Shadi Rohana: Cervantes and the Arabs (Don Quixote in Translation)

This is the text of a paper given at the the Humanities Institute of the University of California at Santa Cruz on 22 May 2019

The Aljamiado Manuscript, a Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) manuscript from 16th-century Arévalo written in Castilian using the Arabic alphabet. Source:

The story which I’m about to tell you today is the history —or, rather, la historia, which in the Spanish language means both story and history— of how Miguel de Cervantes’ novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, or, in English, The Valorous and Witty Knight-Errant Don Quixote of the Mancha, was translated into Arabic.

Two weeks ago, after I finished writing this first paragraph in my study room in Mexico City, I began reading it out loud to myself to test how it may sound to you. However, back then in Mexico City, as I reached the written word “Quixote,” how it is written in English —Q U I X O T E— my reading was interrupted by the silence of the following question: How am I to pronounce to you, in English, the name of our world-famous caballero? Am I going to pronounce it, here in Santa Cruz, as دون كيهوتِ, as some of my north-American friends do —with an “h” sound in the middle— or the Anglicized دون كْويكْسوتِ, the way many English-language speakers in Britain, to my surprise, still do?[1]

You already know the decision I made— you’ve just heard it, and you know in what language I’m pronouncing the name of our witty and valorous caballero: “Quijote”, in Spanish.

Now, following Cervantes’ gusto of telling a story within a story, I have another story to add. This one is about the common dilemma that English and Arabic readers face when they pronounce name of don Quijote.

For example, an English reader must deal with the question of which English pronunciation is more faithful for the Spanish word Quijote: the Anglicized كْويكْسوتِ, or كيهوتِ (with an “h” sound)?

One might think that the former كْويكْسوتِ is the incorrect form of pronunciation —and كْويكسوتِ might also sound like part of a pretentious joke an educated person is making about the mispronunciation of the name of don Quijote— while دون كيهوتِ (with an “h” sound) is more correct due to its proximity to the language of Miguel de Cervantes.

But there is a certain English-language adjective I remember hearing during my college years here in the United States —an adjective that’s as proper to the English language as any other word of Latin, French, Germanic, Celtic, Arabic, Yiddish, Náhuatl or Taíno origin—, an adjective that maybe some of you have used, at least once, in describing others or yourselves: Of course I’m talking about the English adjective quixotic (كْويكْسوتِك).

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, quixotic means “foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals.” Of course, this adjective, quixotic, has its etymology in the English translations of Don Quixote, first of which was done by the Dubliner Thomas Shelton and was published in London in 1612.[2]

So what is the name of our ingenious don Quijote of la Mancha in English? Is it the somewhat faithful to the Spanish phonetics دون كيهوتِ, or is it دون كْويكْسوتِ, that fictional quixotic character who, through translation, left a lasting linguistic legacy in English? Is it دون كيهوتِ, a name that is always demanding the English reader, or listener, to remember that he or she are reading or hearing a translation from a foreign tongue (in this case, Spanish)? Or دون كويكسوتِ, a fictional character from Spanish lands who bequeathed an adjetive to the English language?

But, now let me go back to our story about the history of the Arabic translations of Don Quixote, which I’m finding myself already telling it to you— for in modern Arabic, as in modern English, we also have two names that we use in order to refer to our knight errant: دون كيشوت and دون كيخوتِ. Similarly to the English دون كْويكْسوتِ and دون كيهوتِ, to differentiate between the two Arabic names, كيشوت and كيخوتِ, is not a mere question of structural linguistics or of phonetic preferences or transliteration. Rather, it is a question that asks us to take into account how issues like politics, literary traditions, linguistic legacies, historical sense and national identity engage with one another; a question which invites us to contemplate what happens when stories are translated from one language to another.

Furthermore, there is a specific aspect to the story of the translations of Don Quixote to Arabic that allows us delve deeper into modern Arab thought and literary practices:

Through its language, characters, geography and what Margit Frenk calls the “fiesta de voces / feast of voices,”[3] the novel Don Quixote demands modern Arab readers —and not just literary translators— to tune their ears and pay a special attention to the presence of what had remained in the Spanish territory shortly after the fall of one of their most splendorous imagined historical episodes: Al-Ándalus.

113 years after the fall of the ناصري Emirate of Granada (or غرناطة), the last Muslim autonomous territory in what later became known as Spain, in 1492, Part I of Don Quixote was published. In 1605, the novel Don Quixote enacts the aftermath of the fall of Al-Ándalus, and evidences that even though the Reconquista was consummated —the “reconquest” of Spain from the Arabs—, the story of Arabic and the Arabs in the Iberian Peninsula is not over yet.

In the words of the Egyptian historian and Andalusist حسين مؤنس, in his introduction to one of Don Quixote’s translations to Arabic in 1957:

He who does not know Cervantes is ignorant of the essence             of Spain, [… of] the value and weight of Islamic                        tradition in Spanish lands.[…] The mind which drew this                singular being [that is, the mind of Cervantes] was neither      a Spaniard nor a pure Westerner, but one that was marbled              with Oriental characteristics, some of which are Arab,               and which left indelible traits in the Spanish soul.[4]

So what are these “indelible traits” that مؤنس mentions which Al-Ándalus left in the Spanish soul, and how were they translated, more than 300 years after, into modern Arabic?

