Reading Munqidh in English

There are two really useful English translations of Ussama ibn Munqidh’s memoirs: Paul M. Cobb’s The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades (Penguin, 2008) and Philip K. Hitti’s An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usamah Ibn-Munqidh (Columbia University Press, 2000). They are both substantial in their own ways, though they cover mostly the same materials. There is greater precision in Hitti’s translation, whereas in Cobb’s there is somewhat more readability for the twenty-first century reader. Hitti’s employment of terms is at times either highly technical or archaic by today’s standards. The reader can learn new words and expressions from Hitti, where in Cobb’s there are instances that sound like literal translations of Arabic expressions. (Hitti’s first appeared in the 1920’s to be fair to him and to Cobb; Hitti was also a native Arabic-speaker.) This is also present in Hitti’s and in his case but for whatever reason they are less awkward. In Cobb’s translation there is less zest; Hitti’s writing, be it in translations or in his own narratives, always carries an exciting tone. Cobb’s is somewhat better organized than Hitti’s; it is neater and can be used more readily for quick selections. There is more mastery in Hitti’s but somewhat more utility in Cobb’s. Cobb covers slightly more  territory than Hitti (though not by much) — his is somewhere in the area and Hitti’s is a little more than half of that (though more in older additions, and page length is not the best way to gauge that) –which gives the book more general application. Penguin Classics made no mistake with Cobb, though contemporary expectations for what is readable appear to hold back what is really trying to come out from the Arabic (This also seems to be in other Penguin Classics translations; the Akhmatova collection, though this reader has no Russian, other translations indicate that there might be more energy in the original word than on the page). Hitti’s translation is far better in substance than Cobb’s — there is greater clarity in his word choice, and it is clear that the purpose is the presentation of the story and the beauty (and sense) of the language as dual purposes, rather than the one before or over the other. This is adab afterall, not meant to be laborious or dry. The Book of Contemplation comes more readily to general readers, and because there is hardly anything else like it on the general market (one sometimes gets lucky and finds Hitti’s on the bookshelf instead). People studying Arabic should find the originals (there are some sites online with selections, and some books, hard to purchase but less difficult to come across in most major academic libraries with Arabic books) and read both. Those not so thoroughly invested should pick out either one while keeping in mind that the real (translated) classic is An Arab-Syrian Gentleman in the Period of the Crusades.

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