by Emile Cohen
Most translators are unsung heroes. If a piece of literary work or a poem is poorly translated, the translator is blamed for not capturing the meaning of the writer; whereas if the piece is well translated then the writer is exalted and the translator is forgotten. Not so in the case of Nessim Dawood. His name is well remembered for his translations of medieval Arabic literature due to his extraordinary ability to render the meaning and nuances of the Arabic language into contemporary English. What is more, he succeeded in doing this while still maintaining the characteristic flavour and rhythm of the original.
Nessim Joseph Dawood was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1927 into a middle class family. His father was a merchant and his mother was a good English speaker, from whom he learnt the language. Indeed, his command of English was so good that at the age of 12 he was able to give lessons to older students. He developed a strong attachment to the English language in addition to his love of Arabic, and grew to have an affinity for English writers. He contracted Polio at a young age, but that only made his determination to excel even more resilient.
Before the age of 18 he had started writing in local newspapers and was noticed by Kamil Chadirji, a political party leader and highly respected liberal persona in Iraq, as well as the owner of a very influential and popular newspaper, Al Ahali. Chadirji admired this leftist young man and, every now and then, he commissioned the teenaged Dawood to translate some English articles for his newspaper. He later asked him to teach English to his son Rifat, who has since become a famous architect and free thinker in Iraq. Nessim was granted a scholarship by the Iraqi state to study in England, an honour bestowed on only a handful of high calibre students at the time and seldom awarded for non-scientific subjects. As well as the rarity of this academic honour, it was even rarer for a Jew to be sent to study in England. He needed a guarantor for the sponsorship and, naturally, Mr Chadirji did not disappoint.
So Dawood left Iraq in 1945 to read English Literature and Arabic at the University of London. He had wanted to proceed to do a doctorate, but his marriage in 1949 put paid to his ambitions, as he had to support his growing family. He worked as a teacher and a journalist whilst toying with the idea of translating Shakespeare into Arabic. However, after attending a talk by E.V. Rieu, the founder of Penguin Classics and a translator of Homer, he was very impressed and changed the course of his career. Rieu’s talk emphasised that a translator must strive to be a good writer in his own right and not just an accurate translator. Nessim sent him his version of the prologue to the Thousand and One Nights, to which Rieu responded by sending him a contract; Dawood’s translation was published by Penguin in 1954.
Rieu liked the contemporary style and fluency of Dawood’s English, unlike previous translations that had been done in archaic and verbose styles. Later that year he published further translations, including Sinbad and other Tales and many children’s books whose English was so fluent that adaptations were broadcast on the BBC. As a result, Dawood quickly gained fame as a competent translator of Arabic classics.
In 1956, Dawood approached Rieu regarding the possibility of translating the Qur’an. Rieu was not keen on the idea as he thought that few people in Europe would be interested in reading such a text, but he eventually consented on the basis that the translation would not be in line with the previously archaic linguistic style. Dawood set out to produce a readable version of the Islamic holy text in contemporary English. His idiomatic style aimed to bring out the poetic beauty and eloquent rhetoric of the Arabic original. The work became a masterpiece and the translation, first published in 1956, was regularly revised by Dawood in the light of his life-long study of the style and language of the Qur’an, and has been brought as close to the original as English idiom. There have been nine major revisions of the text and 70 reprints, with the latest revision produced in May 2014. To give a taste of the extent to which the text changed over time, Dawood’s first edition was 432 pages long; the latest is 612.
Dawood’s translation of the Qur’an was disseminated throughout the Arab world, Europe and America. Its impact has been significant and it is considered be many to be the most authoritative rendering of the text. The Qur’an is accepted by Muslims to be the infallible word of God and a literary masterpiece; an accurate translation would thus be imperative for it to be accepted by Muslim scholars aroun the world.
Here I would like to quote the opening verses of the Qur’an (Surat Al Fatiha) as translated by Nessim Dawood in his simple, fluent, contemporary and idiomatic English:
بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ
الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ
إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ
اهدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ
صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلاَ الضَّالِّينَ
In The Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate
Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe,
The Merciful, the Compassionate,
Sovereign of the Day of Judgement!
You alone we worship, and to You alone
We turn for help
Guide us to the straight path,
The path of those whom You have favoured
Not of those who have provoked Your ire
Nor of those who have lost their way.
In 1958, Dawood set up his own commercial company offering translation services, The Arabic Advertising & Publishing Company (which later became Aradco VSI). The Middle East was becoming a new market for Western products and services and he applied his skills to the translation of advertising copy and other literature for a wide variety of consumer products including tea, pharmaceuticals, cars and defence equipment. His skills extended to drawing labels and devising names for products such as Lipton Tea, Heinz baked beans, Lux soap and cigarette brands. He created the calligraphy for many of the banknotes of the Arab world postage stamps and brand logos. For some Western products, Arabic, being an ancient language, did not have the necessary vocabulary to describe, and Dawood played a key role in guiding its engagement with the modern world, coining new words and contributing to specialised dictionaries.
His enthusiasm for the Arabic language was only matched by his love for Shakespeare and theatre. He had read The Merchant of Venice as a young boy in Baghdad, using a dictionary to look up most of the words; but as an adult he bought a cottage near Stratford-upon-Avon in order to be close to the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre. He produced many books and was an avid writer of letters to the Times, as well as writing numerous book reviews. I recently read a beautiful letter by him eulogising his fellow translator and writer from his very young days at Al Ahali, Naim Tweg.
Dawood passed away on 20 November 2014, leaving a wife and three sons with a legacy of translation that would be remembered by all those who read his work. However, he will always be known as the Iraqi Jew who translated the Qur’an; and a hero for both Jews and Muslims.
A version of this article was first published by David Shasha on Sephardic Heritage Update.