Let’s go to the novel, to chapter VIII, from Part I from 1605:

Long story short, don Quijote is engaged in combat with a Biscayan and both have their swords uplifted in the air and about to split one another in half. However, here the narrator of our story interrupts the battle and says:

But it spoils all, that at this point and crisis the author      of the history leaves this battle impending, giving as             excuse that he could find nothing more written about these                achievements of Don Quixote than what has already been                said.[5]

In other words, the story is over for lack of archival material. But our story doesn’t end here, and we can still feel the heaviness of the book between our hands. All we have to do is to turn the page to chapter IX:

One day —chapter 9 begins— the narrator of Don Quixote —who is not, of course, Cervantes— tells us he is walking about in the streets of Alcaná of Toledo —a market where, as Francisco Márquez Villanueva reminds us, despite the fall of Al-Ándalus a century ago “human continuity of Semitic past has not faded yet.”[6] A little boy comes up to the narrator, wanting to sell some scraps of paper. Recognizing they are in Arabic, the narrator looks about for an Arabic-Spanish bilingual Morisco, whom he easily finds (and the narrator does not fail to add that “even had I sought one for an older and better language —meaning a Hebrew Spanish translator— I should have found” one he tells us, meaning a Hebrew-Spanish translator).[7] The Morisco reads a little of the manuscript, and begins to laugh. The narrator asks him “what are you laughing about?” The Arabic-Spanish speaking Morisco answers: “This Dulcinea del Toboso, so often mentioned in this history, had, they say, the best hand of any woman in all La Mancha for salting pigs.”[8] The narrator tells us he is struck with surprise and amazement since it occurs to him that these Arabic papers may contain the history of don Quijote. He presses the Morisco to read him from the beginning of the manuscript. “Turning the Arabic offhand into Castilian,” the novel reads, the Morisco reads out loud: “History of Don Quixote of La Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian.”[9]

Everything which comes after in the book of Don Quixote that’s in our hands, the narrator tells us, is his faithful telling —that of the narrator— of what the Morisco translated to him from the Arabic to the Castilian from Cide Hamete Benengeli’s manuscript for the price of “two arrobas or raisins and two bushels of wheat.”[10]

As Juan Goytisolo repeated many times, the fact that the story of what became the most celebrated novel in the Spanish language is presented by its author as the translation from Arabic to Spanish by a Morisco from a manuscript written by an Arab historian “is not a mere whim of Miguel de Cervantes.”[11] It is also not mere irony of the many “found manuscripts” which proliferated in the times of Cervantes and whose authenticity was being debated.[12] More importantly, it is not just a literary allusion to how chivalric romances —the ones don Quijote was obsessed with— all pretended to be translations from Greek, Latin, English or even Arabic.

All of this is true: Cervantes was a whimsical writer; he was fascinated by the current “historical” debates of his time and the proliferation of false manuscripts; and his novel Don Quixote contains literary winks from its very first sentence to the last.

But the invention of the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli and framing his book within an Arabic language recently abrogated from Spanish soil, according to Goytisolo,

goes far beyond the anecdote or the mere concession to           the fashion of the day. In fact, it translates the                    existence of an inspiring and deep vein that comes to                      surface all throughout Cervantes’ mental scenery of                    complex and obsessive relations with the Morisco-                         Ottoman world, as well as his fascination with Islam.[13]

Cervantes’ personal story shows the impossibility of him being indifferent to Spain’s Andalusian past and to the present European confrontation with the Ottoman Empire and Islam.

Cervantes, as we know, was a soldier in the ranks of the Holy League that defeated the Ottomans during the Naval Battle of Lepanto in 1571, where his left arm was injured.

Four years after, together wish his little brother, Rodrigo, they were on a ship that was attacked by Ottoman corsairs and were taken to Algiers, where Miguel spent five years in captivity (his brother was released earlier).[15] And shortly after Miguel was released from captivity, he is said to have offered his services as a spy to the Spanish king Philip II during a “commercial” visit he had made to وهران / Oran, in modern day Algeria, in 1580.[16]

In addition, Cervantes lived in a Spain where the “Moros,” or “Moors” in English (a word which does not exist in Arabic) who remained in the Iberian Peninsula following the fall of Al-Ándalus in 1492 became known with the derogatory term “Moriscos,” while the Jews who also remained were referred to as “Conversos.” Overtly, they were Spanish-speaking Christian Catholics, while secretly —and sometimes not so secretly, as in the case of our Arabic-Spanish translator walking about freely in the Alcaná de Toledo— many of them were bilinguals in Spanish and Arabic, practiced the Muslim faith, and could laugh upon hearing that a woman named Dulcinea “had, they say, the best hand of any woman in all La Mancha for salting pigs”— a bad taste joke that can only be understood in reference to the prohibition of eating pork in Islam and Judaism, and which, it seems, remained to be effective among the Moriscos of Catholic Spain.

