Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1388, (5 - 11 April 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1388, (5 - 11 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Arabic translation comes of age

The first volumes of the Library of Arabic Literature, an ambitious translation project of classical Arabic works into English, appeared five years ago, with several dozen now being available to international readers. But this is just the beginning, library editors Philip Kennedy, James Montgomery, Shawkat Toorawa and Chip Rossetti explain to David

When the British Arabist Robert Irwin was putting together his Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature in the 1990s, still an essential port of call for all those interested in the classical writing of the Arabic-speaking world, he had few resources to turn to and was reduced, he told Al-Ahram Weekly in an interview, to doing some of the translations himself.

“When I was doing the anthology for Penguin Books, my remit was to bring together extracts from existing translations, and I had no money to commission new translations apart from those I did myself,” Irwin said in comments published in the paper in November 2011.

While interest in classical Arabic literature among English-speaking readers, formerly mostly restricted to the stories of the Thousand and One Nights (the Arabian Nights), had “come on wonderfully from what it was only two decades ago… [Western] publishers don’t really know where to start as far as the classical Arab writers are concerned,” Irwin added. “Some of the existing translations are also amazingly archaic, which doesn’t help.”

How things have changed since then. Today, just a few years later, the landscape has been transformed by the launch almost at the same time Irwin was speaking of the Library of Arabic Literature, an ambitious series of new translations from the mostly classical literature of the Arab world published by New York University Press with the financial support of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute in the United Arab Emirates. 

According to its website (, which also brings together a variety of materials about the series, including interviews, extracts, and free downloads of the Arabic texts, the aim of the library is to offer Arabic editions, with facing modern English translations, of important works of Arabic literature from the seventh to the 19th centuries. The library “includes texts from the pre-Islamic era to the cusp of the modern period and encompasses a wide range of genres, including poetry, poetics, fiction, religion, philosophy, law, science, history and historiography,” it says.

The books in the series are published in parallel-text format with the Arabic and English texts on facing pages, and the English translations alone are also published as mass-market English-only paperbacks. The aim is to “encourage scholars to produce authoritative, though not necessarily critical, Arabic editions accompanied by lucid modern English translations. Its goal is to introduce the rich, largely untapped Arabic literary heritage to both a general audience of readers as well as to scholars and students,” the website says.

One model for the library is likely to have been the well-known Loeb Classical Library of translations from the classical Greek and Latin authors, which, started in the UK in 1911, is now published by the Harvard University Press in the US. The Loeb Library’s enormous range of green (for Greek) and red (for Latin) authors in English translation also presents texts in English and in the original language on facing pages, and it aims to provide accurate texts and readable translations for a wide audience.

However, while the Loeb Library has been familiar to generations of readers, it has hardly been alone in providing accessible versions of the classical authors. The Penguin Classics Library published by Penguin Books and the World’s Classics Library published by the Oxford University Press are perhaps even more familiar, and over the years they have done an outstanding job of making classical literature in English more widely available in accessible modern versions.

Nothing like these series have been available for other world literatures, among them Arabic, as Irwin told the Weekly in 2011. “I keep telling publishers they should do Jahiz,” a polymath writer active in Baghdad during the Abbasid period. “He’s so witty and so interesting, and then there are the pre-Islamic poets — wonderful, bleak landscapes — but publishers are not very receptive.” 

As Irwin implied, the lack of interest in this literature among Western publishers has been a loss to readers, and it is a cause for celebration that many of the lacunae he identified are now being made good in the Abu Dhabi series.

The first volumes appeared in 2013, and one of the very first, Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology translated by Geert Jan Van Gelder, was reviewed in the Weekly in July 2013. As the name implies, this was a kind of manifesto piece for the series of a whole, Van Gelder presenting a selection of translated extracts from works written in Arabic between the sixth and 18th centuries and ruminating as he did so on matters of presentation and translation.

