UNESCO Publishing brings out first free-verse Arab translation of Dante's 'Divine Comedy'Paris - The first-ever free-verse Arabic translation of The Divine Comedy, written by Italian poet Alighieri Dante in 1321, has just been published. Until now, this literary masterpiece had only appeared in Arabic in prose.
The new translation, from the original Italian and several French translations, is the work of Iraqi-born French poet and literary critic Kadhim Jihad, who is a senior lecturer at France’s National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations. It is co-published by UNESCO and the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing (AIRP), based in Beirut (Lebanon).
The Divine Comedy comprises 14,233 three-line verses (tercets) making up 100 songs, and divided into three parts describing hell, purgatory and paradise.
By transcribing this long poem into free-verse (unrhymed verse without a metrical pattern), Kadhim Jihad sought to safeguard its musical quality. “Arabic and Italian metrics do not obey the same rules and it would be very difficult to do a translation that kept to the original verse structure,” he said. “I chose free-verse tercets because they got closer to the music of Dante’s words.”
In a long introduction he points out that the Arab-Islamic world and The Divine Comedy are not strangers to each other, even though Dante was a Christian and strongly influenced by St Thomas Aquinas.
“People have often spoken of an Arab literary and philosophical influence in The Divine Comedy,” says Jihad. “According to historians, for example, Dante is reported to have been part of a group of students of the Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes).” Dante quotes Ibn Rushd and another Arab philosopher, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), in the poem.
The Divine Comedy has also been compared in literary terms to other “journeys into the hereafter” written by earlier Arab authors and philosophers of the Middle Ages. Jihad mentions Mohammed’s Ladder and Mohammed’s Night Journey – both anonymous works - and The Treatise of Pardon by Al-Maari.
This new translation of The Divine Comedy is published as part of UNESCO’s Collection of Representative Works. Founded in 1948, the Collection enabled translation and distribution of literary works written in about 100 languages at a time when publishers were not very interested, so as to encourage an exchange ideas and values between cultures. (http://www.unesco.org/culture/creativity/literature/html_eng/collection.shtml)
The Collection today includes about 1,300 titles in 30 or so languages, including 35 works in Arabic. The works of Aristotle, Locke, Voltaire and Genet have been translated into Arabic, while some 40 works in Arabic from authors such as Al-Farabi, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina have been translated into English and French.
Such translations are especially valuable because the Arab world is suffering from “a severe shortage in new writing” and “trends in translation are also discouraging” according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP)’s first Human Development Report on Arab countries, released in Cairo in July last year.
According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum (www.unesco.org/culture/xtrans/), considered an authority on translation statistics, only 6,881 books have been translated into Arabic since 1970 – the same number as were translated over the same period into Lithuanian, spoken by only four million people compared to the 221 million people who speak Arabic.*
German (128 million speakers) comes top of the list of languages into which the most books have been translated since 1970, with 205,918 titles, followed by Spanish (417 million speakers, 150,312 titles) and French (128 million speakers, 132,270 titles). Arabic comes 27th, just after Modern Greek (12 million speakers) and Estonian (1.1 million).
To continue its many decades of work as an intellectual facilitator, UNESCO recently launched a Clearing House for Literary Translation (www.unesco.org/culture/lit) which it hopes will become the main world network of translators and editors at a time when publishers have become very keen on “world literature.”
* Data on how many people speak which languages is taken from the magazine Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 14th edition, Summer Institute of Linguistics (www.ethnologue.com)