A word should be said about the style of language in which the Kitáb-i-Aqdas has been rendered into English. Bahá’u’lláh enjoyed a superb mastery of Arabic, and preferred to use it in those Tablets and other Writings where its precision of meaning was particularly appropriate to the exposition of basic principle. Beyond the choice of language itself, however, the style employed is of an exalted and emotive character, immensely compelling, particularly to those familiar with the great literary tradition out of which it arose. In taking up his task of translation, Shoghi Effendi faced the challenge of finding an English style which would not only faithfully convey the exactness of the text’s meaning, but would also evoke in the reader the spirit of meditative reverence which is a distinguishing feature of
response to the original. The form of expression he selected, reminiscent of the style used by the seventeenth-century translators of the Bible, captures the elevated mode of Bahá’u’lláh’s Arabic, while remaining accessible to the contemporary reader. His translations, moreover, are illumined by his uniquely inspired understanding of the
purport and implications of the originals.
(Universal House of Justice, Introduction to The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 9-10)
Although both Arabic and English are languages with rich vocabularies and varied modes of expression, their forms differ widely from one another. The Arabic of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is marked by intense concentration and terseness of expression. It is a characteristic of this style that if a connotation is obvious it should not be explicitly stated. This presents a problem for a reader whose cultural, religious and literary background is entirely different from that of Arabic. A literal translation of a passage which is clear in the Arabic could be obscure in English. It therefore becomes necessary to include in the English translation of
such passages that element of the Arabic sentence which is obviously implicit in the original. At the same time, it is vital to avoid extrapolating this process to the point where it would add unjustifiably to the original or limit its meaning. Striking the right balance between beauty and clarity of expression on the one hand, and literalness on the other, is one of the major issues with which the translators have had to grapple and which has caused repeated reconsideration of the rendering of certain passages. Another major issue is the legal implication of certain Arabic terms which have a range of meanings different from those of similar terms in English.
(Universal House of Justice, Introduction to The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 10)
He also said he believed a few of the highly mystical and poetical writings of Bahá’u’lláh could never be translated as they would become so exotic and flowery that the original beauty and meaning would be completely lost and convey a wrong impression. Once - only once, alas, in our busy, harassed life - Shoghi Effendi said to me that I now knew enough Persian to understand the original and he read a paragraph of one of Bahá’u’lláh’s Tablets and said, “How can one translate that into English?” For about two hours we tried, that is he tried and I feebly followed him. When I would suggest a sentence, which did convey the meaning, Shoghi Effendi said “Ah, but that is not translation! You cannot change and leave out words in the original and just put what you think it means in English.” He pointed out that a translator must be absolutely faithful to his original text and that in some cases this meant that what came out in another language was ugly and even meaningless. As Bahá’u’lláh is always sublimely beautiful in His words this could not be done. In the end he gave it up and said he did not think it could ever be properly translated into English, and this passage was far from being one of the more abstruse and mystical works of Bahá’u’lláh.
(Ruhiyyih Khanum, The Priceless Pearl, p. 203)
I only know of one instance in which Shoghi Effendi said he had slightly modified something that existed in the original and that was when he translated, immediately after the passing of the Master, His Will. The sentence in question reads, referring to the Universal House of Justice, “the guardian of the Cause of God is its sacred head and the distinguished member for life of that body.” Shoghi Effendi said the actual word, for which he substituted the milder “member for life", was “irremovable”. Nothing could be more revealing of his profound humility than this toning down of his own relationship to the Universal House of Justice.
(Ruhiyyih Khanum, The Priceless Pearl, p. 203-204)
Periodically, then, the House of Justice will announce the completion of a new English-language compilation or publication with selections from the writings, chosen specifically by it from the immense range available on the basis of their “immediate relevance to the work of the Cause at this stage of its development.” From the English version, every selection is then taken into other languages, with the assistance, as necessary, of reference to the original Persian or Arabic. There are only a few exceptions where the translation is made directly from the original, for example, Turkish and Urdu, languages closely related to Persian and Arabic. The translation work usually proceeds under the aegis of National Spiritual Assemblies, but for certain languages widely spoken in the world that cross national borders, the House of Justice has set up international panels to oversee the translation of the Bahá’í writings. It has also placed special funds at the disposal of the Counsellors to help National Assemblies in their efforts to ensure basic Bahá’í literature is available in every language. Now highly organized, the translation work worldwide moves with a dispatch unimaginable in decades past.
