NJ Dawood - obituary
NJ Dawood was an Iraqi-Jewish translator whose lively and poetic English translation of The Koran has never been out of print
NJ Dawood, who has died aged 87, was a translator whose English language version of The Koran, first published by Penguin in 1956, remains a classic and has never been out of print.
When it appeared in the bookshops, few people in the English-speaking world had even heard of The Koran. Previous translations had been so archaic and literal as to be virtually unreadable. Dawood set out to produce a modern translation that would be readily accessible to an uninitiated readership.
To this end he rearranged the original surahs (chapters) into more or less chronological order, to make them easier to understand, in line with the approach taken by the Jewish rabbis and Christian scholars who compiled the biblical canon. At the same time his lively, idiomatic English translation aimed to bring out the poetic beauty and eloquent rhetoric of the Arabic original, giving the reader some sense of why the work has had such power over generations of Muslims.
In his later revisions Dawood reverted to the traditional sequence of the surahs, and he worked constantly to improve, refine and revise the text. His translation was reprinted more than 70 times in several revised editions, most recently in May this year.
Nessim Joseph Dawood was born in Baghdad on August 27 1927 into an Iraqi-Jewish family. His father was a merchant who had served as an officer in the Ottoman army. Nessim’s skills as a translator developed at school, when his Arabic renderings of English short stories were published in Iraqi newspapers.
On leaving school in 1944, he was awarded an Iraqi state scholarship to London University, which had been evacuated from the capital during the war. He therefore studied for degrees in English Literature and Arabic at the University College of the South West, in Exeter.
After graduating, he worked briefly as an English teacher and as a journalist, while toying with the idea of translating Shakespeare into Arabic.
His life took a different turn, however, after he attended a talk by E V Rieu, the translator of The Iliad and The Odyssey and founding editor of the Penguin Classics series. Rieu spoke of a new approach to translation which sought to capture the spirit of the original text and was not just about accuracy but about good writing.
Dawood immediately wrote to Rieu enclosing the prologue to The Thousand And One Nights that he had translated into English from the original Arabic. In the next post he received a letter offering him a contract.
His first translation, The Thousand and One Nights: The Hunchback, Sindbad and Other Tales, was published in 1954 and was so effortlessly fluent that readings and dramatic adaptations were broadcast on BBC radio, recorded by Terence Tiller. A further selection, Aladdin and Other Tales, was published in 1957, also in the Penguin Classics series. In 1973 both books were combined into a single volume, which remains in print.
After publication of The Koran, Dawood enrolled at University College London for a PhD in English, but had to abandon his studies after six months when he could not afford to continue. Instead he began working as a commercial translator, and in 1959 founded his own company, the Arabic Advertising and Publishing Company (now Aradco VSI).
The Middle East was just beginning to develop as a market for Western products and services, and he applied his skills to the translation of advertising copy and other literature for a wide variety of consumer products, including tea, pharmaceuticals, cars and defence equipment.
For some products, Arabic, as an ancient language, did not have the necessary vocabulary, and Dawood played a key role in guiding its engagement with the modern world, coining new words and contributing to specialised dictionaries.
At the same time, Dawood taught himself to create complex hand-drawn artwork, inspired by Arabic calligraphic traditions. He and his colleagues produced designs for Middle Eastern coins, currency, postage stamps, passports and brand logos. He also recorded voice-overs and commentaries for Arabic radio and television.
In Britain, Dawood became a trusted resource for the Ministry of Defence and other government departments in their dealings with the region, and played a central, if unsung, role in helping British exporters at a crucial point in Britain’s relationship with the Arabic-speaking world.
Dawood’s other publications include the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun, which he edited and abridged for Princeton University Press, and children’s versions of the Nights for the Puffin Classics series. He also wrote book reviews and literary articles for The Times.
In the late 1970s Dawood bought a house near Stratford-upon-Avon in order to be close to the theatre. In 1948, as a guest of the British Council, he had attended the official Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations and luncheon in the town. In 2011, attending another commemorative lunch as the oldest surviving guest of that post-war event, he gave a lively account of those earlier celebrations, that season’s productions at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and recalled meeting the young Claire Bloom and Alfie Bass in the theatre bar .
Nessim Dawood married, in 1949, Juliet Abraham, who survives him with their three sons.
NJ Dawood, born August 27 1927, died November 20 2014