The Jewish master of Arabic

Most revered for his Arabic to English translation of the Koran, Nessim Joseph Dawood was a revolutionary in introducing the West to Arab literature and culture – but his life story is so much more.

Nessim Dawood (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nessim Dawood
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On November 20 the world lost a rare talent with the death of Nessim Joseph Dawood.
An Iraqi Jew, he is revered for his masterful translation of the Koran into English for Penguin Classics, never out of print since 1956. He was the 20th century’s most outstanding translator of Arabic to English and English to Arabic, and a man with an extraordinary sense of language and poetry. To paraphrase William Shakespeare, whose work fascinated the scholar from an early age: The man had music in himself.
Dawood’s translations of tales from The Thousand and One Nights collection put the original Arabic stories of Shahrazad onto the bookshelves of many an English- speaking living room, and his idiomatic version of the Koran became the go-to text for those who, while interested in its content, had been unable to contend with the old-fashioned and more literal renditions previously in existence.
The descendant of an ancient Jewish family that had left the Land of Israel before the destruction of the Temple, he was born in Baghdad, the sixth of seven children.
Yakov Yehuda, the youngest of the seven, and today one of Dawood’s three surviving brothers, spoke to The Jerusalem Post about his scholarly sibling and their family history.
Their parents, whose marriage had been arranged – as was the custom at the time – both attended the Alliance Française school in Baghdad. They were fluent in French as well as Arabic, and their mother spoke enough English to teach the rudiments to her children.
“Our father, Yosef, was a merchant who had been an officer in the Ottoman Empire. Before we were born he had business concerns in Iran, in Isfahan I think, and therefore also spoke fluent Persian,” said Yehuda.
“Our [original] surname is Yehuda,” he said, explaining that the family is related to Sarah Yehuda, the mother of David Yellin, of David Yellin Academic College fame. This ancient family name did not, however, appear on Dawood’s Iraqi ID card, just his own given name, plus those of his father and paternal grandfather, “Nessim Yosef [Joseph] David.”
When he left his native land for England in 1945, the third name, adapted from David to Dawood (the equivalent in Arabic), became the surname on his passport. Later, his nom de plume was to be N.J. Dawood.
The Yehudas left Iraq for Israel when Yakov was 19, as a result of the difficult situation for Jews in Arab countries after the establishment of the state in 1948.
“Shortly after we came to Israel [in December 1950], we returned to the airport to collect a Torah scroll that my father had commissioned in Baghdad in the name of his brother, Salah, who died at a very young age, and that Torah scroll is now in an Iraqi synagogue, Ohel Ari, in Ra’anana.”
Yosef’s sons did not know “much” about their father’s side of the family. Yakov said that they were aware that their mother, “had two uncles, Aharon and Ephraim Tweg, who went to Turkey, to Istanbul, to learn to be pharmacists and then became the first two pharmacists in Israel.”
The medical vocation appears to have run in the family, as Dawood’s eldest son, Richard, is a doctor, author of Traveler’s Health, and his youngest, Andrew, a dentist, is involved with 3D printing, which includes making medical applications. The middle son, Norman, however, followed his father’s professional footsteps and works in translation.
Arriving in the Promised Land in the ’50s “was very difficult, we had left everything behind. There was not much money and we lived on a moshav at first, and after two years moved to Tel Aviv,” Yehuda explained.
The eldest of Dawood’s brothers, David, who left Iraq at the age of 16 to study in Beirut, was already in Israel, having arrived in 1930. Upon immigrating, he changed his last name to Eshed.
“It was usual for people to change their names when they came to Israel in those days,” explained Yehuda.
David spent some time in the UK, only to return to Israel and work in the government, in the Agriculture Ministry. Another brother, Fouad Salah Yehuda – named after his uncle – (who changed his name to Gad Eshed when he came to Israel, at David’s suggestion), “studied aviation in the UK, and when he finished [his studies] El Al contacted him and he came to work with them at the airport. He left [that position] after a few years and opened a motorcycle shop and a driving school for motorbikes,” said Yehuda.
The fourth of the brothers, Heskel, worked at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv as commercial attaché.
The two sisters were Matilda, who came to Israel in 1946, and Flora, who married in Iraq and moved to London, then Nice, and spent her final years in Monaco.
