KALILA WA DEMNA ii. The translation by Abu’l-Maʿāli Naṣr-Allāh Monši



ii. The translation by Abu’l-Maʿāli Naṣr-Allāh Monši

The 6th century hejri marks the appearance of a style in Persian prose composition that is called the artistic or ornate prose (naṯr-e fanni or naṯr-e maṣnuʿ).  Prior to the development of this style, that is, from the beginning of Persian literature to the middle of the 6th/12th century, Persian prose writers relied on a straightforward manner of expression.  Sentences were generally short and to the point, loanwords—except for those of a technical nature—were limited, literary artifice was rare, and insertion of Qorʾanic verses, prophetic sayings, dicta, and verses of poetry into prose texts was almost non-existent.  Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a single citation of poetry in all of the volumes of Balʿami’s history or the Persian translation of Ṭabari’s commentary (tafsir) on the Qorʾan, both of which were composed by the order of the Samanid king Manṣur b. Nuḥ (r. 387-89/997-99) before the development of ornate prose in Persian literature (Bahār, II, pp. 69-70; Ṣafā, I, pp. 618-20).  

From the second half of the 5th/11th century, however, literary artifice begins to find its way into Persian prose (Širi, pp. 51-80).  This change of style was motivated, on the one hand, by the influence of the writing style of chancery authors on literary expression, and on the other, by a conscious imitation of the artistic Arabic prose that had begun some two centuries earlier (Homāʾi, I, p. 7; Ṣafā, II, pp. 880-81; cf. Neẓāmi ʿArużi, p. 22).  A wealth of grandiloquent Arabic loan words, strings of synonyms, Persian and Arabic dicta, verses from the Qorʾan, and lines of poetry found their way into prose.  However, it would be incorrect to view the development of this prose style as the outcome of a gradual process.  Like so many other changes in Persian literary tradition, it appeared rather abruptly and was largely due to the genius and personal influence of one man, namely, Abu’l-Maʿāli Naṣr-Allāh Monši (d. sometime between 555/1160-582/1187), whose artful Persian translation of the Arabic Kalila wa Demna revolutionized Persian prose.  

Mojtabā Minovi has estimated that Naṣr-Allāh’s translation of the Kalila was completed sometime between the years 538/1144 and 540/1146 (ed. Minovi, p.).  This estimate is supported by Naṣr-Allāh’s statement that he was translating the book in the 170th year after the beginning of Ghaznavid rule (ed. Qarib, pp. 12-13; ed. Minovi, p. 13).  Assuming that he means 170 years after the ascension of Sebüktegin in 366/977, the time of composition may be placed around 536/1142.  Elsewhere in the book, Naṣr-Allāh refers to the “recent” deaths of the caliphs al-Mostaršed (d. 529/1135) and al-Rāšed (d. 530/1136), and states that he “four hundred and odd years” (čhār ṣad o and sāl) after the establishment (taʾsis) of the caliphate of al-Manṣur (ed. Minovi, p. 23; ed. Qarib, p. 21).  Since al-Manṣur ascended the throne in 136/754, he must be referring to the year 536/1142 or thereabouts.  

Naṣr-Allāh Monši served in the chancery of the Ghaznavid king, Bahrāmšāh (r. 512-47/1118-52), to whom he dedicated his book. He was the scion of an illustrious family of administrators and viziers, all of whom have been praised for their literary skill.  His great-great-grandfather, ʿAbd-al-Ṣamad, moved from his native city Shiraz to Khorasan and entered the service of the Samanid governor, Ḥosām-al-Dawla Tāš (d. 377/987 or 378/988; Bosworth, p. 58).  Although little is known about his life (Nuriān, pp. 6-7), we know that he was a fine administrator and a capable scribe whose eloquence and skill are said to have been superior to those of the famous Buyid vizier and man of letters Ṣāḥeb b. al-ʿAbbād (d. 355/966).  ʿAbd-al-Ṣamad’s son, Aḥmad (q.v.), was trained by his father in secretarial arts and entered into the service of Abu Saʿid Ātuntāš Kvārazmšāh (d. 423/1032), the Ghaznavid military commander and governor of Ḵᵛārazm (Chorasmia, q.v.), in whose administration he rose from a secretary to become his vizier.  The Ghaznavid historian Moḥammad ʿOtbi praises both ʿAbd-al-Ṣamad and his son for their great skill in composing prose and poetry (tr. Jorfādeqāni, pp. 273-75).  Moreover, a number of historical and literary sources applaud Aḥmad’s political abilities (e.g., Bayhaqi, p. 422; tr., I, p. 441; Gardizi, p. 198).  Bayhaqi reports that Sultan Maḥmud was tempted to offer him the office of the grand vizier, but he decided against the idea for fear that, without Aḥmad’s administrative finesse, the important frontier province of Ḵvārazm might be lost (Bayhaqi, p. 468, tr., II, pp. 7-8).  Aḥmad finally was appointed grand vizier during the reign of Sultan Masʿud I (r. 421-32/1031-41), following whose death he managed to secure the throne for his son, Mawdud (r. 432-41/1041-49), who in turn appointed him as the grand vizier, but soon deposed, jailed, and probably poisoned him in prison (ʿAqili, p. 193; Bosworth, pp. 61-62, 72).  Aḥmad’s son, ʿAbd-al-Ḥamid served the Ghaznavid kings, Sultan Ebrāhim (r. 45-92/1059-99) and Sultan Masuʿud III (r. 492-508/1099-1115) for a total of thirty-eight years (ʿAqili, pp. 195-96; Monši-ye Kermāni, pp. 46-47) and was eulogized by the poet, Masʿud-e Saʿd (d. 515/1121), who praised his eloquence, penmanship, and literary skills (pp. 407-9, 902-3). 

