A new translation of Kalilah wa Dimnah

David Tresilian , Tuesday 27 Sep 2022

The mediaeval Arabic animal fables of Kalilah wa Dimnah have appeared in a new English-language translation.

Kalilah wa Dimnah
Kalilah wa Dimnah


Many authors from different cultural traditions have written stories featuring talking animals, no doubt attracted by the idea of breaking down the wall of silence that separates us from the animal world. Some animals seem to be able to understand us, at least in a limited way. How rewarding it would be if we could understand them too.

The Arabic tradition of animal stories is perhaps less well known than some others, not least the Graeco-Roman tradition originating with the fables attributed to the ancient Greek writer Aesop who lived in the 6th century BCE. But as Michael Fishbein points out in his splendid new translation, done with James Montgomery, of Kalilah wa Dimnah, animal stories produced by the Arab writer Ibn Al-Muqaffa in the 8th century CE and featuring two jackals by those names, anyone who is familiar with the famous animal fables of the French writer Jean de La Fontaine will already know some of the stories in Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s collection.

Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s stories, themselves translated from Persian from an earlier Indian collection, were taken up by others at an early date, appearing in Syriac and Greek translations in the 11th century and then in Spanish, Latin, Hebrew, and Italian versions. “Each of these translations was made independently from different forms of the text,” Fishbein says, creating a thicket of variants to puzzle later editors. They were followed by translations “into German (from Latin), Ottoman Turkish (from Persian), and other languages.”

By the time La Fontaine came to put together his collection of animal fables in the late 17th century, multiple versions of Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s collection were circulating in various European and non-European languages. La Fontaine read a Latin translation of a Greek version of Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s Arabic collection that appeared a few years before the publication of his own fables, borrowing 20 stories from it including the “Tortoise and the Birds,” “The Fish and the Cormorant,” “The Frogs who Desired a King,” and “The Cat and an Old Rat” in so doing.

While Fishbein does not say so, La Fontaine was also not the only European author to borrow from or translate Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s stories. The first English translation, done from an Italian version, appeared in 1570 from Sir Thomas North, whose translations of the ancient Greek writer Plutarch were used by Shakespeare as source material for his Roman plays. Might Shakespeare have read Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s fables in North’s translation? The first French translation, aside from La Fontaine’s borrowings, was done by Antoine Galland, the first European translator of the Thousand and One Nights, who used a Turkish version.  

While this complicated situation helped European and other audiences to become familiar with some of Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s fables, even if they may not have been aware of their origin, it did not help their author to become better known or for his book to appear in a coherent version. When the first printed edition of the Arabic text of Kalilah and Dimnah   was produced by another Frenchman, the orientalist scholar Sylvestre de Sacy, in 1819, the copy text was taken from an Arabic manuscript in the French national library.

Other manuscripts have since been found that differ from that used by de Sacy, with their discrepancies, Fishbein says, suggesting that even at “the time of the earliest surviving manuscripts, Kalilah and Dimnah had ceased to have a single authoritative text.”

“The connoisseurs of Arabic literature who oversaw the copying of Kalilah and Dimnah for their own or their patrons’ libraries, or for general circulation, felt free to adapt the text to their own interests and literary tastes or to those of their patrons and audiences,” he adds. “Passages were sometimes omitted, sometimes expanded, [and] the flexibility of Arabic syntax was exploited to rephrase a given passage in a variety of ways.”

Fishbein refers to what he calls the “odyssey” of Kalilah and Dimnah in the introduction to his translation, since, rather like the stories in the Thousand and One Nights, those in Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s collection travelled a tremendous distance from their first publication in mediaeval Baghdad, even setting aside their Indian and Persian origins. Also like the Nights, they then left their mark on European literature through processes of translation and adaptation, eventually entering the canon of world literature.

While Ibn Al-Muqaffa was a well-known author who consciously shaped his books for an elite audience, in this way differing from the anonymous authors of the Nights who collected stories originating in oral form, he uses narrative techniques that will be familiar to any reader of the latter collection. He substitutes animals for the human narrators of the Nights, but he employs the familiar device of the frame story within which others are set, creating the familiar pattern of story within story within story.


TALKING ANIMALS: Before entering into the first sequence of stories, Ibn Al-Muqaffa includes a set of prefaces that testify to the seriousness with which he wishes his stories to be taken and emphasising their written character.

The first preface explains how the book, originating in India, came to be translated into Persian from which the Arabic version was made. The second, the more famous, sets out how Ibn Al-Muqaffa wishes the fables to be read.