Upon arrival in Israel, Yakov enlisted in the IDF and then “worked in a factory, and after that I went to Bank Leumi at the airport at the age of 25; I left in 1985 having attained the position of assistant manager.”
Dawood did not immigrate to Israel with the rest of his family. He had been in the UK since 1945, sent there at age 17 on an Iraqi state scholarship to study English literature. He had exhibited an uncanny knack for this from an early age, having fallen in love with Shakespeare’s works as soon as he came across The Merchant of Venice while still a schoolboy.
He left Iraq on August 15, 1945, recalled Yakov, “the very day the atom bomb exploded on Hiroshima.”
His natural gift for language, and his perseverance, enabled Dawood to publish Arabic translations of English short stories in local publications while still in school in Iraq. According to researcher and fellow Iraqi Emile Cohen (“Tribute to Nessim J. Dawood: An Arab Jew in a Muslim World”), this attracted the attention of a respected democratic politician, Kamil Chadirji, owner of the Al-Ahali newspaper, who asked Dawood to translate articles from English for his periodical.
Chadirji, who also hired Dawood to teach English to his son, was to sign as guarantor for Dawood when he received a grant from the state to study in London.
Years later in the UK, Dawood – an assiduous book reviewer and contributor to letters to the editor of The Times – wrote a eulogy of Naim Tweg, his uncle and a former colleague at Al-Ahali.
Dawood’s received a scholarship to London University in the capital, but the university was evacuated to Exeter during World War II, where he toiled the next four years. The result of his labors was a double degree in English literature and Arabic.
Subsequently Dawood – whose fantasy was to translate Shakespeare into Arabic – qualified as a teacher and taught English at a secondary school in South London. He also spent three years as a journalist at The Jewish Chronicle.
In 1948, as an international student in London, he was thrilled to be invited to attend Shakespeare’s birthday celebration in Stratford-upon-Avon, a previously annual event that had only just resumed, following the end of the war. Years later – in 2011 – he was asked to speak at the same anniversary as the oldest survivor of that first postwar lunch, and shared anecdotes of the time, including how he met Shakespearean actors Claire Bloom and Alfie Bass at the theater bar. Over the years, Dawood attended several such lunches in commemoration of the Bard, whose work he continued to delight in.
In 1949 he married Juliet Abraham – the sister of his childhood friend Eliahu Abraham – at the Lauderdale Road Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London.
The couple were married for 65 years and had three sons and nine grandchildren.
But it was in 1952, when the young scholar attended a talk by E.V. Rieu, renowned for his Greek-to-English translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and founding editor of Penguin Classics (a subdivision of Penguin Books), that his life-course would change.
Rieu’s novel concepts went straight to Dawood’s core, as he explained in a 1990 interview with The Bookseller magazine.
The publisher spoke of “a new kind of translation,” of the “challenge of emulating the excellence of the original”; and the concept that “a good translator must be a good writer” and should use “idiomatic English”; that “a translation had to sound well when read out loud.”
“I was enthralled,” said Dawood in the interview.
He wrote to Rieu, enclosing a translation of the prologue to the book of Eastern tales that was to become a household name, Tales from the Thousand and One Nights.
To Dawood’s amazement, what he received by return mail from Rieu was the offer of a contract to translate the Tales themselves.
And so, on Dawood’s 27th birthday, August 27, 1954 – and as the 1,001st Penguin publication – his translation of The Thousand and One Nights: The Hunchback, Sinbad and Other Tales hit the shelves. Its popularity was such that not only were Terence Tiller’s dramatic readings of it broadcast on BBC radio, but a further selection of tales, Aladdin and Other Tales, was published in 1957.
In 1973 they were combined into a single volume, Tales from The Thousand and One Nights. He also created child-friendly versions of the tales, published by Puffin, a subsidiary of Penguin Books. All of these works remain in print.
Following the success of Tales, Dawood approached Rieu and Sir Allen Lane (Penguin Books’ founder) about the possibility of a new translation of the Koran.
The publishers did not expect that there might be a large potential readership for such a project.
Nevertheless, Dawood managed to convince them that this translation would be like no other, rooted in the parameters that Rieu himself had laid down, and utilizing “idiomatic” English, “as you would feel the best authors of the day would write in,” Dawood told The Bookseller.
He wished to showcase to English-speaking readers what he considered the greatest work of classical Arabic literature.