In his introduction, he says that much of the material in the book is likely to be unfamiliar to Western readers, but that the task of the translator should not be to impose familiarity that does not exist and that may in any case be misleading. “The task of the literary translator is not to transport the original author to the English-speaking world of today; rather, one must transport the reader to the place and time of the author as much as possible and as much as is tolerable,” Van Gelder says.

Many translations of classical Arabic poetry that have circulated in the past, for example, have been “poetic recreations” for modern readers rather than (strictly speaking) translations, he adds, creating “pretty poems” that give little sense of the originals. 

A former holder of the Laudian chair in Arabic at Oxford University, Van Gelder has some severe words to say about those who might be tempted to discount the difficulties involved in accurate translation. Glossing lines from a poem by the Abbasid writer Ibn Al-Rumi, for example, he says that it is impossible to be sure what they mean, and adds that he has been obliged to omit works by at least one mediaeval Arab writer since they are “impenetrable” to even the best-informed modern readers. 

More recent translations in the Library of Arabic Literature have offered other solutions to the problems raised by Arabic-to-English translation. Veteran translator Humphrey Davies’ translation of the 19th-century Lebanese writer Ahmed Faris Al-Shidyaq’s sprawling novel Leg over Leg (Al-Saq ala Al-Saq), for example, reviewed in the Weekly in February 2016, includes a “Translator’s Afterword” in which he outlines a translation strategy that has stretched the English language almost to the limit, used “Google’s Latin translation facility to create non-existent terms”, and drawn upon the linguistic virtuosity of a range of early modern authors including the French writer Rabelais.

 The library is edited by a group of international scholars with the assistance of a larger advisory board, and it includes specialists such as professor of Arabic at NYU Philip Kennedy, who serves as general editor, James Montgomery, Sir Thomas Adams professor of Arabic at Cambridge University in the UK, Shawkat Toorawa, professor of Arabic at Yale University, and executive editor Chip Rossetti.

In an interview on the library’s fifth anniversary, executive editors Philip Kennedy, James Montgomery, Shawkat Toorawa and Chip Rossetti explained some of thinking behind the series to the Weekly, as well as future plans. 


What were the aims of the Library of Arabic Literature when it was launched?

The Library of Arabic Literature was founded with the idea of filling a void. In 2008, any objective assessment of the amount of pre-modern Arabic literature translated into English would have made for grim reading. It is hard to provide figures, but the percentage of extant pre-modern texts translated into English must still be in the low single digits and may even be lower than one per cent of the total known to exist. That is a parlous situation to be in at the start of the 21st century. 

Around the time the library was being conceived a decade or so ago, there was also a growing awareness of the very small number of works from the world’s heritage, old and new, that had been translated into Arabic. It was even touted that the number of books translated into Spanish in one year equalled the number of books translated into Arabic since translations began to appear in the 19th century. This fact received much publicity and spurred the foundation of the Kalima Project to translate from foreign languages into Arabic in 2007. The Kalima Project is funded by Abu Dhabi, and therefore New York University Abu Dhabi seemed the perfect place to establish a sister project, producing translations and editions of pre-modern Arabic works in facing-page parallel-language editions. 

The model for any such project is bound to be the cultural pillar of the Loeb Classical Library, published by Harvard University Press in the US, which celebrated its centenary in 2011 and is still going strong. Loeb Library editions also include an edition of the relevant classical text, in Latin or Greek, together with a facing-page English translation. Certainly, the idea behind the founding of the Library of Arabic Literature was to create a lasting project, with a view in time of becoming comprehensive and consolidating in significant numbers the amount of Arabic works available in lucid, modern English translations to the interested reader, student and scholar alike.


One of the main features of the series is the publication of the Arabic text and translation on facing pages. Why?

In a Library of Arabic Literature book, both languages, Arabic and English, are equally important. We see ourselves not just as a “translation” project, but rather as a project that makes editions of Arabic texts and their English translations more widely available. On a theoretical level, the activities of editing and translating are two sides of the same coin, but we also relish the physical and visual pleasure to be taken from seeing the Arabic and English texts side-by-side in one book. The paradox is that while the English and the Arabic texts are literally “bound together” in one book, their presence facing each other allows the reader who knows both languages to appreciate the confluences, divergences, independence and dependencies of both. 