ʿAbd-al-Ḥamid’s son, Moḥammad, is the fourth important member of this illustrious family (Nuriān, p. 13).  Eulogies addressed to him are found in the divāns of Sanāʾi and Sayyed Ḥasan Ḡznavi, both of whom applaud his skill in adab (q.v.) and learning (Ḥasan Ḡznavi, pp.125-126, 147-49, 256-61, esp. p. 409; Sanāʾi, p. 606).  Moḥammad’s son, Naṣr-Allāh, a descendant of this line of highly skillful learned administrators, is the author of the Persian version of the Kalila o Demna and the originator of the ornate style of prose in Persian literature.  As such, it is not surprising that his prose should be highly influenced by the secretarial style of expression with all the floridity and self-conscious artifice that he must have absorbed while growing up in the cultural milieu of such a learned family.  In fact, he explicitly refers to the home of “his master” (kāna-ye kvāja-ye man) being a gathering place of the literati of his time, from whom, as a youth, he learned much (ed. Minovi, pp. 15-17; ed. Qarib, pp. 14-15).  ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓim Qarib Garakāni and Mojtabā Minovi interpret the expression kvāja-ye man to mean either an elder brother or a vizier with whom Naṣr-Allāh was associated (ed. Minovi, p. n. 6; ed. Qarib, p. ld), but Nuriān (p. 15) understands it to mean the author’s father.  Naṣr-Allāh served as a secretary in the chancery of the Ghaznavids. He was promoted to the rank of vizier under Ḵosrow-Malek (r. 555-82/1160-86), but, for reasons unknown, he eventually lost the sultan’s favor and was killed while in prison (Šafā, II, pp. 948-49, quoting two quatrains composed by him in prison).

Naṣr-Allāh’s Persian version of the Kalila wa Dimna is not a translation in the strict sense of the term, but a literary creation in its own right.  Its author, descended from a long line of learned scribes and administrators equally at home in Persian and Arabic, created a literary language that did not exist before him.  In a real sense, this language may be viewed as a literary creole, the vocabulary of which was adopted from those of its parent languages, namely literary Arabic and literary Persian.  Its grammar remained Persian, but its artistic rhetorical embellishments were borrowed from the florid style of literary Arabic.  Before Naṣr-Allāh presented this linguistic medium upon the literary scene, it gestated for a long time in the bilingual chanceries of the Ghaznavid and Transoxianan courts.  What should be stressed, however, is that the prose style of the Persian Kalila wa Demna did not evolve gradually from some earlier form of prose.  Rather, it was invented by Naṣr-Allāh, who, drawing on his own family and administrative backgrounds, created it.  The idea that all literary innovations must evolve over time, a relic of 19th-century habits of thought, underestimates the profound impact that an individual may have upon one or more aspects of his society.  Naṣr-Allāh was such an individual.  His innovative prose style soon dominated the literary scene and profoundly influenced every significant literary work that appeared in Persian for nearly four centuries.  Minovi provides in his edition of Kalila wa Demna a list of some thirty-eight such books (pp. yb-yj).  Naṣr-Allāh’s own statement implies that his prose style was something new and unusual for a literary work (ed. Minovi, p. 421).

The considerable difference between the texts of the various Arabic versions of the Kalila wa Dimna and its Persian rendering by Naṣr-Allāh has led some authorities to fault him for being a sloppy translator (e.g., Farzān, pp. 9-15), but others have risen to his defense and have justified his deviations (ed. Qarib, pp. lt-md; ed. Minovi, Introd, p. ).  It appears that two factors contributed to the discrepancies between the Arabic tradition of the book and Naṣr-Allāh’s Persian rendition of it.  First, in all likelihood, Naṣr-Allāh worked from an exemplar that belonged to a lost stemma of the Arabic original (Ḡfrāni, 1971, pp. 60-62, 72).  Indeed, he explicitly points out that he translated a copy of the Kalila that was given to him by a friend, in spite of the fact that he already had several other copies in his library (ed. Minovi, p. 18; ed. Qarib, p. 16).  The fact that he chose this particular codex as his exemplar implies that its text may have been different and, at least from Naṣr-Allāh’s point of view, superior to the texts of his personal copies. What is more, Naṣr-Allāh did not only translate, but rewrote and recreated, the Arabic original by elaborating upon and expanding its content (ed. Minovi, p. 25; ed. Qarib, pp. 23-24). 

The best evidence in favor of the fact that Naṣr-Allāh’s work was seen as an original literary contribution is that it was translated from Persian back into Arabic less than a century after its author’s death.  A manuscript of the Arabic translation, copied in Šaʿbān 727/July 1327 for one of the descendants of Ṣalāḥ-al-Din Ayyubi (Saladin), has come to light (Ḡofrāni, 1971, pp. 64-65).  Naturally, if Naṣr-Allāh’s Persian text was considered to be a mere “translation” of the Kalila wa Dimna, then it would have been absurd to commission a translation of it back into the Arabic, especially at a time when copies of the original Arabic were widely available.  Therefore, the Persian text must have been viewed as an independent literary creation that was valuable in its own right because of the originality of its artistic deviations from its Arabic exemplar.  Interestingly enough, the Arabic translation of the Persian text is also somewhat different from the texts of the existing manuscript tradition of Naṣr-Allāh’s original (Ḡfrāni, 1971, pp. 67-68).  These differences indicate that Naṣr-Allāh may have prepared several redactions of his translation (ed. Minovi, p. ), or at the very least, he may have revised his translation several times; and that the Arabic translation of his text may have been made from a redaction of his work that is no longer extant.  



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(Mahmoud Omidsalar)

Originally Published: January 1, 2000

Last Updated: January 23, 2015