blachère”, Régis Blachère, ed. by André Raymond,Analecta, Ifpo Press, 2014, p. 17-30.
The original version of this introductory note is in French. The text in English is the result of a collaborative translation by Claire Gallien, Olivier Justet, and Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé.