An English translation of Brockelmann’s “Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur”!

If you want to know what texts exist in Arabic, then the classic resource is Carl Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, published in seven volumes, in a terrible, disorganised, highly abbreviated format, starting in the 19th century.  This is essentially unreadable, even if you have good German. The first 2 volumes are the original edition; there are 3 volumes of supplements; and then 2 volumes of a revised edition which refers to both the original and the supplements.  It is a monster work of scholarship, but quite unusable.  Paula Skreslet wrote:

Specialists in Islamic literature must make the effort to become conversant with Carl Brockelmann’s classic of Orientalist scholarship, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur. It is partly a narrative history, but chiefly an encyclopedia of entries on individual Arab writers and their work. Vol. 1 is organized chronologically, then by type/genre of literature (or subject matter), then geographically; vol. 2 organizes first by chronology, then geography, then genre or subject. Indexes for authors, titles, and the European editors of texts arc found in the third supplemental volume (after the entries on the modern era up to 1939). Even those who read German easily find Brockelmann’s work challenging to use, thanks to his difficult systems of abbreviation and transliteration, the lack of cross-references, the relationship between the supplements and the original volumes, and the proliferation of addenda and corrigenda.[1]

I commented on some of its failings back in 2011.  I have since learned that this was not the fault of the author, but of an unscrupulous publisher who forced all this upon him.  But it was obvious that something better was needed, and in English.

What I had not known until last night was that Dutch translator Joep Lameer has done just that.  He’s translated the lot into English, reorganised it, de-abbreviated the text, and generally cleaned it up and brought it up to date.  This is no small task, as I discovered when I attempted to do this for the various literary lives of Mohammed. What a hero!

His translation is titled, “History of the Arabic Written Tradition”, and is available from Brill here, for about $50 a volume.  That’s cheap for most of their works, although still a lot for independent scholars; but if you’re working with Arabic at all, the book is an essential reference and you will just have to take the hit.

  1. [1]Paula Youngman Skreslet, Rebecca Skreslet, The Literature of Islam: A Guide to the Primary Sources in English Translation, (2006), p.xiii-xiv.  Preview.

Brockelmann’s GAL translated into English??

Anybody who wants to know anything about Arabic literature must rely on the seven-volume textbook by Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur.  The work lists the authors and their works from the beginning in the 6th century down to modern times, with a bibliography for each.  Unfortunately the work is a complete mess, with inscrutable abbreviations and so on, mainly because Brockelmann fell into the hands of a swindler who cheated him badly in the publication.  But it is all there is.  It is possible to find all of it online these days; but it is in German, and it is quite unreadable.  (Christian Arabic literature was omitted).

Imagine my delight, therefore, to hear from Prof. Joep Lameer, that he has been producing an English translation.  This is appearing through Brill.  Better yet, he is fixing some of the most baffling features:

The present English translation reproduces the original German of Carl Brockelmann’s Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur (GAL) as accurately as possible. In the interest of user-friendliness the following emendations have been made in the translation: Personal names are written out in full, except b. for ibn; Brockelmann’s transliteration of Arabic has been adapted to comply with modern standards for English-language publications; modern English equivalents are given for place names, e.g. Damascus, Cairo, Jerusalem, etc.; several erroneous dates have been corrected, and the page references to the two German editions have been retained in the margin, except in the Supplement volumes, where new references to the first two English volumes have been inserted.

An introduction by Jan Just Witkam – who in a Brill reprint of Brockelmann explained finally why the GAL was such a mess – is a very welcome addition.

Dr Lameer has not tried to rearrange the material – a very wise decision.  Just getting it into usable form is quite a massive enough undertaking.  He writes:

I’ve been working about three years on this, full time. It was quite a job, I can tell you! I expect that by the end of Q2 2018 the whole thing will be done.

This marvellous undertaking may well spark a renaissance of studies of Arabic literature.  For the first time it becomes possible for ordinary people to get a handle on what exists.

So far there are 3 volumes on the Brill website; the first two volumes of the original edition, and the first volume of supplements.  But I understand from Dr. L. that a fourth volume is complete and with the publisher.

I would go and buy a set at once myself.  I would recommend that everyone do so.  Except… volume 1 alone is $210.  The ebook is the same, which is cheeky.  Online access is $3,500, although of course this is intended for libraries who get grants for such things.

If I understand how the project was structured then Brill are genuinely trying to recover some significant costs here.   That is quite understandable.  It is wonderful that the project has been undertaken at all.  But once those costs have been recovered, would it be too much to ask that they consider producing the volumes at $25 each in paperback?  Let a million copies be sold!


The awful history of Brockelmann’s GAL (and why it is in the state it is)

Six years ago, I wrote a post in which I roundly attacked Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Literatur for its copious failings.  Today I discovered online a piece which explained exactly why it is the mess it is.

Would you believe: it’s because of German copyright law?

The article that I found by Jan Just Witkam, “Brockelmann’s Geschichte revisited”, turns out to be the preface to a 1996 reprint of Brockelmann.  The story is rather a racy one!

Carl Brockelmann had always wanted to publish an updated reprint of the first edition of GAL. Alongside his numerous other activities he had recorded additions and corrections in his interleaved copy of the edition of 1898-1902. That first edition was published by E. Felber, a small publisher in Weimar and later in Berlin. He had agreed to publish Brockelmann’s edition of Ibn Qutayba’s ‘Uyun al-Akhbar on the condition that he would have the right to publish another work by Brockelmann which would yield him more profit than Ibn Qutayba. Brockelmann agreed and offered him his GAL, a project about which he had already been thinking for quite a while. This decision would have far-reaching consequences for generations of students of Arabic literature. Felber proved to be a crook and Brockelmann was not his first or only victim. When the typesetting and printing of half of the first volume of Ibn Qutayba’s text had been completed, the work was stopped and Felber disappeared. Some time later he re-emerged and fulfilled his engagements albeit in a reduced form, restricting the publication to four volumes, whereas Brockelmann had had ten volumes in mind. Brockelmann was forced to pay if he wanted the work to proceed, a classic trick. To appease Brockelmann’s anger for a while Felber gave him a typewriter, his first. Brockelmann grudgingly accepted it. GAL, which in the contract with Felber was Brockelmann’s subsidy to finance the Ibn Qutayba edition, was printed more or less simultaneously with the Ibn Qutayba edition, but instead of the one thousand copies which he was allowed to produce. Felber had three thousand copies printed, thereby cashing in for himself on a possible second and third edition. Three thousand copies is quite exceptional for any Orientalist publication where print runs usually do not exceed a few hundred copies. But there was more mishap to come. During several involuntary peregrinations. Felber (who was always on the run from his creditors and authors) had lost part of his stock, the printed sheets of about half of the second volume of GAL. Complete copies of GAL. became a rare item and it took a long time before Felber made a photographic reprint of those lost sheets. GAL thereby became a work that, for many years, one could only procure through the antiquarian book trade, if at all. Later on. it was also Felber who hindered the publication of a new edition, since he had so much old stock left. Recourse to juridical action by Brockelmann was to no avail. The German copyright law apparently could not be applied. The book was considered a commodity that, once sold, transferred ownership. The author, who in such a situation was considered to be the former owner, could never again exercise a right to his work. The only way to regain the rights on the book was if someone was to buy the entire remaining stock. During Felber’s lifetime this proved to be impossible, and also after Felber’s death the successors to his estate asked such an extravagant price for the remaining copies of GAL that this possibility proved to be impractical.

Brockelmann then found the director of Brill’s of Leiden, Mr. Th. Folkers, ready to publish the additional data in three supplementary volumes, which appeared between 1937-1942. In order to maintain the connection between the original two volumes and the three supplements, the page-numbers of the original edition were constantly referred to. At the end of each supplementary volume, additions and corrections to the original edition were included. The indexes in the third supplement had references to both the original two volumes of 1898-1902 and the three newly published supplements.

It was only after the publication of the third supplementary volume that it became possible for Brill’s to acquire the rights to the original work. Then nothing stood in the way of an updated second edition of the two original volumes. With ample reference to the supplementary volumes these were published in 1943-1949.

The pagination of the first edition of GAL had been the source of reference for the supplementary volumes and they had been included in the indexes of the supplements. Now, in the new edition of the two original volumes, it was to be that same, old, pagination that would be used. This is why the new edition of the two original volumes has the page-numbers of the first edition retained in the margins. And it is to those marginal page numbers that the indexes of the entire new set refer. It is all perfectly logical if one takes the printing history of the book into account, but for the newly initiated bibliographer it is a source of bewilderment and confusion.  The use of the marginal page-numbers is, therefore, not just an innocent peculiarity in which Carl Brockelmann indulged, but a complication imposed upon each and every user of the book, now and in the future.

As I have commented before, German copyright law is a menace.  It is a menace because it appears to be drafted entirely with the interests of publishers in mind, and with no regard to the public interest.   The dominance of Germany in the EU means that this evil system has been exported throughout that unhappy region.

We still need an English language translation of Brockelmann.  But who would do it?  And who, given the copyright nasties, could do it?


From my diary

I’m trying to discover whether there is knowledge anywhere that Ibn Abi Usaibia (d. 1207) did, or did not, produce two editions of his great work, The History of Physicians.  The reason that I want to know is the existence of a supposed quotation from Porphyry, extant in a version of the text different from that translated by Kopf, presumably from the Muller edition.

The obvious place to look is Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur.  I believe that I have expressed my opinions of this mess of a book at some length in the past.  Briefly, B. produced his book in 2 volumes in 1898.  Then, during the 20’s, he produced 3 volumes of supplements for it.  Finally in the 30’s he produced a second edition of the original 2 volumes, complete with references back to the 3 volumes of supplements, which themselves refer to the pages of the 1st edition.  So you need all 7 volumes to find anything.

It’s a mess, in short.  I once decided to translate the stuff on early biographies of Mohammed.  It really is not possible to assemble all the material on one topic into one narrative – or, at least, it wasn’t for me.