(Ruhi Book 8, Unit 3, p. 85)
Sacred Scripture clearly requires especial care and faithfulness in translation. This is supremely important in the case of a Book of Laws, where it is vital that the reader not be misled or drawn into fruitless disputation. As had been foreseen, the translation of the Most Holy Book has been a work of the utmost difficulty, requiring consultation with experts in many lands. Since some one third of the text had already been translated by Shoghi Effendi, it was necessary to strive for three qualities in the translation of the remaining passages: accuracy of meaning, beauty of English, and conformity of style with that used by Shoghi Effendi.
(Universal House of Justice, Introduction to The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 10-11)
The House of Justice on another occasion has clarified that the Greatest Name is to be used in its original language for the recitation of “Allah-u-Abhá” 95 times a day, as well as for its use in the Long Obligatory Prayer and the Prayer for the Dead. It has also clarified that to translate words such as “Allah-u-Abhá", “Ya Bahá’u’l-Abhá", “Mashriqu’l-Adhkár", or “Haziradu’l-Quds” into one’s native language is not acceptable. One exception to this is the alternative use of the words “Right of God” or their equivalent into other languages while the term “Huqúqu’lláh” gradually becomes a part of Bahá’í vocabulary.
In general, one should bear in mind that all translations are, to some degree, inadequate. For instance, the Beloved Guardian has pointed out in … God Passes By, that the word “Bahá” signifies at once the “Glory", the “Splendour” and the Light” of God; there is no single word in English that can express all these. It is, of course, desireable that there be no loss of meaning through translations; thus it is preferable that certain terms directly related to the Manifestation of God remain in their original form.
(Universal House of Justice, to an individual, 22 February 2009)
The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh comprises more than one hundred volumes in the original Persian and Arabic languages. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s written works too are in Persian and Arabic, though a few are in Turkish. And while much of the correspondence of the Guardian was penned in English, a significant percentage was sent to the believers in the East as well. If the peoples of the world are to have access to Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation, in order to study the teachings and apply them to their individual and collective lives, the writings must be translated into scores and scores of languages. This is an enormous enterprise.
(Ruhi Book 8, Unit 3, p. 84)
The Universal House of Justice has established agencies at the World Centre to assist it in analyzing, classifying, and coordinating the Persian, Arabic and English texts and in facilitating the English-language translation work. Such delicate work, we can well appreciate, requires not only a command of the relevant languages but a profound understanding of the purpose and the character of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation and the historical circumstances in which it progressively unfolded. To translate even a single verse, one needs to draw on a great deal of knowledge and experience, if the final rendition is to resonate in the hearts and minds of readers and remain faithful to the original.
(Ruhi Book 8, Unit 3, p. 84)
The supreme importance of Shoghi Effendi’s English translations and communications can never be sufficiently stressed because of his function as sole and authoritative interpreter of the Sacred Writings, appointed as such by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in His Will. there are many instances when, owing to the looseness of construction in Persian sentences, there could be an ambiguity in the mind of the reader regarding the meaning. Careful and correct English, not lending itself to ambiguity in the first place, became, when coupled with Shoghi Effendi’s brilliant mind and his power as interpreter of the Holy Word, what we might well call the crystallizing vehicle of the teachings. Often by referring to Shoghi Effendi’s translation into English the original meaning of the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh, or ‘Abdu’l-Bahá becomes clear and is thus safeguarded against misinterpretation in the future. He was meticulous in translating and made absolutely sure that the words he was using in English conveyed and did not depart from the original thought or the original words. One would have to have a mastery of Persian and Arabic to correctly understand what he did. For instance in reading the original one finds that one word in Arabic was susceptible of being translated into two or more words in English; thus Shoghi Effendi, in the construction of his English sentences, might use “power", “strength” and “might” alternatively to replace this one word, choosing the exact nuance of meaning that would fit best, do away with reiteration and lend most colour to his translation without sacrificing the true meaning, indeed, thereby enhancing the true meaning. He used to say that Arabic synonyms usually meant the same thing but that English ones always had a slight shade of difference which made it possible to be more exact in rendering the thought.
(Ruhiyyih Khanum, The Priceless Pearl, p. 202-203)
When, as Guardian of the Faith, he immediately set about translating the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, he initiated a process that continues to unfold under the direction of the Universal House of Justice. The many passages and Tablets he translated into English, from which, he advised, they could be taken into a myriad other languages, serve as a standard for the preparation of translations today.
(Ruhi Book 8, Unit 3, p. 84)