In the introduction to his translation, Dawood refers to the Koran as “not only one of the most influential books of prophetic literature, but also a literary masterpiece in its own right.”
As it turned out, Dawood’s Koran became probably the best-selling English-language version, and has so far been reprinted 70 times since 1956, with nine major revisions, including the most recent carried out by Dawood in May of last year.
The revisions were the result of the translator’s lifelong preoccupation with the style and language of the original text. Although in later versions Dawood reverted to the original sequence of the text – that is surahs (chapters) arranged in descending order of length – in the early versions he organized these into more-or-less chronological order, seeking to make them clearer to an audience who had no previous familiarity with the text.
Philip Howard, literary editor of the The Times, with whom Dawood corresponded extensively over the years, reviewed the 31st and 35th printings of the Penguin Classics Koran.
In the 1986 review Howard wrote, “All other English translations are pompous, archaic, reverential and unreadable, except by the enthusiast,” adding that Dawood had “captured the thunder and poetry of the original.”
Further, in 1991, he assured Times readers that “[Dawood] is the only version, if you want to know in English what the Koran actually says, behind the thunder of the faith and the fanaticism and the poetry.”
Former Israeli ambassador to the UK Moshe Raviv spoke of Dawood’s contribution, and of also the writer’s personal mission to translate the texts.
“The fact that he translated the Koran was important to [Dawood], important to the wider community, important to Europe and important to the United States,” Raviv said.
“I met him when I was ambassador in London in the ’90s. I knew him very well. He was a very perceptive man, whose forte was a philosophical and a wider approach. He knew a lot about the Middle East and it was always good to discuss things with him.”
Among the topics they discussed were the differences between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam, Raviv told the Post.
Although unhesitatingly identifying himself as a Jew, Dawood was discreet about matters of religion, and extremely private about his own beliefs.
Dawood’s son Richard said of his father: “His worldview was all-encompassing and tolerant. He was proud of the contributions and achievements of the Iraqi-Jewish community, and of its harmonious coexistence with Islam in Baghdad through the centuries.”
Dawood had a strong connection to Israel, and when visiting his siblings living there, he brought his children along to spend time with their cousins.
Richard, who after graduation spent a summer at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, recalled these visits fondly, which he said were spent “picking fruit, slaughtering chickens and smoking water pipes.”
Dawood’s wife was involved in fund-raising through the London chapter of Hadassah Medical Organization.
(“One of the big attractions of Hadassah for my mother was that it is involved in helping both Arabs and Jews,” said Richard.) Over the years, Dawood received numerous letters from readers of his translations, including many from those who had been inspired to convert to Islam, or who simply wanted to thank him for helping them understand what their religion meant.
Nevertheless, “My father never had any other agenda than the agenda of a linguist,” said Richard. “He began his project [of translating the Koran] at the age of 27 and finished it at the age of 86, when he carried out his last revision. In fact, he was still looking at the Koran shortly before he died, always looking for the better way to express something, striving to make it as perfect as he could, to reproduce the poetry accurately.”
It was a project that never left him, said his son, whatever else he was busy with.
“He would feel he had done his best, and then still come back to it.”
Dawood often quoted Plato’s maxim, saying that ideally, “You ought to wait 20 years before you publish something, and that way you would know that you had got it right.”
He departed from Rieu’s philosophy in the end, said Richard, “because he felt he could capture the sense in idiomatic English and yet also remain faithful to the original.”
His knowledge of Arabic literature, poetry and proverbs, and his ability to communicate clearly and warmly in Arabic enabled him to establish an instant rapport with anyone who prized Arab culture.
“In the early days,” said Richard, “there was no issue with the religion of the translator. On the other hand, when in later years Dawood’s religion became more widely known, his translation became more controversial, attracting criticism from some who believed that the Koran could only be translated by a devout follower of Islam, if it could be translated at all.
“Yet anybody who actually met him, if they were Arab, knew that they were in the presence of someone who knew about their culture,” added Richard. “He had a deep respect for it, and was able to recite poetry and sayings.
In the Arab world it is not automatic that someone should not only speak beautiful Arabic, but also know its literature and have a deep respect for its culture.”
Shortly after publication of his translation of the Koran, Dawood began a PhD at University College London, but the pressing need to support a young family forced him to abandon this after six months.
Instead, he began to apply his unusual abilities to the world of commercial translation.
