Before communication technology widened the definitions, translation was traditionally thought of as changing an original written text in an original verbal language into a written text in a different verbal language. The role of the translator was typically thought of as a linguistic mediator between source and target languages. The debates centered on the questions of whether the translations should be word-for-word and sense-for-sense, and Anglophone theory was heavily invested in such investigations.

Taking a different course, and drawing on a few techniques practiced in the Indian Ocean littoral in the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, I show that translation was an ongoing, decentralized, collective process with multiple contextual and textual sedimentations. The sediments varied from commentarial, interlinear, intermittent, tarjama, and literal translations and were influenced by changes in forms, scripts, technologies, and circulations. Such dimensions push us to rethink what translation historically was, did, and achieved, and why it matters.

Before and after word-for-word and sense-for-sense translations became a norm in the Indian Ocean world around the late nineteenth century, commentarial translation was a widespread practice among maritime Muslims. This strategy of mixing commentary with translation provided translators with a wide array of possibilities, such as vernacularizing Islam and its teachings, explaining oneself as well as the author, rejecting his/her positions, and interrelating with wider discursive traditions. The translatability of Islamic texts has been a matter of heated debate among Muslim jurists from as early as the eighth century. The jurists of the Ḥanafī and Shāfiʿī schools of Islamic law disagreed on translating the Qurʾān, as A. L. Tibawi informs us. The Ḥanafīs allowed it as long as the word-for-word translation (Ar. tarjama musāwiya) was accompanied by the Arabic original. But the Shāfiʿīs, who often upheld an Arab supremacist approach, asserted the untranslatability of scripture. The debate, however, did not spill over to non-Qurʾānic texts, as Shāfiʿīs agreed on the necessity of translating books, and considered translation essential in the administration of law.

The majority of Muslims in the Indian Ocean littoral from South and Southeast Asia and East Africa followed the Shāfiʿī school, at least since the sixteenth century. They spoke diverse languages, and the jurists among them used various textual and discursive techniques to popularize their school. Writing commentarial translations was one such common strategy in the seventeenth to twentieth centuries.

The commentarial translations were innovative ways for the authors to interpret difficult legal texts into a vernacular terrain, where they familiarized readers with the technical and alien worlds of the law. They illustrate diverse forms of localization processes of the texts, and Islam and its law. Although these commentarial translations were strongly loaded with Arabic words and jargon that an ordinary reader might struggle to understand (this style of language was often called kitab Malay” in Southeast Asia), still they vernacularized distant worlds into a recognizable world. Utilizing prospects of translation, commentary, gloss, and citations, they brought an unfamiliar legal archive of Shāfiʿī texts into a conversant cultural mental scape of the readers through familiar languages, idioms, examples, et cetera.

The praxis consisted of two major forms: interlinear and intermittent translations. Intermittent translations rendered a passage in the start language into the target language. This practice was common in the early Malay Shāfiʿī texts, as we see in the Ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm of Ranīrī, its commentary Sabīl al-muhtadīn of Banjārī, and Mirʾāt al-ṭullāb of Sinkilī. In all these texts, long opening passages in Arabic are followed by even longer commentarial translations in Malay. The translations were only loosely based on the Arabic original, and the authors communicated with their audience more in the target language. The sentences in Arabic stood as base text and consequent passages as autocommentaries, though in a different language. As the text progresses, Arabic passages become lesser. Overall, Arabic stood in these texts as supporting or ornamenting excerpts, by which authors demonstrated their authority, authenticity, and familiarity with the broader Islamic textual corpus.

