N. J. Dawood
Nessim Joseph Dawood was born on 27 August 1927 in Baghdad, Iraq. As a child, he quickly became bilingual in Arabic and English, and started tutoring schoolmates in English. He came to England as an Iraq state scholar in 1945, and studied English Literature and Classical Arabic at the University of London in the first cohort of students to resume normal university studies after the Second World War.
After graduating in 1949, he worked as a journalist and was invited by Sir Allen Lane – the founder of Penguin Books – to translate a selection of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights into English, to mark the publication of Penguin No. 1001 in 1954. This translation achieved a wide readership: an unexpurgated version that reflected the Arabic original – yet was effortlessly readable in contemporary English – appealed to a broad audience. Readings and dramatic adaptations from his translation of the Tales were broadcast on BBC radio. It was reissued in the Penguin Classics and a further selection (Aladdin and Other Tales) was published in 1957, also in the Penguin Classics. Both books were combined into a single volume (Tales from the Thousand and One Nights) in 1973.
The founder of the Penguin Classics was Dr. E. V. Rieu, CBE – a classicist and an accomplished Greek and Latin scholar who had translated inter alia the Iliad and the Odyssey. Rieu revolutionized the art of translation, and became a mentor and key influence upon Dawood’s approach to the translator’s craft. Rieu and Lane proposed a new translation of the Koran, which at that time was largely unknown to British readers. The only previous translations were in an archaic, literal style; the aim was to produce a modern translation that would be accessible to the English-speaking reader.
The first edition was published in 1956 as Penguin No. L52. In this edition, Dawood rearranged the chapters (surahs) into more-or-less chronological order, to make them easier to understand, in line with the chronological approach found in the Old and New Testaments. Later revisions of his translation reverted to the traditional sequence of the surahs (arranged in descending order of length).
His translation of the Koran is still thought to be the best selling English language version – it has been reprinted at least 70 times, appearing in several revised editions and formats. For N J Dawood, the Koran has been a lifelong “work in progress” – constantly revised and refined in the course of an entire career. Language and use of English change constantly over time: for example, terms such as “Men” and “Mankind” did not have the same gender-specific connotations for the reader of the 1950s that might apply today, so have been appropriately replaced. Dawood’s translation has never been out of print; a new revised edition is due to appear in 2014.
Approach to translation
N J Dawood’s approach to the Koran is that of a scholar approaching the greatest work of Classical Arabic literature, free from any religious bias. He greatly admires the Koran’s eloquence and powerful rhetoric (describing it in his introduction as "not only one of the most influential books of prophetic literature but also a literary masterpiece in its own right"), and his translation endeavours to do justice to both. The translation includes explanatory footnotes.
Dawood has also edited and abridged the Muqaddimah of the great philosopher-historian Ibn Khaldun, published by Princeton University Press. He has retold some of the best-known stories of the Nights in three children’s books, in the Puffin Books series.
In the late 1950s, Dawood founded the Arabic Advertising & Publishing Co Ltd, a language consultancy specializing in Arabic. The 1960s and 1970s were a crucial time for development of the Middle East as a market for British, European and North American products and services. Some of the best-known brands still use hand-drawn Arabic logos that he developed at that time. The company currently trades as Aradco VSI Ltd, providing translation and language services in every commercially important language. N J Dawood’s academic discipline and key tenets govern the company’s approach to all its work: a good translation should always appear to the reader to be the “original version”, never a translation of something else.
- Who's Who. London: A&C Black. 2 December 2013. p. 2608. ISBN 9781408181195.
- "Penguin Books website - About Penguin Books". Retrieved 12 April 2014.
- Dawood, N J (1 May 2014). The Koran. London: Penguin Books. p. 640. ISBN 9780141393841.