Arabic Classics in Contemporary Translations

The Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) was founded with high ambition: to make the treasures of pre-modern Arabic writing accessible to the world's English speakers through high-quality parallel-text editions. In its first three years, the LAL has published nine volumes — on literature, law, religion, biography, and mysticism — and more are in production.

The project's General Editor is Philip F. Kennedy, an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi. He works with seven other scholarly translators, plus a 27-member international advisory board, to ensure meticulous translation and production. The project, in partnership with NYU Press, is supported by a grant from the NYUAD Institute.

As more books are published, the breadth of the Library will expand, said Kennedy, who is well known in Abu Dhabi from his time as faculty director of the Institute.

"Though eclecticism was not a goal in itself, we decided that we might as well start with some works that have not been translated," he said. "We did, however, want to be comprehensive...and as we push forward, we will move closer to that end."

The LAL has already won high praise, including from the Times Literary Supplement, one of the world's top literary reviews. In the October 11, 2013 edition, Lydia Wilson wrote that "...the study and teaching of medieval Arabic thought and literary creativity will be revolutionized" by the LAL's work.

Collaborative translation is not new, nor unique to the Library. But few projects have been as self-consciously cooperative as this one.

"Collaboration is fundamental to the LAL identity," said Executive Editor James Montgomery, the Sir Thomas Adams' Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University. "We're trying to show the world that we can produce high-quality volumes with one name attached...but the translation in fact represents the work of a lot of different people," he noted.

Managing Editor Chip Rossetti explained the system for bringing a book along: "Every translator works with a board member who is dedicated to the whole process of producing an edition. The board member is there to act as a sounding board for the translator, and to ensure that the translation is up to the standards the editors are looking for."

Being in Abu Dhabi makes us aware that the work we are doing is not disconnected from the people and cultures of the Arabic-speaking world. And that's very important to us.

Shawkat M. Toorawa, LAL executive editor and associate professor of Arabic Literature and Islamic Studies at Cornell University

This kind of work has given LAL Editor Julia Bray, Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford University, the opportunity to engage with colleagues in different fields. "As editors, we are learning about each other's disciplines, modes of thought, techniques, procedures," she said.

One forthcoming volume is titled Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga.

For Accounts of China and India, by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī, the translator is the Yemen-based scholar Tim Mackintosh-Smith, known for his translations of the travel writings of Ibn Battuta. It is a collection of stories from the mid-ninth and early 10th centuries, chronicling merchant voyages eastward from the Arabian Gulf.

Mission to the Volga, written in the 10th century by Ibn Fadlān, is being translated by Montgomery. The tale describes the journey of diplomats sent by the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad to the King of Bulghar, a convert to Islam, whose domain was located on the Volga River. "Ibn Fadlān traveled up past the Caspian Sea, to the upper Volga, where he met with Vikings who were living in the area," Kennedy explained. "Their meeting is an interesting conjunction, and there is some fascinating stuff in the book, like an account of a Viking chief who died and was burned in his boat."

LAL is more than just the books it produces. Once a year, the editors meet in Abu Dhabi for a weeklong workshop. They also hold a formal meeting in which they invite scholars not affiliated with the Library to translate poetry and other Arabic texts in a collective process.

The Library also hosts a yearly public lecture in Abu Dhabi. In December 2013, Montgomery gave a talk entitled "Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Falcons, and Abbasid Hunting Poetry." He read his own translations of Sheikh Zayed's hunting poems and discussed tropes and images that are integral to the Abbasid hunting poetry that is fundamental to the genre.

The yearly lecture provides an opportunity for the editors to see just how important classical Arabic literature is to the local community.

"Being in Abu Dhabi makes us aware that the work we are doing is not disconnected from the people and cultures of the Arabic-speaking world. And that's very important to us," said LAL Executive Editor Shawkat M. Toorawa, an associate professor of Arabic Literature and Islamic Studies at Cornell University. "We could do this in Oxford, Ithaca, Cambridge — but that would be a very different thing."

This article originally appeared in NYUAD's 2013-14 Research Report (13MB PDF).