The more translations are done in a certain language, the richer it becomes. Readers get wider access to the world intellectual heritage. However, sometimes we fail to appreciate it by generously sharing it and not realizing their role in preserving cultural, academic, and educational identity. However, there are some enthusiasts who, despite all the obstacles, dive into the world of modern humanities and popularize them. In the town of Ostroh, the Rivne region, a famous Ukrainian Orientalist, translator, an author of many articles, a researcher of doctrinal and philosophical concepts of the Islamic world, the head of the Centre for the Islamic Studies of the National University “Ostroh Academy”, Mykhailo Yakubovych, lives and works. He has been studying the Islamic philosophical tradition for many years, he has conducted many translations so far.
His most famous translation is a translation of the Meaning of the Holy Quran in the Ukrainian language, which was first published in Saudi Arabia in 2010. Since then, the translation has been published several times by different publishing houses in Ukraine and abroad. The translator got into studying the Arabic language when he was a freshman. When he was 20, he started to translate the Quran. At last, he managed to translate the whole text. Before that, there have been only fragment translations in Ukrainian. Find out about translations, science, life, and his own meaning in the interview with Mykhailo Yakubovych.
For Ukraine, the theme of your research is unique. What about the European academic community we officially strive to join?
For historical reasons, when someone is interested in the East, it is not only academic issue but a political one. Such great states as France, Great Britain and Germany have big experience in working with the Eastern world, while their academic institutions are the leading in the world. Also, materials are important – many unique manuscripts which happened to be located in Europe (Crimean as well) are now kept in the National Library of France, Great Britain or in the Berlin State Library. Academic magazines are published, many projects are created. I have taken part in some of them, first of all, it concerns studying intellectual history. It is worth noting that Ukraine also used to be a part of these processes, for example, the Lviv University and efforts of its scholars during the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Poland. These days, however, our Orientalist scholars focus more on philology than on history or on the history of ideas (if we speak about studying the Islamic world), that’s why we are to do many steps. However, it is clear that most of the specialists who master oriental languages are occupied in private businesses, in the first place. It is quite difficult to be into manuscripts or other “exotic” themes and to “stay afloat”.
It is quite symbolic that the first person to have tried to translate the Quran in Ukrainian, a prominent Orientalist scholar Ahatanhel Krymsky, spent his childhood in Ostroh. Are some unique practices in learning oriental languages developed here? Where does this tradition come from?
We should bear in mind that at those times, Krymsky’s family lived in Ostroh. The town also had the Muslim community. Ahatanhel must have met his country people-Muslims here (he came from the family of baptized Tatars), felt something familiar to him and became interested in East. In fact, Ostroh is a spiritually unique place – not far from here, the Peresopnytsia Gospel was started to be written, the Ostroh Bible was also prepared and published here, “the Ostroh Quran”, a unique manuscript of Volyn Tatars, is also kept here. I guess this ancient atmosphere has its impact.
You translate from many languages, not only from Arabic but also from English, Polish. What is your way of learning languages in general?
I am more into written texts, however, I have a big experience in simultaneous interpreting. I’ll be honest, it is hard work and practice: read, write, work with texts, write down new words and, of course, communicate with native speakers. For example, the modern Arabic language is more or less a single literate language (so-called Fusha), and there are plenty of dialects. It is impossible to master it just learning the material from textbooks. You need experience. It is useful if, in the beginning, you speak or write and somebody corrects your mistakes and improves your language. These are well-known tips but the crucial thing is not to be afraid and take on the most difficult things. It is like in sports – if you set your goal very high, you may move as far as possible even though the final picture perfect can’t be achieved.
Please, explain to our readers why when speaking about the translation of the Quran, we use the term “translation of meaning”? What are the reasons for that?
The point is that the Quran in the Islamic tradition is a direct Word of God said through Prophet Mohammed. It can’t be changed, expressed in other words, translated, it won’t be the Quran then, it is an interpretation (it’s very important for Islam), in other words, “translation of the meaning”. Actually, this term is a neologism, it was first used in Turkey in the 1930ss to widen an impact of the national language (Turkish) and preserve the holiness of an Arabic text. That means that a translation is not the Quran in any way.
There are many cultural and religious stereotypes in society. Do you think your translations help to ruin them? Do your readers give you feedback or even ask to explain some details more thoroughly?
