Recovering the Self from the Other: Arabs and Islam in Contemporary Arabic Translations of European Literature

Marcin Michalski


When a work of European literature is translated into Arabic, the language of a predominantly Islamic culture, terms referring to Arabs as a people or Muslims as a religious community, the name of Muhammad as the Prophet of Islam, etc., cease to be foreign and exotic, to become local and familiar. The present analysis of contemporary Arabic translations of Dante’s La Divina Commedia, Cervantes’ Don Quijote and Scott’s Ivanhoe, shows that these elements are not always simply returned to their native culture if the original text represents them in a negative, Eurocentric way, which can even be considered blasphemous by Muslims, but are subject to more or less significant ideologically motivated transformations. Instead of straightforward restitution to the native culture, what takes place is a kind of annexation of texts which consists in replacing the negatively portrayed “Other” by a positively, or at least neutrally, represented “We.” Such manipulations may be explicit, i.e. signalled in footnotes, or tacit. In some cases, anti-Islamic passages become even sympathetic towards Islam when translated into Arabic. In this way the authors of Arabic translations liberate the texts from the dominating Western perspective and adapt them to their own vision of the world. What appears as manipulation and censorship from the “Western” point of view may be perceived in an entirely different manner inside the Arabo-Islamic culture, for instance as a correction of obvious factual errors.

Słowa kluczowe: translation, manipulation, domestication, Arabic, Arabs, Islam


DA: Alighieri Dante. La divina commedia; Inferno, edited by P. Gallardo, Torino: Petrini, 1991.

MC: de Cervantes Miguel. El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha I, edited by J. Jay Allen, Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 1982.

MCS: de Cervantes Saavedra Miguel. El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, part I, vol. III, edited by D. Clemencín, Madrid: D.E. Aguado, 1833.

WS: Scott, Walter, Sir. Ivanhoe, London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.; New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1945.

WSh: Shakespeare, William. OthelloThe Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by S. Wells, C. Taylor, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 819–853.

Arabic translations

MZ: Skūt Waltir, Sīr. Ayvānhū, translated by M. al-Zumar, Cairo: Dār Nahḍat Miṣr, 1966.

AB: Thirbāntis. Dūn Kīkhūtih, vol. I–II, translated by ʻA. Badawī, Damascus–Beirut–Nicosia: Dār al-Madā, 1998.

ḤU: Alījīrī Dāntī. Al-Kūmīdiyā al-Ilāhiyya: al-Jaḥīm, translated by Ḥ. ʻUthmān, Cairo: Dār al-Maʻārif, 1988.

KJ: Alighīrī Dāntī. Al-Kūmīdiyā al-Ilāhiyya, translated by K. Jihād, Beirut: al-Mu’assasa al-ʻArabiyya li-l-Dirāsāt wa-al-Nashr, 2002.

KhM: Shiksbīr Wilyam. ʻUṭayl, translated by Kh. Muṭrān, [Beirut]: Dār Naẓīr ʻAbbūd, 1991.

English translations

Alighieri Dante. The Divine Comedy, translated by A. Mandelbaum, Digital Dante, 2017, [access: 30 November 2018].

de Cervantes Saavedra Miguel, History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, translated by John Ormsby, eBooks@Adelaide, 2018, [access: 30 November 2018.

AN:The Arabian Nights: Tales from 1,001 Nights: Aladdin, Ali Baba and Other Favourite Tales, translated by M.C. Lyons, with U. Lyons; introduced and annotated by R. Irwin, London: Penguin Classics, 2010.


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