“This book is a work of parables and stories composed by the people of India, who sought to incorporate into it the most eloquent speech they could find in the style they preferred,” he says. They “put eloquent and elegant language into the mouths of animals and birds. This enabled them to accomplish a number of things: they found a way to speak indirectly and to communicate through implication. Because such a book combined entertainment with wisdom, the wise would study it for its wisdom, and the simple for its value as entertainment.”

He tells readers that “the first requirement for anyone studying this book is to begin with a careful, deliberate reading: the objective should not be to get to the end of the book, but to uncover its meanings and to understand and reflect on what is being read. No one will benefit from the book if his sole concern is to reach its end without thoroughly understanding what he is reading.”

There is to be none of the skim reading or cherry picking practiced by La Fontaine and others, plucking out stories for their own anthologies. The book has to be read in the proper order, Ibn Al-Muqaffa says.

The serious reader “shouldn’t pass from one thing to the next until you thoroughly understand the first thing: don’t try to get to the end before you know the beginning.” Even more importantly, “you must not assume that if you have read the book through and know its outward sense you are done with what you need to know. You must realise that the book has an inner meaning still to be learned and that you will not benefit from the outward sense until you have become acquainted with the inner meaning – just as unshelled nuts bring no benefit until you crack them and extract their kernels.”

All this can make Kalilah and Dimnah sound rather heavy going, but rather like Aesop, who also appended explicit meanings to his (much shorter) fables, Ibn Al-Muqaffa wanted his stories to be read on different levels, with the first intended to amuse and delight.

The first sequence, “The Lion and the Ox,” exemplifies this intention while also introducing the eponymous main characters, “two jackals, one named Kalilah, and one named Dimnah. Each was clever and intelligent, but of the two Dimnah was greedier, more ambitious, and less contented.”

Noticing that the king of the animals, the lion, is out of sorts, they discuss whether they should inquire further. “’Why are you asking,’ said Kalilah… ‘We’re not the sort of people who converse with kings, discuss their affairs, and inquire into unknown matters. Anyone who interferes in things that are none of his business will suffer the same fate as the monkey.” He goes on to illustrate the moral with the first of the inset tales, the story of the “Monkey and the Carpenter,” with the monkey suffering as a result of his curiosity.

While Kalilah and Dimnah generally use stories to express their meaning, they are not afraid to ponder general rules. “If this is your plan,” Kalilah tells Dimnah, “I must warn you about the dangers of associating with rulers,” in this case the lion king. “Scholars say there are three things that only fools attempt and from which few escape unscathed: associating with rulers, trusting women with secrets, and drinking poison.” A ruler is like a “steep, rugged mountain where all sorts of pleasant fruit grow, but which is home to lions, leopards, and every kind of ferocious beast – the ascent may be difficult, but staying there is harder still.”

They are fond of lists – “three things, they say, can be accomplished only with knowledge,” Dimnah remarks. “Serving a ruler, sailing the seas as a merchant, and fighting an enemy.” They like occasional apothegms – “no one, however lowly or insignificant, is without some use,” he says, reflecting on his own relation to the lion king. “A twig thrown on the ground can be used to scratch an itchy ear.”

When they want to drive home a particular point, they introduce an inset tale, the “Fox and the Drum” illustrating the idea that “not all noises are to be feared,” for example, or the “Crow who Outwitted a Cobra” that “many a small, weak creature has accomplished by cleverness, intelligence, and cunning what many strong, powerful creatures were unable to achieve.”

Some of the tales illustrate virtuous behaviour, such as the story of “Ring Dove” in the third sequence, not told by Kalilah or Dimnah, which illustrates the importance of friendship. Others carry a warning against treachery or betrayal (“How the Wolf, the Crow, and the Jackal destroyed the Camel”) or against being too clever by half (“The Heron, the Snake, and the Mongoose”) or against trusting in authority (“The Partridge, the Rabbit, and the Pious Cat”).

Reflecting on the moral lessons to be found in Kalilah and Dimnah in his introduction, Fishbein says that while “faithfulness, truthfulness, and trust receive their share of praise” in the stories, “the dangers of life in this world are illustrated… through characters who are scheming, ambitious, and unscrupulous.” Generally, however, they are at least easy to identify, if only in retrospect.

His translation is based on a 15th-century manuscript in the British Library and aims at a “natural style.” As is customary in the series from which the translation comes, it is accompanied by a facing Arabic text edited from this manuscript. This makes for a fairly hefty hardback volume in which the small print used can strain the eyes. Many English-speaking readers may want to wait for the English-language only version of this delightful new translation of a major text of classical Arabic literature, presumably to be expected in paperback soon.


Ibn Al-Muqaffa, Kalilah and Dimnah, translated by Michael Fishbein and James Montgomery, edited by Michael Fishbein, New York University Press: Library of Arabic Literature, 2022, pp430.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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