Translating Arabic Literary Classics for a Global Audience

Library of Arabic Literature is a five-year project that aims to translate, edit, and publish 35 works of classical Arabic literature.

For many literary enthusiasts it might be considered criminal to compile a list of the great classics without including among them the translated works of authors like Tolstoy or Cervantes. Yet, excepting the Arabian Nights, most would struggle to note any significant number of classics representing the Arab literary tradition. It is not for any lack of achievement of Arab writers, storytellers, philosophers, and poets during the pre-modern period — but simply that English-language readers remain unaware of the very existence of works that comprise the great body of classical Arabic literature.

Not only is there a dearth of translations from the "treasure of medieval Arabic," as Philip Kennedy, general editor of NYU Abu Dhabi's Library of Arabic Literature (LAL), calls it, it is also exceptionally inaccessible and dispersed.

"If you look at the pre-modern period from the 19th century backwards to pre-Islamic, sixth-century Arabia, there's virtually nothing translated relative to what exists in this huge corpus of literature across genres. There are a lot of translated versions of the Quran and Arabian Nights, and then there are translations of the canonical collections of the Sunna, which are the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, but there is very little else," said Kennedy, who is also associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature at NYU New York. "There might be a translation of anecdotes collected by Ibn al-Jawzi, which you have to go to a 1920s fascicle of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society to get a hold of; you have to look here and there, and even then, you find quite a shallow representation of what exists available in English."

A Central Repository for Classical Arabic Literature

LAL, one of the earliest recipients of an NYUAD Institute research grant, is a five-year project that aims to translate, edit, and publish 35 works of classical Arabic literature. The works will be produced in parallel-text format, with Arabic and English text on facing pages, in order to "create the opportunity of dialogue between the original and the translation." Bringing together Arabic literary scholars from around the world, LAL creates a vehicle for those in the field to converge, discuss, and collaborate in the collective effort of creating a central repository of high-quality, trustworthy, and readable English-language iterations of Arabic texts, catering both to academics and general readers. The selected translations will traverse a full range of genres, focusing not only on creative work, but also on literary texts at large, including poetry, fiction, religion, philosophy, law, science, history, and historiography. LAL works in partnership with NYU Press, which will publish the translated works in both print and searchable e-book formats.

"The vision is for this to have a broad readership; from the diehard scholar, to the student at the graduate and undergraduate levels, to the curious reader in the street, to also the Muslims in the world who can't read Arabic very well," Kennedy said. "One of the first works we're publishing, Al-Shafi i's al-Risalah (The Epistle on Legal Theory), is one of the founding works of Islamic law — to have this in translation in parallel text will be of enormous interest on all sorts of instructional levels."

Accessible Translations in Modern English

Creating a strong operating foundation for the library was important, as was ensuring a significant degree of quality control. "If a work has a complex textual history, using lots of different manuscripts from lots of different periods, you have to be able to present some kind of sense of an integral whole that is trustworthy as a reference work and that explains the nature of the textual complexity and layers," Kennedy said. However, there is an important balance to strike in appealing to a general audience, and LAL places significant emphasis on the need for translations to be written in modern English. "We don't want to produce editions that overwhelm the reader with a critical apparatus, where for each line you have ten lines of footnotes," Kennedy explained. "We want the reader to be able to read the text and be able to trust it, and for it to point in the direction of further reading if he or she is interested in the textual criticism. This is where there is a silent interface between the academic world and the lay audience."

In addition to the careful selection of collaborators, who are requested to submit samples for review, LAL's editorial board plays an important role in reviewing the stylistics of each text. The eight editors on the board, alongside LAL's Managing Editor Chip Rossetti, are involved in the selection of the texts, the commissioning of translations, the review of manuscripts, and the vetting of the final translations. They are supported by a 26-member International Advisory Board, which provides additional guidance as needed. The editorial board meets twice a year, during which time all work in progress is evaluated, taking into account peer reviews, and review is undertaken of all aspects of LAL's editorial structure and operations.

"When you think of translation, you think of one sole academic stuck in his or her room producing this manuscript and it just gets published — but the reality is that it's an enterprise," Kennedy explained.

The vision is for this to have a broad readership; from the diehard scholar, to the student at the graduate and undergraduate levels, to the curious reader in the street, to also the Muslims in the world who can't read Arabic very well.

Philip Kennedy, general editor of NYUAD's Library of Arabic Literature

Works in Progress

The library presently has 20 works under contract, with the first three completed translations due for publication by the spring of 2013.

Al-Shafi i's al-Risalah (The Epistle on Legal Theory), which was translated by Joseph E. Lowry from the University of Pennsylvania, is the oldest surviving work on Islamic legal theory and the foundational document of Islamic jurisprudence. The text will serve as a valuable resource for legal scholars on the historical foundations of Sharia law.

Al-Qadi al-Quda i (A Treasury of Virtues: Sayings, Sermons and Teachings of Ali), which is being translated by University of Chicago Professor Tahera Qutbuddin, is a collection of sayings, sermons, and teachings attributed to Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, fourth caliph, and a renowned sage of Islamic wisdom.

Anthologies of Shorter Works

In addition to publishing single- and multi-volume works, LAL will also publish anthologies of shorter works. Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology represents an assortment of classical Arabic poems and literary prose from pre-Islamic times to the 18th century, selected and translated by Geert Jan van Gelder from Oxford University.

Along with these three works, translation has commenced on seven other titles that are due for release in future seasons.

Global Tradition with Local Roots

As this project presents classic literary work from the region to a global audience, LAL identifies with the vision of NYU's global network university, which compels its students to be an active part of a multicultural and cosmopolitan world. The project is also significant to the vision of Abu Dhabi, which strives to maintain its cultural roots throughout the process of development.

"As an ambitious project, it is lucky that it has found someone with the vision to sponsor it," Kennedy said, musing, "once these things happen, you wonder why it hasn't happened before."

LAL's editorial board comprises: General Editor Philip Kennedy; Executive Editors James E. Montgomery of Cambridge University and Shawkat M. Toorawa of Cornell University; and board members Julia Bray from the University of Paris VIII, Michael Cooperson from UCLA, Joseph E. Lowry from the University of Pennsylvania, Tahera Qutbuddin from the University of Chicago, and Devin Stewart from Emory University.