Even though most of the Arabic passages were written by the authors themselves, they did cite directly from earlier texts too. In such occasions, the commentarial translations appear with or without Arabic original and citations. There is no common pattern, it depended on the text and the author. For example, in the Ṣirāṭ, Ranīrī cites authors when he provides commentarial translations without the original passage. If he does provide the original passage, that is mostly for citing the scriptures. He likely assumes that those who are familiar with Arabic legal corpus will be familiar with the source of such passages. A different approach can be seen in other texts, where authors provide selective translations of direct quotes from the Shāfiʿī texts and let the translated passages form their own independent existence, as we see in one Kitāb al-nikāḥ (“Book of Marriage”), written in Malay by Shaykh Faqīh ʿAbd al-Wahhāb. Some other works provided start texts (in bold, red letters, or parentheses), but a reader could read the whole work smoothly and coherently while skipping the start text entirely.

In interlinear translations, teachers, students, and readers wrote meanings of Arabic texts in local languages between the lines. This practice seems to be an outcome of the Ḥanafī-Shāfiʿī debate, mentioned above, on scriptural and nonscriptural translation. For Shāfiʿīs, providing translation along with the original must have been an uncontroversial and careful method even if the translated text was not the scripture. We thus notice such interlinear translations being common among Shāfiʿīs as part of a wider literary tradition, as Ronit Ricci informs us. In several manuscripts, they provided equivalent translations along with glosses, marginalia, or even detailed commentaries. The latter two appeared less frequently, yet glosses were very common.

One of the Shāfiʿī texts most widely translated in this manner on the Indian Ocean rim is a short treatise, Safīnat al-najāt of Sālim bin Samīr al-Ḥaḍramī. By the mid-twentieth century it had attracted four editions in Southeast Asia alone, one only in Arabic, while the other three have interlinear translations in Malay, Javanese, and Sundanese. But other major texts of the school also attracted several interlinear translations. For example, two complete manuscripts of a celebrated Shāfiʿī text, the Minhāj of Nawawī, possibly from eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries Minangkabau, encompass interlinear Malay translations along with names of some local places and people (also see here). In another Shāfiʿī text, the interlinear translation in Javanese expands into glosses along with occasional detailed commentaries in Arabic.1

A hybrid form of interlinear and intermittent translations was also very common. The authors and compilers collected passages on a specific theme from all sorts of different Islamic texts. The texts were quoted at length pertinent to a related discussion and Arabic passages were given with interlinear translations or without any direct translation, but discussions in the larger context made the passage meaningful as a way of commentary in the target language.

On the Swahili coast, the practice became very common in the early twentieth century, thanks to the efforts of Shāfiʿī jurists like ‘Abdallah Salih al-Farsy and his student, Saidi Musa, who argued for translating Islamic texts from Arabic into the vernacular in order to popularize Islam’s teachings among ordinary Muslims. The region was already exposed to translation projects for centuries earlier as many early literary works in Kiswahili were translations from classical Arabic poems or panegyric works.2 This must have influenced the legal translations, too. Farsy and his disciples had a revival project in mind as they translated and commented upon several Shāfiʿī works into Kiswahili. One of the most important commentarial translations in this period is the Wasīlat al-rajāʾ by Ḥasan bin Amīr basedon the Safīnat al-najāt, a text mentioned above in the context of the Southeast Asian interlinear translations. The Wasīla was used by Shāfiʿī teachers in Zanzibar and it was one of the three widely circulated Kiswahili texts there in the twentieth century. Under colonial tutelage, the Minhāj was also translated into Kiswahili in several booklets, each containing a section or chapter on specific law. The booklets were printed with the Arabic original, followed by Kiswahili translation and commentary.3

The intermittent, interlinear, and hybridized forms enriched the commentarial translations in the Indian Ocean littoral during and after the age of manuscript culture. When the textual tradition switched to print culture, the praxis did not cease to exist. The popularity of printing brought new ways to translate and comment on lithographed manuscripts, in the margins, blank spaces, and between lines. It combined interlinear and intermittent commentarial translations in creative ways and the readers wrote interlinear translations and marginalia on the printed texts. Some publishers found profit in printing such new interlinear and marginalia translations, producing multi-layered lithographed-commented-lithographed texts or highly hybridized manuscript-on-printed-manuscripts. Accordingly, we can see in a single text, in both manuscript and print centuries, commentarial sedimentations as well as innovative models of linguistic, technological, and interpretative intersections across generations.