At the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th —before Phillip the III decreed the definite expulsions of the Moriscos from Spanish soil— there were people in Spain who still held names like Abd el Karim ben Alí Perez, Bencacím Berajano, Francisco Núñez Muley and Juan Pérez Ibrahim Taybili— names which may sound to us today as “hybrid” Arabic-Spanish names, but they were natural during the time of Cervantes;[17] one only had to “look about” for them in the streets, like Don Quixote’s narrator did in the 9th chapter we just read, and they were to be recognized easily, and could even be hired for translation services.[18]

What Juan Goytisolo describes as Cervantes’ “fascination for Islam” runs throughout all of Cervantes’ work (his three plays that take place in Algeria, for example —Los baños de Argel, El trato de Argel and La gran sultana— as well as the “novela ejemplar / exemplary novel” El amante liberal).

But specifically in Don Quixote, however, in addition to the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli and the unnamed Morisco Arabic-Spanish translator, one can find other characters who speak Arabic, who come from Arab or Muslim lands, and others who may or may not be Muslims or Jews— depending on their physical proximity to the eyes and ears of the Inquisitions agents whom Cervantes scatter around his novel, awaiting Moriscos and Conversos’ to make a slip of a tongue that would reveal their true religious identity.

What is fascinating and noteworthy is here we also see Cervantes performing translation through these characters and his protagonist don Quijote.

Take Lela Zoraida, for example, whose story runs through chapters 39 to 41 of Part I. Don Quijote, Sancho Panza, the barber, the priest, Dorotea, Luscinda, Cardenio and don Fernando are all in the famous Mancha inn, when all of a sudden enters a

traveller […] who seemed from his attire to be a Christian            lately come from the country of the Moors [… and] behind               him, mounted upon an ass, there came a woman dressed in               Moorish fashion, with her face veiled and a scarf on her              head, and wearing a little brocaded cap, and a mantle that            covered her from shoulder to feet.[19]

When Dorotea asks the traveler whether this lady “is a Christian or a Moor?” he answers: “In dress and outwardly, she is a Moor, but at heart she is thoroughly good Christian.”[20] When don Fernando asks him about her name, the traveler says “Lela Zoraida.” And hearing the name “Zoraida,” the veiled woman says with displeasure: “No, not Zoraida. Maria, Maria! […] Zoraida macange,”[21] or ما كان شي, Arabic for “it never was,” insisting she is an authentic Christian named María.

And not just the Arab characters of Don Quixote speak Arabic, but the Spanish language itself —that of Cervantes, his narrator, and the novel characters, whether Old or New Christians— is soaked with Arabic proverbs, place names and the famous Arabismos: Spanish words of Arabic origin that were adopted during the foundational years of the Spanish language and identity —years of war and peace with Al-Ándalus—, weather orally or through script, and became as proper to  the Spanish language as any other word of Latin, Iberian or Visigoth origin.

In chapter 67 of Part II of 1615, we find don Quijote himself playing the role of an etymologist while he explains to his squire, Sancho Panza, about the presence of these Arabismos in their Spanish tongue.

“God bless me, Sancho my friend!” says don Quijote in one his delusions of becoming a shepherd after one of his many humiliating defeats, realizing that having chosen to be a knight-errand was not a stroll in the garden:

God bless me, Sancho my friend! […] what a life we shall              lead! What hautboys and Zamora bagpipes we shall hear, what     tabors, timbrels, and rebecks! And then if among all these                different sorts of music that of the albogues is heard,               almost all the pastoral instruments will be there.[22]

Sancho Panza, as in many other previous occasions, asks his lord about words he does not understand. “What are albogues?” asks Sancho, “for I never in my life heard tell of them or saw them.” After explaining to his  squire the meaning of the word, from the Arabic بوق, or trumpet, don Quijote lectures to his squire:

The word albogue [my dear friend Sancho] is Morisco, as are      all those in our Spanish tongue that begin with al; for               example, almohaza, almorzar [sic], alhombra, alguacil,                alhucema, almacen, alcancia, and others of the same sort,             of which there are not many more; our language has only              three that are Morisco and end in i, which are borcegui,                zaquizami, and maravedi. Alheli and alfaqui are seen to be           Arabic, as well by the al at the beginning as by the i they      end with.[23]

“Not many more,” says don Quijote, while, according to Mexican philologist Antonio Alatorre, the number of Spanish nouns, adjectives and verbs of Arabic origin is around 4,000.[24] Here we find don Quijote providing us with a glossary of Arab words in the Spanish language, the way many translators and writers do as appendices to their books.

