The first ever Penguin Classic, E. V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey, was published in 1946. Since then, the imprint has brought out more than 1,000 “classic” titles, ranging from the unquestioned canon (Plato’s Republic) to the far edge of dubious (Morrissey’s autobiography). But whose classics are they?
By M Lynx Qualey
If your knowledge of world literature was formed by a glance at the “Classics Map” on the Penguin website, you might be forgiven for thinking that most of the writing in human history had been done in Western Europe.
There seems to be no definitive, updated bibliography of the Penguin Classics, neither at the official website nor elsewhere. Yet the “Classics Map,” together with an annotated listing from a few years ago, seem to give a good sense of the series’ scope.
At the interactive map, you can see two listings for Egypt, which are Cavafy’s Collected Poems and Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri’s Ultimate Ambition, translated by Elias Muhanna. There is also one lonely listing for Syria: Usama ibn Munqidh’s The Book of Contemplation, translated by Paul Cobb.
There is no P pin for Palestine, even though the annotated listing places Eusebius there. Another oddity from the map is that Baghdadi author Ibn Fadlan is placed in Iran.
The map is incomplete, as there is at least one more Egypt book on the way. Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Return of the Spirit — translated William Hutchins, with a new foreword by Alaa al-Aswany — is set to be published July 9. It is not yet on the map.
Underrepresented ‘Nations’: Africa and The Arab World
It is clear enough from the size and locations of the pins that most of the literature in this long-running and influential series is from European authors. Yet the official annotated listing manages to make the series look even more colonial.
On the African continent, in addition to the two authors in Egypt, there is one pin for Nigeria (Chinua Achebe’s The African Trilogy), two authors representing Kenya (five books by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and one by someone called Elspeth Huxley, who was born and died in the UK), and three for South Africa (two works by Es’kia Mphahlele, and one each by Ruth First and Olive Schreiner).
Curiously, there is also a letter “A” hanging off the coast of Cameroon. This pin gives a list of “Africa” books. Notably, there is not a similar continent-comprehensive listing for any of the other six. The books listed under “Africa” are mostly by Saint Augustine, but there are also books by Oluadah Equiano, Banna Kanute, and Bamba Suso. Equiano was born in what’s now Nigeria, kidnapped and enslaved, and then died in England. It is not clear why he wouldn’t simply be placed in Nigeria; plenty of nation-states on the map got their borders after their authors’ deaths. I don’t think Thomas Aquinas, for instance, would have considered himself Italian.
In addition to the map, Penguin Classics published “A Complete Annotated Listing.” This listing is available for free and was last updated with new titles for 2016. In the section “Authors by Region,” they begin with “Authors from the Ancient World.” St. Augustine is (quite reasonably) listed here, but then he gets a second listing in the next category, “Africa,” presumably to bulk up this sad-looking section. Yet sadder is the next category, “The Arab World,” which has exactly two authors: Ibn Fadlan and Usama ibn Munqidh.
After that is Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil…. The rest are national listings, with England taking up so much space I lost track while counting. The United States also gets plenty of room with a section that includes books by the likes of P.T. Barnum and Zane Grey.
The Caribbean is the only other area that gets a dismissive, broad-brush regionalization, and it has two authors: Shiva Naipaul, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaican writer Mary Seacole. There is a lone, unexpected listing for Palestine, simply to house Eusebius (263-339 CE).
Many literatures are underrepresented — India has only eight authors; Turkey has one; nothing for Malaysia or Indonesia; China gets short shrift with 12 — but there is nothing quite as strange as the seats at the back of the classics created for “Africa” and “The Arab World.”
South American authors are marginally better represented, although largely because of a few names (Borges, Neruda, Amado).
It was November 2010 when Egypt’s Dar al-Shorouk publishing house and the UK’s Penguin Books launched the “Shorouk Penguin” partnership at Manial Palace. Shorouk-Penguin was a project that, they said, would publish Penguin and other classics in Arabic. A press release at the time reported that around 12 translations of Penguin’s international classics and eight Arabic classics would be published annually under the joint brand.
The goal of this partnership was not to make Penguin classics available in Arabic for the first time. As Penguin International‘s John Makison said at the event, most of the Penguin-classic titles were already available in Arabic translation, but he said that the “Penguin-Shorouk editions will be distinguished by the quality of their translation, their scholarship, and their printing.”
Makison also said that the project would make more Arabic literary classics available in English.
According to my reporting at the time, Makison said at the event: “Some of these [Arabic titles] we hope to add, in translation, to our extensive list of Penguin classics that have been translated from Arabic into English. That’s an important element of this whole plan.”
By “extensive” he apparently meant “two.”
Makison added that the project was meant to build “a small bridge of understanding between the Arab[ic]-speaking and English-speaking worlds, a dialogue too often colored by rhetoric and incomprehension.”
If it is a bridge, thus far it seems to have gone in one direction only. Penguin Classics are available in Arabic, under the Shorouk-Penguin brand, with money for the Penguin coffers. It is possible that al-Hakim’s Return of the Spirit, available next month, is the fruit of this partnership. Yet the book has long been available in English; it was published by Three Continents in 2000.
Who Needs a Penguin Classics, Anyway?
Naturally, there are other publishing projects that bring classic non-European literatures into English. Library of Arabic Literature has been doing an increasingly good job of making pre-20th-century Arabic works available to wide English audiences. The Indian Novels Collective has made up a list of 100 Indian classics in 13 languages, and they are sponsoring translation of these books into English. And while I cannot think of similar projects for Yoruba, Swahili, Amharic, Hausa, or Shono, I wouldn’t imagine Penguin would be the place to shape these translations.
Still, this is a map of the world that shapes Anglophone perceptions of what a classic is, what the world has been, and what the world can or should be:
I am further reminded of a quote from the protagonist in Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s 1855 classic Leg over Leg: “The Greeks boast of a single poet, namely Homer (Ὅμηρος), the Romans of Virgil, the Italians of Tasso, the Austrians of Schiller, the French of Racine and Molière, and the English of Shakespeare, Milton, and Byron, while the number of Arab poets who surpass all of these is too large to count.”