In presenting the two language versions side-by-side, we also want to draw attention to the continuing cultural importance and relevance of Arabic, especially the kind of formal Arabic often used in the texts published by the library, despite the hegemony of English as a global language. Having both languages sit side-by-side is also a very useful pedagogical tool for students interested in acquiring the ability to read this formal Arabic, and as academics we are keen to keep alive the discipline of “textual criticism”, once so dominant in our field, but now rarely taught to students. Therefore, the stress on editing the Arabic texts as well as presenting modern translations of them has important disciplinary implications for the training of graduate students working in Arabic literature. 


What is the audience for the series — will all the translations eventually appear in paperback versions without the Arabic text?

The series is aimed at the general reader who may not know anything at all about Arabic literature or Arab-Islamic civilisation. Our translations are intended to reach out directly to this readership, requiring of readers as little effort and occasioning them as little cultural and intellectual anxiety as possible in order to enjoy our books.

Our editions of the Arabic texts are aimed to reach out to readers of Arabic. These editions are authoritative, but they are not burdened with excessive annotation, for such annotation can also interfere with readers’ enjoyment of the text they are reading. In this way our books are also well-adapted for the classroom as teaching tools. All our translations will in due course appear in English-only paperback versions. We also produce PDF files of our Arabic texts and make them available on the library’s Arabic website.


The series has focused on texts from the earlier period, but it has also ranged into the 19th and early 20th centuries. Will it continue to have its classical focus, or should we expect translations of texts from the early modern and modern periods?

The temporal range of the works selected by the library is from the Jahiliya [the period before the advent of Islam] to the Nahda [the Arab Renaissance in the later 19th century] and hence we creep, with the recent translation by Roger Allen of the Egyptian writer Mohamed Al-Muwaylihi’s What Isa Ibn Hisham Told Us, into the 20th century. But for the time being that is our cut-off point. 

This may seem arbitrary, but the reasoning behind it is two-fold. First, we judged at the outset of the project that works from pre-modern Arabic are far less represented in English translation than modern and contemporary works of fiction and poetry. This is not to suggest that the amount of modern works in Arabic that have been translated into English is anywhere near satisfactory, but for now, with the expertise on the editorial board of the library, we can perform a better service providing pre-modern texts to a global readership given the unmitigated dearth that lies in that huge temporal span of literary development. This also allows us to train scholars in textual criticism and editing, a discipline not on the whole required when dealing with contemporary output. 

Second, we judged that works from the Nahda period tend to be couched in a language which a reader of Arabic still needs help with to understand and appreciate fully, and parallel-text editions can provide that help. This is certainly the case with the enormously difficult Al-Saq ala Al-Saq [Leg over Leg, in the translation by Humphrey Davis] by the 19th-century writer Ahmed Faris Al-Shidyaq. Works currently in progress are from the pre-Nahda period.

There is also the issue of subject matter: the library understands Arabic literature from the pre-modern (and vast) corpus in a broad thematic and generic sense — that is, the rich heritage written in Arabic, across disciplines and themes. But if we progressed into contemporary literature that would have to be reconsidered: today the term “Arabic literature” is much more exclusively applied to works of fiction and poetry. 

Such policies are debatable, of course. In any event, we don’t preclude the idea of moving into modern literature once we have given the library its pre-modern foundations. We are often asked about this and consider such requests with great sympathy.

What criteria have been used in selecting texts for translation? Does the series have a “house style” in the way it seeks to translate often very different texts?

When the project was launched in 2010, the editors of the Library of Arabic Literature proposed between three and five titles that they believed were worthy of inclusion in the series. But we were also conscious of the fact that some of these projects, perhaps even most of them, might take several years to bring to completion, so we tasked our own editors to produce the first few volumes themselves, including The Epistle of Legal Theory by [ninth-century writer on Islamic jurisprudence] Al-Shafei, The Virtues of the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal by [ninth-century scholar] Ibn Al-Jawzi, and A Treasury of Virtues: The Sayings and Sermons of Ali.  