And not just Spain, for the novel Don Quixote also reflects a European reality of the early 17th century where the Muslims are “the mirror in which [the Europeans] saw themselves reflected and through which they acquired, by contrast, consciousness of their own identity.”[25] The Muslim for the early 17th century Europe was the Other, the “feared and imagined rival unto which the animosities, anxieties, sorrows and yearnings —swept and extirpated— of [Europe’s] intimate self” were to be projected.[26]

In Cervantes’ literary world, therefore, we find Arabs, Turks, Moors, Moriscos, Muslims, Mohammedans, Hagrites and Saracens of flesh and bone, sometimes well defined, sometimes confused— all representing the Other which Cervantes knew intimately in his native Spain, during his captivity in Algiers, and during his army service. He admired them and feared them, combatted against them body to body in sea during the Lepanto, served them and was whipped by them during his captivity in Algiers,[27] and read about them in books about Islam and Muslims that were circulating in Spain and Europe at the time.[28]

But for the modern Arabs of the 20th century, Cervantes’ Muslim and Arabic speaking Other was the Self from a distant past when Arabs used to inhabit what later became European lands; remnants of a utopian Al-Ándalus they yearned for, and whose cultural and literary life they wished to resurrect.

So how did these modern Arabs read their complex old imagined selves —the multifaceted way in which they appeared in Cervantes’ eyes— and translated them “back” to their language, Arabic? Were they able to recognize themselves in Cervantes, and reclaim their presence in Don Quixote? And if the image in which they appear in the novel was in discrepancy with how they imagined their old selves, which were the Arabs more tempted to revise: their past, or the novel?

But before delving into the translations of the novel Don Quixote in Arabic, first of which —as far as I know— was done in the city of تطوان at the half of the 20th century, the story of Don Quixote in Arabic speaking lands begins before the novel’s translation.

The first reference to Don Quixote in Arabic-speaking lands that we know of comes from تستور, a small town in the north of Tunisia, in 1637. Ibrahim Taybili of طليطلة, also known as Juan Peréz of Toledo, writes, in Spanish, about his visit in 1604, in the company of a Christian friend, to a bookstore in Alacalá de Henares, القلعة of Henares, the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes. This visit had happened only few years before Taybili, or Pérez (Ibrahim, or Juan) was expelled from his native Spain together with thousands of Moriscos by the expulsion فرمان of King Phillip III in 1609. Taybili, or Pérez, tells us how, at the bookstore, his unnamed Christian friend had complained with displeasure about how he cannot find any chivalric romances he would have liked to buy. A student who happened to be at the bookstore heard our Morisco’s Christian friend’s complaint, and declared: “Another don Quijote is resurrected!”[29]

Ibrahim Taybili Juan Pérez wrote from his Tunisian refuge in perfect Spanish, his tongue. I am unaware, however, to which degree he knew how to speak Arabic: whether he knew Arabic when he was still in Spain; whether he had to learn Arabic in his Tunisian exile; or he limited his human contact, for the rest of his life, to the large community of Spanish-speaking Morisco refugees in تستور.

As for reading or writing Arabic, one could assume that Juan Pérez knew, at least, the alphabet like many other Moriscos did, as the discovered aljamiado manuscripts of Spanish written in Arabic alphabet indicate; manuscripts that include memoirs, stories, religious texts, poetry and cooking receipts.[30]

What would Ibrahim Taybili think about the way don Quijote’s name was translated into Arabic in the 20th century? As I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, our ingenious caballero has two names in Arabic: دون كيخوتِ, and دون كيشوت. Which, of the two, he would have approved?

I am inclined to think that he wouldn’t have any trouble with neither of the two names, and he would have an equal inclination to the two. The Spanish language in the time of Taybili and Cervantes, before the Royal Spanish Academy of Language was founded, allowed, still, for certain linguistic chaoses and varieties to exist more than we do in our modern times of linguistic uniformities.

In the first edition of Don Quixote, published in 1605, as we see, the name is spelled as in English today: Q – U – I – X – O – T – E. Depending on the reader or speaker’s region or Spanish dialect, the first readers of our novel could have pronounced the title either as كيشوتِ or كيخوتِ— both considered to be correct pronunciation at the time. It was only after the foundation of the Royal Spanish Academy of Language —Real Academia de la Lengua— in 1713, and its decision in 1815 to eliminate the us of the Spanish equis, or ex, as the letter symbolizing the fricative “خ” sound, that more recent editions tilt towards the use of the Spanish jota, of jay.

In modern Arabic, however, the oscillation between دون كيشوت and دون كيخوتِ has nothing to do with how the name of our knight-errand was pronounced in the early 17th century Spain, but to how the novel and character were incorporated into the Arabic letters in modern times before Cervantes began to be translated.

May Arab intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from the literary movement that became known as the النهضة, or the Arab “awakening” or “renaissance,” either read Cervantes’ novel or about it through European languages, mainly French, to which دون كيخوتِ was translated as دون كيشوت. Before Don Quixote was even translated, therefore, the novel and his character were already being discussed, commented, analyzed and mystified by Arab intellectuals, who paid special attention to the Arab and Islamic expression in the novel.

