Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Holy Quran in Wolof Translation

I saw an ad in the paper about two weeks ago for the Holy Quran in Wolof (and Mandinka, and Pular) translation, being sold by the Ahmadiya Center here, and I bought myself a copy: there is a dearth of books published in Wolof or any of the local languages, and I bought it not only because I was interested in seeing how the old, "high" language of the Quran would translate into Wolof, but also because any attempts at producing a body of work in the local languages ought to be encouraged, in my opinion.

I went to the Ahmadiya center with high expectations, and I wasn't dissapointed. The book itself is a plain black one, hard-cover, solidly-bound so pages don't fall out. On the front is "The Holy Quran" in Arabic, and beneath that the words: "Al Xuraan Bu Tedda Bi, Bindi Arab Ak Pirim Wolof". ["The Holy Quran, Written in Arabic and its Wolof Translation"]. There is also a handy string bookmark to mark your place when you stop reading.

Inside, after the copyright and book information pages, there is a full-page Preface ["Ubbité" - literally "Opening"] detailing how the whole translation project came to take place (an idea the Ahmadiyya Center had, as a way of spreading the religion), and how long it took (5 years: from 1997 to 2002), as well as a list of the translators involved.

After the preface there is a table of contents, again in Wolof, though the Sura names are not translated, but written as they are pronounced (Al-Faatiha, Al-Baxara, etc.). Then the Quran itself starts proper.

As I said at the beginning, I bought this mainly because of my interest in the Wolof language. The Wolof currently spoken all across the country (especially in the urban areas) is a mixture of English, French, Arabic and Wolof words. The same is also mostly true across the border in Senegal, though there are more words borrowed from French than English. The Wolof in the translated Quran however is "pure" Wolof (in as far as a language can be called pure), and thus it is very instructive to read it. Ironically enough, I find myself reaching for the English translation every time there is a Wolof word I don't understand - I compare the English translation with the Wolof one, and that way get the meaning of the Wolof. (The irony lies in the fact that when I apply for schools in the US, for example, I have to check a little box on the form to tell them that English is not my first language; yet I need to use an English dictionary to understand words in my first language).

The verses are beautifully rendered in the Wolof - the translators did a very good job. The fourth verse of the first Sura (Al-Fatihah - "The Opening") reads "Master of the Day of Judgement", and is translated into Wolof as "Buuru Bés Pénca". Read that out aloud - it rolls, like a rumble of thunder, carrying with it an undercurrent of both the Mercy of this Master, as well as the terribleness of His wrath, and the absoluteness of His rule come the Day of Judgement. The sixth verse of the same Sura reads "Show us the straight way". This, translated directly, would have been "Won ñu yoon wu jub wi" - the translators instead chose to render it as "Gindi ñu ci yoon wu jub wi" (literally "Make us choose the straight way", i.e. don't just show us the way, but make it our volition to take it). I do not speak Arabic, but I have a feeling this is closer to the original Arabic meaning of that verse, considering it is a prayer.

The Quran is full of metaphors, and allegories - where necessary, the translators have not shied away from injecting these with local color, to make them more meaningful to local readers. For example, the first part of verse 27 of Al-Baxara reads: " Allah disdains not to use the similitude of things, lowest as well as highest...". The translation of the same section reads: "Yalla du kersawu ci def misaal ci lu tuutee ni yoo walla lu ko gënna ndaw" - "Allah will not disdain from giving examples from creatures even as tiny as the mosquito, or even tinier..."
. Notice the introduction of the mosquito, that tiny, irritating, but nevertheless ever-present part of Gambian life; and how the mentioning of it points at the omniscience of Allah, who notices even the things we consider small and beyond the consideration of one as high as Him.

This is an indispensable book for those interested in improving (or perhaps even learning) their Wolof. Used simultaenously with an English translation, it will teach you quite a lot of the language. It is not easy-going, but it is certainly rewarding - definitely worth buying.


  1. Great review. Makes me want to go get my copy.
    That same "Show us the straight way" is actually translated "GUIDE US along the straight path" in some English translations making your assumption of closer meaning in that particular olof translation absolutely right.
    The addition of "color" in the metaphors sounds very crafty and beautiful. I really hope that nothing is "lost in translation" and the translators don't "overdo" it by trying too hard and thus losing/changing the real meaning.

  2. While I was in The Gambia I bought a copy of the Holy Bible in Mandinka - I started to try reading through to extend my knowledge of the language, but since I was really only a novice it wasn't too helpful in that respect.

    I met with people who had done the Mandinka and Wolof Bible translations, their work is a long and time consuming path. I believe they have now started work on Fula and Jola translations of the Bible as well.

    They will take years to complete though, as you have seen it is a gigantic task.

  3. This is good news I didn't know about the wolof translation. I guess it will be a good idea to read it and listen to the tafsir of the Quran in wolof by some great scholars. It is not only beautiful to have the ability to know the Quran in different languages but it's also a big blessing. Thanks Amran for the review.

  4. Very good !
    The sixth verse of the Sura Al-Fâtiha start with the Arabic word «اهْدِنَا» Guide use, from the word «هدى» literally Guide.

    This verse translated By DR. Mohsin as "Guide us to the Straight Way." (ci Wolof "Gindi nu ci yoon wu jub wi,")
    This verse translated By yusuf Ali,
    As "Show us the straight way" (Won nu yoon wu jub wi)
    The first one literally its the best...

    Have you bought it and how much did you pay ?
    I need one... very important

  5. Interesting... Yes, if anyone know a way I could get my hands on a copy of the Holy Qu'ran in Wolof, please let me know. Salaam-1-

  6. Salamualeykum,
    If you need a copy of The Quran in Wolof, there are several contacts in the Book that are listed below. Also, there is another edition of The Quran in Wolof (75 suras) that can be purchased online at the following link:

    - Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat, PO Box 2038 Serrekunda, The Gambia West Africa Tel: (00220)4390621 Fax: (00220) 4390623
    - The London Mosque, 16 Gressenhall Road, London, SW18 5QL United Kingdom, Tel: (0)20 8870 8517 Fax: (0)20 8870 4779
    - Ahmadiyya muslim Jamaat, Po Box 2327, Accra, Ghana, Tel : 00-233-21-776845, Fax: 00-233-21-772593
    - Ahmadiyya Muslim Jammat, PO Box 418, Legos, Nigeria, Tel: 00-234-820642 Fax: 00-234-4920302
    -Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat, PO Box 353, 15 Bath Street, Brook field, Free Town, Sierra Leone, Tel: 00-232-22-240699 Fax: 00 - 232 - 22 - 240396


    Aminata Ceesay, spouse of Amadou

  7. Far too many people in this world who identify themselves as religious Muslims neither speak Arabic nor have every read the holy Koran in a language they understand. This state of affairs hinders the evolution of personal belief and universal understanding. It allows for manipulation by those who for political or economic reasons wish to do so. It is vital, indeed imperative that more believers become intimate with the text that governs their lives so that they can internalized the meanings for themselves and knowledgeably contribute to the discussions that shape the evolution of the faith.