And for reasons we can hardly imagine, the editors allowed him to abbreviate virtually every name and every other word, in the certain knowledge that few would understand the abbreviation.  To use the GAL as it is known is to know suffering.

Now the supplements and the first volume of the 2nd edition are online at the Digital Library of India site (and good luck to working out how to download them; but I managed it, once, so you can also).  The other two are at Google books, in a low-resolution form.  I was able to get to print me a copy of the 2nd edition volume, plus the first supplement (split into two halves, because of size limits at Lulu), and these, fittingly in a green cover, stand on my shelves.  And … they don’t contain what I want.  They contain sections on medicine; but no entry on Ibn Abi Usaibia (or “b. a. Us.” as Brockelmann unhelpfully calls him).

I’ve just looked through my PDF of vol. 1 of 1st ed; nothing.  I wonder if there is an index at the end of vol. 2…?  And there is!  And … it is in some mysterious non-alphabetical order!  And abbreviated heavily too!  Which means … I can’t find the name in here either.

Boy, it all eats time!

He must have an entry … somewhere … mustn’t he?


From my diary

This evening I had another go at the web version of Brockelmann’s notes on the authors who give the history of Mohammed.  It is a mark of how bad Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur is, as an organised source for information, that I have still not managed to get the stuff into some format that I can upload.  The way in which the second edition refers to the supplement to the first, and the supplement to the first supercedes what is written in the second edition, is almost impossible to handle.

I’m making progress, tho, although I have spotted yet another area where a bit from the supplement needs to be translated and included.  It is almost impossible to reproduce what the GAL contains, tho.

I’ve also been making an effort to work with Microsoft’s Expression Web4.  It’s a lot like Dreamweaver; and, like Dreamweaver, the WYSIWYG editor is rather substandard; much less good than Microsoft FrontPage.  Unfortunately FP2000 won’t handle unicode characters very well, and the Brockelmann is stuffed to the jawline with overscores and dots and funny characters!


From my diary – translation projects and other things

The July sales figures (through Amazon) for Eusebius’ book on differences between the gospels (and how to resolve them) have arrived and are encouraging.  I still haven’t launched an online marketing campaign, yet we sold more in July than in June.  Interestingly most of these seem to have been hardbacks.  The purchasers certainly got a good deal — those hardbacks are impressive! — but I wouldn’t have expected that.

I’ve had another attempt at my project to translate Cyril of Alexandria’s Apologeticus ad imperatorem.  A sample couple of pages have arrived from the translator, and I passed them to Andrew Eastbourne for comment.  His verdict was decidely negative, unfortunately, which is a great pity.  But I need to read his review in detail, which I won’t do this evening.

The postman brought me a large parcel containing two volumes which together make up Brockelmann’s Supplement 1 to his history of Arabic literature.  I created these for personal use from a rather poor PDF, making sure they had wide margins, and the results are more than satisfactory.

While looking at the Greenhill papers on Galen — mentioned in yesterday’s post — I noticed that in several cases the books had been (re)bound, interleaved with blank pages, so that notes might be made on them.  Perhaps I should try doing the same with some of these PDFs!

This practice of interleaving is something that you never see today; yet I remember talking to an academic who told me that the late L.D.Reynolds, editor of Texts and Transmissions, had a copy of his own book made for him with interleaved blank pages by Oxford University Press so that he could scribble notes in it.  Clearly it is still possible.

The Royal College of Physicians library wrote back to me today about those Greenhill papers, containing stuff on Galen’s works in Arabic.  They don’t allow photocopying of material more than a century old — and who can blame them? — but they do allow the use of digital cameras.  Good for them!  They’re closed until 15th August, but I must look at getting down there and browsing the material.

I’ve also been reading Walzer’s book Galen on Jews and Christians.  It’s a curious performance, but I am learning some interesting things from it.  A post will doubtless be forthcoming in due course.  The most interesting thing that I have seen so far is that all the passages are extant in Arabic translation, but two of them are only extant in Arabic.  Walzer seems to think that no question of authenticity arises, which seems surprising given the tendency of Arabic authors to elaborate, but doubtless he will explain why.

Last night I did some more work on my version of Brockelmann’s remarks on early Arabic writers about Mohammed (and, when it’s 25C in your bedroom and very humid, you’re not going to be sleeping, so why not use the time?).  I also started searching for web versions, and found some.  I will include links to these in the final version.  I did discover that the Digital Library of India held copies of the journal Islamic Culture, which in 1927 and 1928 has some important articles on this subject.  I just wish their site was quicker and easier to use!  For Arabic culture, the publications in India in the 19th century are important, and I suspect few of us have ever visited the DLI site or downloaded its curious download tool.

Today I was able to discover that Guillaume’s English translation of ibn Ishak is online in page images.  This evening I hope to download it.  The book is a reconstruction of this lost early biography, based on quotations in Ibn Hisham and al-Tabari.

Finally, and on a lighter note, I have just checked my inbox, and received a job advert for a contract IT support engineer role in Afghanistan, paying about average UK rates.  Length of contract is 20 months. 

Evidently I need to be nicer to recruitment agents when they phone.  Who knew that one of them was trying to get me shot!