Thus, during the first half of the 20th century, before the novel even appeared in Arabic, we find, for example, the Egyptian Taha Hussein —who was known as the “Dean of Arabic literature,” a Sorbonne graduate and former “Minister of Knowledge” (Education) in Egypt under which public education in Egypt became free— who writes:

The highest example and purest style of the humanities of             all time has been the figure of Alonso Quijano [sic;                     meaning don Quijote[31]]; […] Spain is capable to gather and               synthesize the various elements of human universality                 [because] of its Arab spirit, which bequeathed Spain its e            emotions and gestures.[32]

This quote by Taha Hussein also shows that the Arabs were also not immune to the Romantic approach, of Don Quixote, explicated by Anthony Close.[33]

The circulation of Son Quixote —or, rather, دون كيشوت— in the Arabic letters previous to the translation of the novel was so powerful that future translations could not ignore.

Thus, if we look at the catalogue of the 400-years anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote in 2005, organized worldwide by the Spanish government official body Instituto Cervantes, we find the following titles in the Arabic section:[34]

There are at least three translations I am aware of are missing from the catalogue, translations that, as Jorge Luis Borges would say, did not receive a full blessing from the printing press as they were either unpublished, incomplete, or enjoyed smaller-scale readership among the Arabs.

These three translations can be categorized in three ways: UN sponsored; Spanish Protectorate sponsored; and a personal initiative.

The first two efforts that we know of come from the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar, from the  Maghreb (that is, the Arabic-speaking countries of Western North Africa), during the years of the Spanish Protectorate in the north of Morocco. In 1948, the two Lebanese brothers in law نجيب أبو ملحم and موسى عبّود, who were employers by the Spanish Protectorate as professors and translators in the city of تطوان, finished translating Part I of Don Quixote into Arabic. This translation was commissioned by the recently established United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (the UNESCO). However, for unknown reasons, the translation was never published.[35]

The second translation also came from تطوان under the Spanish Protectorate. التهامي الوزاني —who was a Moroccan historian, novelist, politician and journalist— translated between 1951 and 1966 Part I and the first 14 chapters of Part II of Don Quixote. His translation —written by hand and distributed in nine notebooks— is being kept until this day in تطوان’s Public Library and Archives building,[36] awaiting to be read, studies, edited and published. However, while عبّود and أبو ملحم’s translation never saw the light of day, between December and January of 1951 and 1952 a summary of الوزّاني’s  translation appeared on the pages of three numbers of the تطواني Arabic journal الرّيف, of which الوزاني was the chief editor.

الرّيف journal presented itself to be a “جريدة وطنية ثقافية حرة / Patriotic, Cultural and Free Journal.” However, its proximity to the Spanish colonial authorities at the time was well known. The Spanish coronel Juan Luis Beigbeder, who then acted as chief of Indigenous Affairs for the Spanish Protectorate in the north of Morocco and was responsible for recruiting Moroccan soldiers for General Franco’s Army of Africa during the Spanish Civil War, met with الوزّاني in 1936, the year General Franco launched his coup against the Spanish Republic, and recommended the establishment of an Arabic journal in city of تطوان, which became الرّيف.[37]

The الريف journal’s interest in Spanish literature of the Golden Age, including in translating Don Quixote into Arabic, is partly inscribed within the Spanish Protectorate colonial project which, counterintuitively, was more inclusive in its view of Spain’s past than the Republican left. While soldiers and political leaders of the Spanish Republic and Popular Front, during their war against Fascism and for the recovery of democracy, were chanting xenophobic songs against the “savage” and “uncivilized Moors” from the North of Morocco —and they were leaning on poetic and literary traditions from the days of the Christian kingdoms’ war against the Muslim emirates of Al-Ándalus from the 13th and 14th centuries—,[38] General Franco and Spanish Fascists were less resistant to recognizing Spain’s shared past with their colonial Moroccan subjects, and supporting the Arabic translation of a novel like Don Quixote was part of the their overall effort in recruiting the Moroccan intellegentsia in the war against Republican Spain and the international brigades.

 For the third incomplete attempt to translate Don Quixote into Arabic we return to the Arabic Mashreq (that is, Arabic speaking countries of the East), where there exists much lesser political, cultural and linguistic interaction with Spain than in the Maghreb countries; where الوزّاني’s translation did not have any eco; and where the first Arabic translation of Don Quixote was published by the Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop in Cairo, in 1957. This edition of Don Quixote was translated by عبد العزيزي الأهواني and prologued by حسين مؤنس (which we already read from).

Both مؤنس and الأهواني were among the first Egyptian students to receive a scholarship from Egyptian and Spanish governments to study Spanish language, literature and history. These were the years of Arab independences from British and French colonial rule, and Franco’s Spain sought to establish diplomatic relations with the Arab countries as part of its overall effort for international legitimacy after the Spanish Civil War.[39]

Only الأهواني’s translation of the first half of Part I of Don Quixote were published by the Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop, in 1957. It said that he later completed the translation of the whole novel, but his publisher refused to publish the rest of the translation unless الأهواني modifies parts of the texts that were deemed offensive to Islam and the Arabs. It is said that الأهواني, in protest, quixotically tore up his manuscript of the Arabic Don Quixote and threw it to the trash.[40]

So what these parts that were deemed offensive to Arabs and Islam, and how were they treated by the other translators?

