Translating #Cervantes400 into Arabic

Just as the world will mark the 400th year since the death of Shakespeare, so we also mark the same the number of years since the death of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra:

By Shadi Rohana

cervantesNot only did the two authors mark world literature forever, but they also died on the same day in 1616, if on different calendars. Shakespeare died on “April 23rd” before Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar. For the Catholic world, which adopted the Gregorian calendar immediately in 1582, Shakespeare died on May 3rd — that is, 10 days after the death of Cervantes.

While it’s uncertain whether Cervantes knew of Shakespeare, Shakespeare certainly knew him. The title of one of Shakespeare’s lost plays — The History of Cardenio — clearly shows it. But what of Cervantes in Arabic?

Cervantes is the author of many novels, stories, poems and plays. However, in the Arabic language, Cervantes’ name is almost a synonym for that of his character Don Quijote, the protagonist of the novel of the same name. Don Quijote has a marked relationship with Arabic: The narrator claims it was originally written by one of the Mancha’s moors, Cide Hamete Benengeli, and translated into Spanish by an Arabic-Spanish bilingual morisco. While Arabic books were distinctly unavailable in seventeenth-century Spain, having been thrown to the fire, the remaining moriscos and Jews continued to practice their languages and culture, concealing their identities to varying degrees.

Though published in 1605 and 1615 (first and second part, respectively), el Quijote began to appear in Arabic only in the 20th century. In the Cervantes’ Institute’s catalogue for the Quijote translations exhibition, the institute lists four Arabic translations:

Translated by Abd al-Rahman al-Badawi Al-Mada, Damascus: 2007 (originally publish in Cairo, 1965) 1,063 pages


Translated by Rifaat Atfah Damascus, Ward: 2004 1136 pages


Translated by Sulaiman al-Attar Al Majlis al-A’laa li-al-Thaqafah, Cairo: 2002 Two volumes


Translated by Joseph Elias Dal al-‘ilm li-al-Malayin, Beirut: 2004 303 pages

Two earlier, lesser-known translations are missing from the Cervantes Institute’s catalogue. Both were uncompleted, and had enjoyed a lesser diffusion in comparison with the others mentioned.

In 1957, the Anglo-Egyptian bookshop in Cairo published the first part of el Quijote, translated by Abd al-‘Aziz al-Ahwani. Al-Ahwani, who continued to work on the second part, which never saw the light. According to translator and writer Maher Battuti, in a personal correspondence, al-Ahwani was asked to omit parts of the translation that were deemed offensive to Islam. Offended as a translator, he decided to stop his work altogether.

The first translation into Arabic that we know of, however, is that of Teouan’s Al-Wazani, published on the pages of Al-Rif newspaper in Morocco as of 1951.

el Quijote on the pages of Al-Rif newspaper Tetouan, 1951

Between Don Quijote (دون كيخوت), Don Quichotte (دون كيشوت) and Dhon Quikhote (ضون كيخوطى); between Cervantes (سرفاتس) and Thervantes (ثربانتس), to speak of Cervantes in Arabic is to open Pandora’s box on the inexhaustible theme of Arabic “renaissance” and the making and re-making of intellectual life. If commemorations are good for something, then now is the time to revisit el Quijote and its translations, folding them into our reflections on the histories of Arabic literature, global distribution, and translation.