One of our principles is that we only publish complete texts and not selections from them. We want to edit and translate the books that were produced by Arab authors and not present extracts from them. But we have also published an English-only Anthology (translated by Geert Jan Van Gelder) in the series that consists of selected passages from classical Arab authors, and we envisage publishing a few more such English-only anthologies with the undergraduate Anglophone classroom and lay readership in mind.  

We did not have any specific genres in mind as we went forward, soliciting proposals and then commissioning in some cases. We wanted to underscore the wide range of texts in the Arabic literary tradition. Thus, the series includes Two Travel Books (by Ibn Fadlan and Al-Sirafi), a cookbook, a manual of Sufism, and a collection of tales. And we also wanted to take on some texts sometimes regarded as “untranslatable” (a position that we do not espouse). As a result, we are now proud to be able to count The Epistle of Forgiveness by [11th-century Syrian poet] Al-Maarri and Leg over Leg by Al-Shidyaq as part of the series. We are conscious of the fact that in poetry the work of [10th-century Abbasid poet] Al-Mutanabbi will probably have to be tackled next. There is an article describing in detail the development of our principles of selection in the Journal of World Literature published in the US.

The series also does have a house style. Its main feature is that the English used for the translations should be modern and lucid, and both the Arabic and English texts should have minimal footnotes. The fact that we do not want copious footnotes to the Arabic text sometimes confuses potential editor-translators, as the academic norm is to be very note-heavy. We are happy to put critical editions of the Arabic texts online, and we have done so; but we also want the printed texts to be inviting to the Arab reader, while remaining authoritative and expertly produced.  

As for the English translations, modern and lucid is not always easy to achieve. In part, this is because most of the editor-translators are academics accustomed to verbatim translation. But we want to make sure that these Arabic texts, in some cases written by towering intellects, sound very good in English, and do not sound wooden. The Handbook for Translators on our website describes our principles of translation and identifies some of the pitfalls we have encountered.


Are there any translations that you consider particularly noteworthy of those that have been done thus far? Are there texts that you would like to see included in the series?

The inclusion of the so-called “untranslatable” texts, of texts in genres that are often ignored (such as the cookbook and the popular material), and of the collaboratively produced volumes is perhaps particularly noteworthy. We have operated on the principle of “a corpus, not a canon” (or, more accurately, “a corpus, not the canon,” as we are inevitably ourselves producing “a” canon of sorts). There all sorts of desiderata for the future, but a Diwan [collection] of poetry is probably the most important kind of text we need to include. Poetry is after all the prestige genre in Arabic. We hope the forthcoming translation of the Diwan of Antarah [the “War Songs” mentioned below] will, we hope, be a big step forward.


What plans do you have for the future of the series? 

Forthcoming publications in the library include Antarah ibn Shaddad (War Songs), a volume of pre-Islamic poetry; a text on Sufism by the great 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldoun; the Kitab Al-Hawamil wal-Shawamil, translated into English as “The Philosopher Responds”, a classic of debate from the 10th century and an exchange of views between Miskawayh, a philosopher, and Al-Tawhidi, a litterateur; and a major text by the 17th-century North African intellectual Al-Yusi. 

In the next three to five years, we plan to publish more texts of classical Arabic poetry, including two volumes of hunting poetry from the ninth century by the Abbasid writers Abu Nawwas and Ibn Al-Mutazz, as well as a new edition and translation of the Maqamat (Scenes) of the 11th-century writer Al-Hariri, one of the most celebrated texts from the classical canon of Arabic literary creativity. 

We will also produce more books taken from the oral poetic tradition of the Arabian Peninsula, and major works in the Islamic intellectual and theological tradition such as [the 10th-century theologian] Al-Ashaari’s survey of early beliefs in his Maqalat Al-Islamiyin. 

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