For time considerations here I would like to focus  on one of the translations listed in the Cervantes Institute catalogue, the one by the Egyptian existentialist عبد الرحمن بدوي, first published in Cairo in 1965 by the General Authority of Cultural Palaces of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.

This translation constitutes the first complete published translation of Don Quixote in Arabic —as far as we know—, and which turned into a classic is it continues to be the the most widely read, cited and adapted to other mediums (such as theatre and tv series)[41] all throughout the 20th century until today.

Badawi, also, enjoys a good reputation among Arab intellectuals and readers today due to his activity in the anti-colonial movement, his philosophical and encyclopaedical works, as well as his personal confrontation with the regime of Mu’ammar Gaddafi as a philosophy professor in the University of Libya in Benghazi, which lead to his imprisonment and deportation.

Anthony Close notes how an existentialist approach to Don Quixote emerged within Hispanic thought following the publication of Américo Castro’s España y su historia in 1948.[42] Accordingly, in his general introduction to Don Quixote, Badawi adheres to this current of philosophical thought, describing the novel as “sarcastic” and “existentialist”: while don Quijote, the character, represents for Badawi the “human spirit,” Sancho Panza is the “body, the authentic companion of the spirit.”[43]

In this part of my presentation I would like to present and comment how عبد الرحمن بدوي reproduces in modern Arabic the words and phrases that are the product of the Arab-Islamic presence in the Iberian Peninsula, which I divided to five categories: place names, names of characters, words and phrases that appear in Arabic in the Spanish origin, and identity classification.

Translating Don Quixote to modern Arabic provides the translator with the opportunity to reconstruct the geography of Al-Ándalus as it appears in the Arabic oral and written tradition. Badawi, as we can see in Table 1, “brings back” to Arabic the Spanish place names that are either of Arabic origin or that were Arabized during the time of Al-Ándalus.

However, this method of Arabizing Spanish geography proves inadequate and causes confusion when Badawi translates Spanish Andalucía to the Arabic الأندلس. While Spanish Andalucía refers only to a specific region in the south of Spain, Arabic الأندلس refers to the whole cultural and historical episode of Arab and Islamic presence in the Peninsula, whose geography was never stable.

Berbería, a European term that was used in Spanish to denominate the northern African shore, was translated to Arabic as “Lands of the Maghreb,” that is, the Arab countries of the West. While both terms may coincide geographically, “Lands of the Maghreb” lacks the threatening element “Berbería” used to be charged with as it used to refer the corsairs, or pirates, many of which were “Berbers” who used to hijack European ships.

All names of Arabic origin are Arabized. Even thought they come from the Moorish novel Historia del Abencerraje y la hermosa Jarifa from mid-16th century, Badawi translated the two names of Abencerraje and Abindarráez to their Arab origin: the first to the famous and powerful بني سراج family of Granada during Ándalus times, and the second to ابن إدريس.

In the case of Cide Hamete Benengeli, Badawi presents, via footnote, two possibilities for its translation: the first is Hispanist José Antonio Conde’s hypothesis according to which Benengeli comes from the Arabic ابن الأيلي, “son of a deer” or “hijo de ciervo” in Spanish, as a subtle allusion by Cervantes to himself; the second hypothesis is that of Menéndez Pelayo, who suggests that Benengeli come from Spanish berenjena, or “eggplant,” in reference to a popular joke from the time of Cervantes, according to which the people of Toledo —many of which were of Muslim or Jewish origin— were berenjeneros, or “good at selling  berenjenas, or eggplants.” Badawi, eventually, opts for the first option and alludes to the possibility of Cervantes having learned Arabic during his five-year captivity in Algiers.

The name of Zoraida, which is a possible reference by Cervantes to Isabel de Solís —an original Christian from Castille who converted to Islam in Granada in the late 15th century and adopted the name of Zoraya, or ثريا in Arabic, is translated as ثريا (or ثرية) (the Pleiades star cluster).

The name of prophet Muhammad, however, never appears in the Arabic translation. In the first case, reference to the prophet is completely omitted from the Arabic translation; in the second, the word prophet, نبي, appears, but without the name Muhammad. In addition, in the latter case don Quijote’s accusation of Muhammad as a “false” prophet is also omitted from the Arabic translation, and a translator’s footnote explains how he was forced to eliminate a certain word that “dictated by the criminal fundamentalism” of the time.

The Arabismos offer a living linguistic evidence of the Arab-Islamic presence in the daily, political, social and religious lives of the people of the Peninsula. As stated by Américo Castro: “The Spanish Romantic adopted the Arab words from within his own life, as something imposed by circumstances and not the authority of the [Islamic] rulers.”[44]

Accordingly, Badawi choses to highlight the arabismos for the Arab reader through footnotes that explain their origin, including in cases where the Spanish arabismo and Arabic root are not semantically equivalent, as in the case of the word alférez.

Chapters 39 to 41 of Part 1 of Don Quixote tell the story of the Christian captive who recently escaped “Moorish lands,” accompanied by the Muslim-Christian Zoraida-María. In this episode of Don Quixote, which alludes to Cervantes’ personal experience as captive in Algiers, there appears Arabic words and phrases written in Latin alphabet in which said by Zoraida-María, the captive and the narrator. All these words were naturally incorporated into the Arabic translation —sometimes with a translator’s footnote— and indicate that Cervantes clearly had some knowledge of Arabic.