In 1959 he founded his own translation agency, the Arabic Advertising and Publishing Company Ltd. It was at a time when the Middle East was beginning to import Western products as well as export their own, and the first products to receive Dawood’s attention were the basics of everyday life: food and beverages, cleaning materials, confectionery, chocolates and medicine.
He started to work with the oil industry, science, technology and the legal sector. The British Defense Ministry and other government departments trusted him with their translations and sought his advice on sensitive issues relating to the Middle East.
Because Arabic is an ancient language and Modern Standard Arabic was still in transition, Dawood was instrumental in coining new words in Arabic to apply to new terminology, not far removed from what Eliezer Ben-Yehuda achieved for Modern Hebrew.
He contributed to specialized English/Arabic and Arabic/English dictionaries. Ever multi-talented, Dawood learned Arabic calligraphy, following in the footsteps of the great 12th-century Andalusian-Jewish scholars and translators. (According to Richard, Dawood’s first Arabic calligraphy teacher was an Egyptian Jew by the name of Cohen.) Dawood and his team created ornate, complex artwork for logos, coins, currency, stamps and passports across the Middle East.
In 1969, he was invited by Princeton University Press to edit and abridge the Franz Rosenthal translation of The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (the most important Islamic history of the pre-modern world, by medieval Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun), reducing it from its original three volumes to just one.
This work had been groundbreaking in the 14th century, laying the foundations for several fields of study including the philosophies of history, sociology, ethnology and economics.
In the 1970s, Dawood assisted in the development of Arabic desktop publishing systems, working initially with the Monotype Corporation and subsequently with Linotype.
He became active in the voice-over and dubbing field, and his own voice was a familiar one across the Arabic-speaking world. His company eventually became known as Aradco, and continues to be a source of high-quality translations and artwork in Arabic and other languages.
Also during the ’70s, Dawood was to make a lifelong dream come true, buying a house in a small village near Stratford-upon-Avon, so even though his main home continued to be in London, he was able to spend time close to the Royal Shakespeare Theater and see his favorite plays. His knowledge of Shakespeare was encyclopedic, and he loved English literature and the English countryside.
Aware of Dawood’s reputation, Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, approached him in 2006 for help with a key issue that he had encountered while writing his book The Fight for Jerusalem (later to become a New York Times best-seller).
“I told him about the project I had begun about Israel’s rights in Jerusalem in light of the legal and diplomatic struggles that it had undertaken,” Gold told the Post. “I pointed out that in 2000, at the last great summit with [US president Bill] Clinton and [prime minister Ehud] Barak, [PA chairman Yasser] Arafat made a claim that the Temple had never existed. Subsequently [Arafat] said that it was perhaps in Nablus or Yemen if it had existed at all. Clinton reprimanded him, saying, ‘I am a Christian, we read the Gospel, and according to the New Testament Jesus lived in Jerusalem and went up to the Temple, so this is an affront to the Christians also.’ “Temple denial began spreading to [Chief PLO negotiator Saeb] Erekat, [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas and others, such as Nabil Shaath,” said Gold.
He told Dawood he contested this in his book, supporting his arguments with archeological evidence proving the Temple’s existence, “and that this was not just a ‘belief.’” Nevertheless, Gold wanted to see what the Koran had to say about it.
“Nessim asked me if I had studied Arabic. He took out a very old Koran, which was laid out similar to a Talmud, with the text in the center and commentary on the sides, and pointed to the 17th surah, which refers to Muhammad’s journey from the “sacred Mosque” to the “farthest Mosque.”
“We sat and studied together a number of the famous Muslim commentaries including those of “Jalaleyn,” the two Jalals, a great commentator and his son, from the 15th and 16th centuries.
“Nessim told me that many ask the question: ‘Where was the farthest mosque?’ referring to it as Bayt al-Maqdis.
“You can see the similarity to the Hebrew name for the Temple, Beit Hamikdash,” explained Gold. “The point Nessim was making was that if you studied the original Arabic sources, which Nessim lived, Arafat’s claims defied not only Jewish history, but also Arabic tradition.”
“We met repeatedly as I progressed with my book, Gold said. “Every time I would visit Britain I would see him. Once my book was published, a senior Israeli complimented me on it, but I didn’t want to disclose that Nessim had been behind me; there were people in various governments who sent him official documents to translate.
“Nessim was a master of language.”