Early translations of English fiction into Arabic: The Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe

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This essay examines the translations into Arabic of The Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe, two of the first works of modern prose fiction to be translated into Arabic in the nineteenth century. Both are didactic and allegorical narratives that belong to the prehistory of the European realist novel; they were originally written in the late seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries, and by the early nineteenth century had become among the most popular fictional works in Europe, both in their original languages and in translation. They were translated into Arabic at various stages of the nineteenth-century revival (nahda).

The translations of each work are dealt with separately, but demonstrate certain shared issues and problems of translation in this period. These include the negotiation of different levels of language within Arabic, as suitable local equivalents for the translated work are found; the vital role of individual effort, and the placing of this within a wider educational and patriotic project; the awareness of European and local structures of power; and most importantly of all, perhaps, a shared didactic impulse.

The two translations of The Pilgrim's Progress provide evidence of a shift of approach towards translation within the missionary project. The first translation (1834) belongs largely to an Evangelical mode of universal translatability, which tends to ignore distinctions between languages and between levels and registers within a language, in an attempt to proselytize as many people as possible. The second translation was made only ten years later for the American missionaries by the Protestant convert Butrus al-Bustani. It belongs to a more sensitive mode of free translation into a literary idiom influenced by adab norms, and aimed at an educated readership. The two translations also - despite evidence of their appeal to at least fairly wide Christian audiences - seem to have been especially relevant to Syrian Protestant converts, for whom the radically solitary experience of Bunyan's protagonist Christian corresponded to their own experiences of personal conversion.

Robinson Crusoe was also translated twice - by missionaries in an abridged version in 1835, and in a full version, outside the missionary framework, in 1861. This second translation was made by Butrus al-Bustni, after his period of close collaboration with the missionaries had ended and he had moved to more ecumenical educational and patriotic projects. His translation demonstrates both continuity with and breaks away from the earlier missionary translations of both The Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe. His version of Robinson C rusoe is still presented as a didactic and exemplary narrative, more than a realist novel; an emphasis on the individual struggle and suffering of the protagonist is preserved, as are markers of the work's Christian and Puritan provenance. This personal effort is now, however, placed within a larger, patriotic and educational, framework. © The author. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of Manchester. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)177-212
Number of pages36
JournalJournal of Semitic Studies
Issue number1
Early online date14 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2015
Externally publishedYes


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