The word “moro” has been translated to Arabic as “Muslim,” “Moroccan/Maghrebí,” “Marrakechí,” “someone of a religion that is not ours,” and sometimes as “Morsico.” Given the nonexistence of parallel terms in Arabic, the translator took the freedom to use different words that could refer to Arabs, or Muslims, whether inhabitants of the Peninsula (the moriscos) or outside (the moros), according to historical moment.

To conclude, this is part of an ongoing research project, which continues to grow in three aspects:

I discover more and more editions of Don Quixote in Arabic, last of which was recently found by a friend at the Hebrew U Library (probably belonged to a Palestinian family in a Palestinian city), published in Cairo in the early 20th Century. Thought it’s a translation from the French, the title is دون كيخوتِ, and the translator, in a note, explains he chose the “correct” title because “the original Spanish — he found out— can be perfectly pronounced in Arabic”;

I would also like to review Al-Wazzani’s manuscript in تطوان Public Library, and try to get hold of the other translation I mentioned (the one by عبود and أبو ملحم) through Abbud’s granddaughter in Spain. The review of such manuscripts will allow to compare how, through translation practices, the Arab Nahda and its project of creating modern Arabic unfolded in Mashreq vs. Maghreb countries.

There exists a hegemony of the Mashreq over the Maghreb in the Arabic cultural and literary life. As I mentioned, translation was central for the Nahda, and for obvious colonial reasons (Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Irak were French and British colonies), among others, the Mashreq Nahda writers were more at “home” with English and French. However, in the Maghreb, and especially Morocco, the maghrebíes were more at home with Spanish; not only because the north of Morocco was colonized by Spain, but the shared history of “Moors and Christians” in Al-Ándalus. How was this common genealogy, both imagined and real, expressed through translating Don Quixote?

There is also more subtle presence of Arabic in Don Quixote which I didn’t examen, such as narration style the art of story telling… which Cervantes was exposed to during is captivity in Algiers and in his native Spain. This presence, I trust, can be detected by the sensitivity of a modern Arab reader of Cervantes despide the 400 years that separate us.

I read Don Quixote for the first time in a classroom at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters in the National Autonomous University of Mexico, five years ago. In a seminar directed by Margit Frenk, we only read this one book over the period of two semesters: We met twice a week, each student having read two chapters in silence at home; in class, we would discuss the chapters and then read them, again, out loud to each other.

It was an experience of performative close reading of Don Quixote, probably a similar one to the way the novel was read, out loud, in the times of Cervantes (the practice of solitary reading in silence, we should not forget, is recent). [45]

Our reading was a close one not only because we read the novel word-by-word, but also because we encountered a vivid language similar the language spoken to this day in Mexico: many of the footnotes the Royal Spanish Academy of Language edition we were reading has —wanting to explain to contemporary readers the meaning of some bygone words from 400 years ago— are unnecessary for readers in Mexico, where the Spanish language of the 17th century —and, to some extent, of Al-Ándalus— is still very much alive.

Reading the Arabic translations of Don Quixote’s —and I’m here talking as an Arab literary translator who has the experience of reading the novel in Latin America— I was able sense the enormous distance modern translators imposed; or, rather, was imposed on them by the mystification of Don Quixote over the years: a novel that has been excessively romanticized and idealized under a variety of categories (19th century Romanticism, existentialism, “purity of language,” etc.), which created the image of دون كيشوت in Arabic.

The distance between these Arabic translations and Cervantes’ Don Quixote was also imposed by the idealized image of Al-Ándalus in modern Arab thought as a period of a “just” Arab rule that administered Christian, Muslim and Jewish coexistence. Such an image made it difficult to distinguish between “Moro” and “Morisco,” for example, as we saw in Badawi’s translation.

I believe another translation is yet to be done: one that is performative, oral, and which will allow the sensibility of story telling to flourish in a modern Arabic that – as modern Spanish written and spoken – can draw on old Arabic to tell the story of دون كيخوتِ, not دون كيشوت.

The moral of the story (and here I finish): there is no moral. Despite everything I said: you may continue with your lives without reading Don Quixote. If you do read it, however, it might make you a little happier.


[1] “Half of us don’t know how to use Don Quixote: Character tops list of literary names we struggle to pronounce correctly”, The Daily Mail 11 October 2015,

[2] Podcast about quixotic, the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

[3] Frenk, Margit, Cuatro ensayos sobre el Quijote, México: FCE, 2013, pág. 21.

[4] Cited in María de Jesús Viguera Molins’ “El Quijote arabizado”, in De Cervantes y el Islam. Actas del encuentro “Cervantes, el ‘Quijote’, lo moro, lo morisco y lo aljamiado, Nuria Martínez de Castilla y Rodolfo Gil Benumeya Grimau (eds.). Madrid: Sociedad Estatal de Conmemoraciones Culturales, pág. 341. (Quote translated from Spanish to English).