Of course, many people had no idea about the Quran. I remember one journalist came to me (after the first edition) and asked: please show me the passage which says “Muslims have to kill disbelievers” and so on. I opened some suras for her, and she realised she just repeated the stereotype. It is just one example. During these years, I have held many lectures about translations, I’ve received bunches of letters and questions, sometimes they were rather critical and polemic (not dialogue)-oriented, however, in the end, we managed to come to common ground. We have to understand that hatred propaganda is supported by many forces, it is often conducted in a quite hidden way when Islam is demonized despite an illusive tolerant attitude. So, it’s of no surprise people become victims of the propaganda. That’s why the translation has been specified, enhanced, some comments and forewords have been added, 10 editions have already been published. However, they don’t differ much from each other.
Unfortunately, a few people in Ukraine are interested in education, sciences and humanities. Do you think it can be changed? What do we need for that?
Why not interested? I belong to the generation which didn’t have any doubts about university education. “A graduated person” is, perhaps, a soviet cliché, but it still has sense. I can speak only about my field, Islamic and Religion Studies. Unfortunately, there are less and less students who study these humanities. People prefer a confession view to an academic, and as a result, they become polemists and advocates of some organisations or schools, but not academicians.
On the other hand, there is a problem of some academic prejudice which says that religion can be easily evaluated as a mix of different “worldly” factors and as a way to achieve power and influence on people. We have to find common ground between religious and academic communities, however, they are unlikely interchangeable.
You have access to archive materials, academic works of different periods. A new catalogue “Crimean Tatarian manuscript heritage in libraries of continental Ukraine” has recently been published. In fact, you write ancient texts in the modern epoch, giving others an opportunity to study it more thoroughly. Does Ukraine have any institutions, academic communities which support research in this field?
Sure. And I am very grateful to the State Fund of Fundamental Research which helped to publish the catalogue; some religious and civic organisations have also helped: Alraid association, Spiritual Direction of Muslim of Crimea (now based in Kyiv) and others. They paid for all publishing expenses. My dream is to make a full catalogue of Arabian-language manuscripts in libraries of Ukraine, make an English copy and publish it in some prestigious western publishing house. But I need many resources and several years to do that. But a bigger problem is to get access to materials in the occupied Crimea. Most of the texts are kept there.
Is it easy to work with archives in Ukraine? Are they accessible?
Frankly speaking, I am very satisfied with the work in the Lviv Museum of History of Religion and in the Academic Library of the Lviv Franko National University. I want to express my gratitude personally to the director of the Museum Mr Orest Malytsia as well as to his employees, and also to Vasyl Kmetia, a director of the Lviv National University Library. Due to them, I managed to see everything which is kept in Lviv – an important collection of Crimean and Algerian Arabic-language manuscripts. Now, I am working with Omelian Pritsak’s collection. I got access to it due to academicians of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy. Unfortunately, the situation is worse with other institutions. The problem is that they charge big money for taking photos of texts, even if it concerns an uncommercial work. Just imagine, 2 USD for a two-page opening, and you need two-three manuscripts, these can be 1000 pages. It’s about 2000 USD – an annual salary for educators or academicians. In Turkey, for example, there is a law which lets local scholars have access to such materials (at least, to digital copies) for free. In Ukraine, such materials are “hidden”, so they will rather turn into ash or “disappear” (it has happened to manuscripts and old books) than will be given to a researcher.
You often go abroad. Where is it more comfortable to work? Where is your work appreciated the most?
Poland and Turkey, in the first place. The point is that I work in projects connected with studying the heritage of Polish Tatars, and Turkey keeps most of the texts of Crimean authors. Articles are also published there as they study local materials.
If you weren’t a scholar, what would you do? What would you become? Perhaps, a journalist or writer?
I am happy with my profession. However, I like writing nonfiction texts, actually, I am against making academic papers “unreadable”. When I was having my internship in Princeton, I was very surprised how easily leading specialists in Islamic Studies explained complicated things. Their texts are also not difficult to comprehend, otherwise, they wouldn’t be read and bought… In Ukraine, many people see a scientist as a person who says something strange and uses many terms. For humanities, it is not acceptable, these are not sciences. So, I am very pleased to work in the nonfiction direction. I want to believe readers also like it, and this is the main criterion.
They say that Ukraine is a bridge between West and East. And this is our big problem because we can’t choose where we should move. What modern literature would you recommend to help in national identification?
Perhaps, it is a strange thing to say but I’d recommend not to read but to write. I don’t mean everybody should become a scholar or writer, I mean it is a good way to express yourself, think about what worries you, build yourself, make efforts to become better. We live in a digital epoch, and I guess that a book will become popular when people will write something about it or make reposts in social networks. Every day, we face facts as well as analytics. Why not try to shape your own attitude in your head? We don’t have to be any bridge – we will be trampled to death, we have to be a fortress. In this regard, I recommend the Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy – as for me, it is a beginner course for a Ukrainian citizen we have to know.
Interview by Viktoriia Nazaruk