Adapting the U.S. “Koran for Dummies” for French readers

September 15, 2009

koran-for-dummies-175coran-pour-les-nuls-175If you don’t know anything about the Koran but want to learn, does it make any difference if you’re an American “dummy” or a French “nul”? That  isn’t meant to cast doubts about knowledge on either side of the Atlantic. But it does arise now that the French version of the American guide to Islam’s holy book has just been published in Paris.

The book at right is based on the original text at left, but it would be wrong to call it a translation. First Editions, the French publisher of the “Pour les Nuls” (“For Dummies”) books, took the U.S. original and asked a leading Paris-based Islam specialist, Franco-Algerian Malek Chebel, to adapt it for French readers.

Chebel, who has also just published his own translation of the Koran and an accompanying “encyclopedic dictionary,” explained at the book presentation here that he had to make several changes. The original text by Sohaib Sultan, now the Muslim chaplain at Princeton University, was fine for U.S. readers, he said. “There weren’t errors,” he explained, “but I had to make some fundamental changes. I told the editor, she checked with the American publishers and asked if they agreed. They went along with it. So I worked from that basis and the book became a French book.”

chebel“Le Coran pour les Nuls” keeps large parts of the original “Dummies” text but has new sections on the Koran’s message. “I added implications of the Koran for today,” Chebel said. “What does the Koran say today? How can a Koranic verse be interpreted on the veil, on society, etc? I updated aspects of critical interpretation and rearranged some sequences of chapters.”

(Photo: Malek Chebel, 9 Sept 2009/Tom Heneghan)

“The Koran for Dummies” had a full chapter on jihad with subtitles like “Understanding Martydom” and “Looking at Jihad in Today’s World.” Chebel cut it out of the French version. He does discuss the concept and deplores suicide bombers, but does not highlight it. “I judged there was no place to discuss geopolitics, especially controversial issues, in a book on Islam,” he said.

Chebel has experience with rejigging such texts, having already adapted the “Islam for Dummies” book. He did even more radical surgery on that one. “In ‘Islam for Dummies,’ there was no Islam in France or Islam in Europe. ‘Islam for Dummies’ was Islam of Americans for Americans,” he said. “But France is the largest ‘Muslim country’ in the West. That wasn’t an error but something was missing.”

chebel-dictchebel-coranIn the end, about half of the Koran book was changed in one way or another, said Vincent Barbare, head of First Editions. This isn’t always the case for the “Pour les Nuls” series. “There are some American books we don’t adapt but we write our own, not because the American book is bad but because the reality in America is not the same as ours,” he said.

(Images: Chebel’s new Koran translation and “encyclopedic dictionary)

“Take a dumb example,” Barbare said. “Last year we published Les Annees 60 pour les Nuls (The Sixties for Dummies). The American book is very very good, but it talks mostly about Vietnam and Kennedy, and not about the May ’68 student protests in Paris or about General de Gaulle… On Islam, there was a lot that was in common. Malek read and found it was not disconnected from what we wanted to do.”

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