[5] Don Quixote, chapter XVIII, trans. John Ormsby (1885). (Available online through Project Gutenberg,

[6] Márquez Villanueva, Francisco: Moros, moriscos y turcos de Cervantes. Ensayos críticos (Madrid: Bellatera, 2010), pág. 130.

[7] Don Quixote, chapter IX.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] Juan Goytisolo: “Vicisitudes de mudejarismo: Juan Ruiz, Cervantes, Galdós”, in Crónicas sarracinas, Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1989, p. 58.

[12] See Luce López-Baralt’s (in collaboration with Reem Iversen)’s: “The Granada Connection”, in “A zaga de tu huella”. La enseñanza de las lenguas semíticas en Salamanca en tiempos de san Juan de la Cruz, Madrid: Trotta, 2006.

[13] Goytisolo, ibid.

[14] In Viaje al Parnaso, I (1614).

[15] Soler, Isabel: Miguel de Cervantes: los años de Argel, Barcelona: Acantilado, 2016.

[16] Sola, Emilio y José F. de la Peña: Cervantes y la Berbería: Cervantes, mundo turco-berberisco y servicios secretos en la época de Felipe II, México: FCE, 1996.

[17] Alatorre, Antonio: Los 1001 años de la lengua española. Tercera edición, algo corregida y muy añadida, México: FCE, 2002.

[18] “Ethnic differences were not strong enough to clearly differentiate the Morisco community from the Old Christians, although, contrary to what Moorish ballads composed in the sixteenth century seem to indicate, certain physical traits were considered to be characteristic of this group.” (Carrasco-Urgoiti, María-Soledad, The Moorish Novel, Boston: Twayne, 1976.

[19] Don Quixote, chapter XXXVII.

[20] ibid.

[21] ibid.

[22] Don Quixote, chapter LXVII.

[23] Don Quixote, chap. LXVII.

[24] Los 1001 años de la lengua española, ibid.

[25] Goytisolo, ibid., pág. 92.

[26] ibid.

[27] About the punishments Cervantes received during his captivity in Algiers between 1575 and 1580 for his four failed unsuccessful escape attempts, see Isabel Soler’s Miguel de Cervantes: los años de Argel, ibid.

[28] On the disponilility of literature on Islam and the Turks in Spain in Cervantes’ times see Hegyi, Ottamar’s Cervantes and the Turks: Historical Reality versus Literary Fiction in La Gran Sultana and El amante liberal, Newark: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 1992.

[29] Louis Cardaillac: Moriscos y cristianos. Un enfrentamiento polémico (1492-1640), México: FCE, 2004 (trans. Mercedes García Arenal). As Cardaillac notes, Oliver Asín used Taybili’s note to defend his thesis about a possible earlier edition of Don Quixote from 1604.

[30] See López Baralt, ibid.

[31] About the “real” name of don Quijote, see Marigt Frenk’s “Alonso Quijano no era su nombre  [Alonso Quijano was not His Name]” in Cuatro ensayos sobre el Quijote, ibid.

[32] In Martínez y Benumeya, segunda de portada, ibid.

[33] Anthony Close: La concepción romántica del Quijote, Barcelona: Crítica, 2005.

[34] Catálogo en línea de la exhibición “Las traducciones del Quijote’, Instituto Cervantes,

[35] Personal correspondence with Maggie Betancor, granddaughter of موسى عبّود and Rodríguez Sierra, Francisco M., “ضون كيخوطي في الريف: مشروع ترجمة بتطوان في ظل الحماية الإسبانية”, al-Andalus Magreb, Universidad de Cádiz, 2006.

[36] Rodríguez Sierra, ibid.

[37] Al-Jatib, Ibrahim, “Tuhami Wazzani: ¿Renacimiento cultural o etnografía?”, en Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla y Manuel C. Feria Garía (coord.): Orientalismo, exotismo y traducción, Cuenca: Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla – La Mancha, 2000. pág. 143-150.

[38] Goytisolo, ibíd., pág. 37.

[39] Rodríguez Sierra, ibid.

[40] Personal correspondence with Egyptian writer Maher Battutti (28/6/2015). Also, سليمان العطار dedicates his 2002 translation of Don Quixote to الوزاني with the following dedicatory: “معلمي وأبي وروحي، والمترجم الأول لهذا العمل، وإن لم ينشر إلا نصف قسمه الأول رغم ترجمته العمل كاملًا. الجهل لدى الناشر دفعه إلى تمزيق بقية العمل ورفض نشره في ظل تعديلات الرقيب، الذي كان الناشر نفسه”. (p. 11).

[41] The Don Quixote quotes that Mahmoud Darwish inserted in his memoir ذاكرة للنسيان come from this translation, for example.

[42] Close, ibid., pp. 276-277.

[43] P. 5 of the translation.

[44] Américo Castro, España en su historia. Cristianos, moros y judíos. Barcelona: Crítica, 1983.

[45] Margit Frenk: Entre la voz y el silencio. La lectura en tiempo de Cervantes. México: FCE, 2005.