Introducing the Library of Arabic Literature in English

In Feature Articles by Chip Rossetti

Editorial by Chip Rossetti

Library of Arabic LiteratureFor the past two years, I have been fortunate enough to work on a new book series that aims to make classical Arabic texts accessible to English-language readers. The series, known as the Library of Arabic Literature, has set itself the challenging goal of publishing key works of pre-modern Arabic literature in bilingual editions, publishing the original text and its English translation on facing pages.

Supported by New York University Abu Dhabi, LAL hopes to ensure that pre-modern Arabic writing — in genres ranging from poetry to law, religion, philosophy, science, history, and fiction — will find new readers across the globe who would otherwise be unfamiliar with this rich literary and intellectual heritage. General Editor Philip F. Kennedy, Associate Professor at NYU-Abu Dhabi, heads an eight-member board composed of scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies, which selects the texts we would like to see translated, pairs them with translators, and gives the final approval before publication.

Never Before Translated into English

Classical Arabic Literature on sale at the Magrudy's bookstore outlet on the campus of NYU Abu Dhabi

Classical Arabic Literature on sale at the Magrudy’s bookstore outlet on the campus of NYU Abu Dhabi

Most of these works have not been translated into English (or if they are, they are available only in partial, old-fashioned versions) and we have spent the last two years working out some ground rules on which texts we should publish first and how to approach them. We also quickly discovered the design pitfalls of parallel-text publishing, particularly when the English and Arabic texts run in different directions. We took care to choose an elegant typeface that allowed us to set the Arabic in a style more in keeping with traditional Arabic calligraphy than with the more rigid, horizontal format of contemporary Arabic typesetting.

The hard work paid off, however, as we published our first three books this past winter, starting with an all-English anthology of poetry and prose, Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology, selected and translated by the prominent Oxford Arabist Geert Jan van Gelder. The anthology includes poems by some of the best-known Arabic poets and authors from the Arabic tradition (including Abu Nuwas, al-Mutanabbi, al-Jahiz, and al-Mas’udi, for example), as well as a range of little-known gems such as a dialect poem from 15th-century Cairo lamenting the death of an elephant in a canal, and a gorgeous Yemeni lyrical sketch on a visit to the hammam (“Thus the dirt of bodies and minds was eliminated and every heart felt elated. Adorned with the pearls of sweat that dripped, into our bathrobes we slipped, and into the henna our hands and feet were dipped.”) Our first bilingual texts came out, too: The Epistle on Legal Theory, by al-Shafi’i, a foundational document of Islamic jurisprudence, and A Treasury of Virtues, a compilation of the sayings, sermons and teachings of Ali ibn Abi Talib, by Fatimid jurist al-Qadi al-Quda’i. Four more titles are due to be published this summer.

It has been a steep learning curve for all of us, notably because we are tackling texts deemed “untranslatable.” For that reason, many of our editorial discussions have revolved around laying down series-wide rules: can we insist that technical or cultural terms in Arabic be translated in a certain way? Or do we allow individual translators the leeway to make their translation their own, even at the expense of consistency across the series? What is the best way to translate archaic poetry coming out of a very different cultural and literary milieu into comprehensible, lucid English? (And as with any poetry, is it still poetry after it’s been translated?) And how do we translate the Arabic genre of rhyming prose (saj’) without turning it into English doggerel? All of those questions are well worth tackling in and of themselves, but they are in the service of a greater goal for a translation series like this: ultimately, we want non-Arabic-speaking readers to view these authors and their texts as part of their global cultural heritage, so that the educated reader is as familiar with the names of Ibn al-Muqaffa’ and al-Ma’arri as she is with Homer, Tolstoy and Confucius.

Philip F. Kennedy (General Editor) and Chip Rossetti (Managing Editor) will be discussing this series in a presentation called “Introducing the Library of Arabic Literature,” on Wednesday, April 24, on the Discussion Sofa, 17:30-18:30 at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

About the Author

Chip Rossetti

Chip Rossetti is the managing editor of the Library of Arabic Literature translation series at NYU Press. He is a translator of contemporary Arabic fiction.