All these forms of translations flourished despite the increasing popularity of literal translations. Literal translation, which is word-for-word translations of various nature absent commentary on the base text, had its own trajectories among oceanic Shāfiʿī Muslims. It mainly emerged in Afrasian coasts during the switch from Arabic script to regional or Roman script. The colonialists and spokespersons of “reformism” and colonialism either forced people to abandon the age-old practice of writing vernacular languages in Arabic script by strict regulations (as happened in German East Africa in 1902) or encouraged people to abandon it and to adapt to the local mainstream scribal tradition. This attempt to bring the literary tradition of Jawī, Kiswahili, Malabari (Arabi-Malayalam), and Arwī (Arabu-Tamil) in lines with the new script cultures in the mainstream reflected the changing patterns of reading, writing, and printing, as well as translations.

Just before the complete transition to the new scripts, the Arabic-script based literary cultures produced prototypes of literal translations as tarjamas. In Arabic, the term stood for translation and biography but it was used in the oceanic littoral to refer to different textual projects, including literal translations. The Arabic verbal noun tarjama thus became a substantive in the oceanic literatures meaning texts illustrating various genres, themes, sources or commentaries, religious or non-religious, biographical, legal, ethical or even medical. The tarjamas were self-contained texts, independent of the original. Although the major difference was the script, they were also highly influenced by Arabic vocabulary. They left many technical and legal terms that an uninitiated person might not comprehend untranslated, especially in comparison to the literal translations that would follow.

The literal translations reflected attempts to develop and advance the target languages to include a new or expanded vocabulary to meet specific technical terminologies left untranslated in the tarjamas. Translations of this sort had an urge to convey the meanings of Islamic rituals and laws to a wider audience who may not have had any background in the religious tradition or the Arabic language. The transition in the scripts thus also encouraged new translators to find alternatives for Arabic vocabulary which had been taken for granted earlier. The translated texts helped the wider Muslim community to read and understand the Islamic legal nuances without the help of intermediary jurists, scholars, and interpreters, whose authority on textual knowledge directed the historical circulation of Islamic law across the Muslim world, and especially in the non-Arabic speaking oceanic littoral.

While the intermittent translations were meant and done by the original authors who produced commentarial translations on their own passages or from other texts, the interlinear translations came from readers, who wrote translations on the basis of what they understood as the meanings, in order to help themselves and others in future readings. The literal translations were done by new authors-cum-jurists who committed to the idea of the original text to reach a wider audience and dedicated their careers to such projects. While the latter category is what is generally considered in Anglophone theoretical frames, all the other genres encourage us to think of translation in these contexts as ongoing, decentralized, collective processes: the same text attracts multiple translations in the same language. Each manuscript is a different commentary-cum-translation with rich insights into the vernacularization processes. Technological changes such as the transition to printing advanced the translations into another level with manifold hybrid sedimentations, and transitions in scripts further demanded new forms, genres, and vocabularies within the translative tradition.


  1. Nawawi, Minhāj, Or. 26331; Rāfiʿī, Muḥarrar, Leiden MS. Or. 3051. The text in the latter manuscript is also subject to a similar treatment in a multitext manuscript (fols. 62a-80a and 81b-185a) in which disconnected passages from it are given along with Javanese texts. Another legal text has Malay interlinear translations coupled with marginal supercommentaries, mostly taken from an Egyptian supercommentary.

  2. Best examples are the oldest Swahili poem, the Hamziya, a translation of Busiri’s poem of the same title, as well as his Burda, the Banat Su’ad and the Kitabu Mauludi of Barzanji’s Maulid Nazam. Jan Knappert, Swahili Islamic Poetry (Leiden: Brill, 1971), 19-24.

  3. I am thankful to Anne K. Bang for this information.