The Moral Philosophy of Doni, popularly known as the Fables of Bidpai
To consider this text is to find oneself journeying into the dark backward and abyss of time, since the origin of the fables here translated is the Sanskrit Panchatantra (c 300-400 CE), which is, as one of its innumerable translators observed, the second most translated book after the Bible. The frame story of Panchatantra is the instruction of three stupid Brahmin princes by a court scholar, Vişņu Şarma, who tells them a series of stories about animals which illustrate aspects of practical wisdom and the art of governance. While appearing to be an entertaining collection of beast fables, the text is in fact a 'mirror for princes.' Hence its enduring popularity - hence, also, the fact that it has been subject to endless revision and interpolation.
The version translated by Sir Thomas North in 1568 has come a long way from the original Panchatantra. The Sanskrit text was translated into [End Page 404] Pahlevi by a Persian scholar, Burzoë, in the sixth century, who also expanded it: he is reflected in North's version as the learned 'Berozias' who brought a book of wisdom from the East to his master 'Anastres Castri' (the Shah Chosroes I Anushirvan). Burzoë's now-lost version was translated into Syriac, the Syriac was translated into Arabic, the Arabic into Spanish - we have now reached the thirteenth century. In the centuries that followed, it was also translated into Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, Danish, Icelandic, Dutch, Turkish, Hungarian, French, Malay, and many another tongue. It is thus a relatively late arrival in English.
The version which North translated is that of Anton Francesco Doni, a Florentine man of letters who became a printer, novelist, and academician in Venice. Doni was an intermittently successful hack writer, a popularizer, and in translating the Fables (from Spanish) he was presumably certain of a market for so enduringly popular a text. His is a cut-down and rehashed version of what was originally the first book: of his forty-one tales, eighteen came from the original Panchatantra, sixteen from Burzoë's reworking, and seven from later sources, two of them from Aesop.
North, most famous for his version of Plutarch, was one of the most industrious of Elizabethan translators, translating out of French, Spanish, and Italian, though probably most comfortable in French (the North family produced famous Orientalists in the seventeenth century, but Sir Thomas, in the work under consideration, was not reaching beyond his Italian source). As the editors make clear, his principal interest was in texts which indirectly advised rulers and their counsellors, hence his interest in Doni's compendium. His version of Bidpai is written in good, plain prose, telling the stories with a some degree of verve, and slowing to a more sententious discourse for his moral conclusions.
Beecher, Butler, and di Biase provide an admirable and scholarly introduction of nearly two hundred pages which covers, concisely and clearly, the early history of the text, Doni and his world, North and his world, the genre and purpose of the beast-fable, and the illustrated book in England. The text is also provided with a running gloss, set as footnotes. It is an excellent piece of work in all respects.
Jane Stevenson, Department of History, Aberdeen University