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  • Kalila and Dinna by Nasrullah Munshi
  • Albrecht Classen
Nasrullah Munshi. Kalila and Dinna, trans. from the Persian by Wheeler Thackston. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2019. 187 pp.

Recent scholarship has begun to explore more specific lines of contact between India, the Middle East, and Europe during the late Middle Ages. One most impressive example of global literature already at that time was Nasrullah Munshi's Kalila and Dinna, which made its way to medieval Europe and was available in numerous different translations. It was based on the Indian Pañcatantra. This collection of animal stories in the ancient fable tradition served exceedingly well as a kind of "mirror for princes," and the didactic approach was obviously highly welcomed by, and useful to, aristocratic circles in many different cultures. Despite many adaptations and modifications, in essence, Kalila and Dinna exerted a deep influence on many East and West cultures and can certainly be regarded as a prime example of global literature.

There could be many ways of making this enormously influential collection of fables better known to modern audiences, such as translating it into a modern language, and here into English. Wheeler Thackston draws from the Persian translation created by Abu'l-Ma'ali Nasrullah around 1120, although that one was subsequently replaced several times by newer and more expansive Persian versions, such as the one by Husayn Va'iz Kahifi (late fifteenth century) and by Abu'lFazl (again ca. 100 years later). On the basis of either the Arabic or the Persian version, medieval European poets such as Rabbi Joel, Giovanni da Capua (John of Capua), Agnolo Firenzuola, Anton Francesco Doni, and Anthonius von Pforr created their own rendition, and those in turn became the sources for a variety of early modern translations into a range of other languages.

The original collection often was also called Bidpai Fables, but in Nasrullah's version, we only hear of the Brahman and Raja of India who debate with each other about ethical conflicts and issues. Comparing the many different translations, it proves to be rather complicated and highly confusing to distinguish the 'original' from subsequent renditions. Thackston translates in essence Nasrullah's version, published by Mujtabā Mīnuvī-Ţihrānī in 1983 (in a previous [End Page 221] footnote [6], listed as published in 1964), but he also draws from the Arabic version edited by Louis Cheikho (1905, rpt. 1981), whereas he deletes many quotations of Arabic poetry included by Nasrullah. The issue of authenticity of the available text thus remains rather murky, so it proves to be helpful that Thackston begins with a concordance of the tales as they appear in the ancient Sanscrit (Pañcatantra), in Syriac, Arabic, medieval Persian (Nasrullah) and late medieval Persian (Kashifi).

In short, there is a lot of confusion, and the present English translation does not necessarily clarify this complicated situation. The translator offers first Nasrullah's preface, then the preface by Ibn alMuqaffa and the one by Buzurjmihr Bokhtagan, who is introduced only in a footnote as advisor to the Persian kings Kavadh I (d. 531) and Chosroēs I Anoshirvan (d. 579). This can only be the physician named Burzoë whom Thackston mentions at the beginning of this book as the author of the Middle Persian translation, but how can it be that here we face his preface, whereas Thackston claims that Burzoë's work has been completely lost (ix)? This is then followed by the latter's testament, but we do not learn anything about the critical edition. Thereupon follows the body of the text, but there are no explanatory notes, no references to relevant scholarship, and we are missing a bibliography or an index.

It would have been extremely important if Thackston had made transparent his translation method, that is, whether he rendered the Middle Persian text literally, or more freely. In fact, the translator took quite a bit of liberty in dealing with his source text, eliminating passages that are "insolubly problematic." He follows here the model of Kashifi who had already deleted them, which leads Thackston to the conclusion that "these places in the text were already corrupt in his time" (xvi). The general reader might...


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