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the Complete Review
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Sikandar Nama, e bara

(The Book of Alexander the Great)


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Title: Sikandar Nama, e bara
Author: Nizami
Genre: Poetry
Written: ca. 1202 (Eng.: 1881)
Length: 831 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: Sikandar Nama, e bara - US
  • Persian title: اسکندرنامه
  • Translated and with a Preface by H. Wilberforce Clarke
  • Nizami's The Book of Alexander the Great (known variously as the Sikandar Nama or Iskandarnama) has two parts:
    • The Sikandar Nama, e bara or Sharafnama ('Book of Honour'), describing the deeds and life of Alexander the Great as king and conqueror, and
    • the Sikandar Nama, e bhari or Iqbalnama ('Book of Fortune'), describing Alexander the Great's role as philosopher and prophet
  • H. Wilberforce Clarke's translation is only of the first part of the Sikandar Nama. There is, to date, no complete translation of this work.

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Our Assessment:

A- : a classic text, a worthwhile translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Nizami is among the greatest Persian authors, his Panj Ganj ('Five Treasures') all significant texts. Surprisingly, then, he is hardly known or read in English. Little of his work resembles the pithy, malleable verse of Omar Khayyam, Rumi, Sa'di, or Hafiz, easily taken out of context. Nizami's work is generally more substantial, in bulk if not necessarily meaning. One work that would seem of natural interest to a Western audience is the Sikandar Nama, The Book of Alexander the Great. Offering an unusual perspective on the life of Alexander the Great Nizami's work is both biography as well as philosophical tome, a massive work written in verse.
       Persian literature is perhaps the most underestimated in the English-speaking world. The fault lies squarely with Edward FitzGerald, whose famous rendering of the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (see our review) tainted Persian translation for all times. A brilliant achievement, it was also far from a faithful translation.
       FitzGerald had little respect for the Persian authors. "Oh dear," he complained in one letter, "when I do look into Homer, Dante, and Virgil, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, etc., those Orientals look -- silly !" Never fluent in the language he nevertheless had no difficulty disparaging the great Persian authors. His criminal attitude to translation continues to poison to the present day as translators continue to follow his lead. Words he wrote as he worked on a "translation" of Attar's Bird-Parliament are an unacknowledged rallying cry, a slogan for nearly all those that tread down the same beaten path in translating from the Persian:

It is an amusement to me to take what liberties I like with the Persians, who (as I think) are not Poets enough to frighten one from such excursions, and who really do want a little Art to shape them.
       FitzGerald got the Art right with his rendering of the Rubáiyát (written by a poet who was not that highly regarded in Persia itself), but he never managed it again. Few are capable of it, and the mis-translations of other Persian authors now dominate the small bookshelves that their work can be found on.
       A rare example of a different approach is the unlikely H. Wilberforce Clarke. An engineer in British India, he took it upon himself to translate some of the great Persian works, including Sa'di's Bustan (his is the first complete translation) and the first half of the Sikandar Nama, among other works. Acknowledging that "to render the Sikandar Nama in verse, one should be a poet at least equal in power to the author" Clarke emphasized literalness over prettified poetry in his translation. The result is an unusual and not always easy to read version that is as much a gloss on the Persian text, useful for students learning the language, as a straightforward translation. With a great number of footnotes Clarke explains many of the obscurer terms and concepts (not always clearly, as he often refers to other unfamiliar Persian terms and concepts). The text does not read smoothly, but it has an authentic feel, far from the polished English of FitzGerald and his cohorts. It is convincingly Persian, and even if that leaves aspects of the text obscure it is also refreshing and fascinating.
       Modern translators from the Persian like to radically cut away at the texts, leaving out the lengthy invocations and the like that introduce most works which they feel Western readers do not want to be burdened with. The story of Alexander only begins in the fifteenth canto (!) of the Sikandar Nama, but Clarke is true to the original and provides the hundreds of preceding couplets, beginning with the invocation and including two apologues, as well as cantos with such promising headings as: "On the composing of the book", "On the pre-excellence of this book over other books", and "On displaying desire for the joyousness of this tale". Fascinating stuff, it provides valuable insight into the Persian culture and literature of the time, as well as the character of author Nizami.
       The story of Alexander itself is also very well done. Alexander played a significant role in Islamic culture, and Nizami provides a point of view with which Western readers are generally not familiar. As invader and conqueror Alexander had a lasting influence on the region, and Nizami gives a rousing version of his life and his conquests. A curious mixture of history and poetry, heavily stylized in its presentation, it is a marvelous hagiography.
       Regrettably, Clarke did not translate the second half of the text. Less concerned with Alexander's life and exploits Nizami herein explored Alexander's role as philosopher-sage and prophet. Amazingly, this seminal text remains untranslated into English.
       A fascinating and important work, even only this first half is deserving of a greater audience. Clarke's translation, while too literal for some, is also a welcome change from most modern efforts at translation and provides a unique insight into Nizami's writing for those unable to read it in the original. Highly recommended.

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Sikandar Nama:
  • Article about the Sikandar Nama shawl
Other books by Nizami under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Nizami (or Nizami Ganjavi; نظامی گنجوی‎) is the pen-name of Abu Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Zaki Mu'ayyad. He was born in Ganja (in what is now Azerbaijan) around 1141, and he lived there until his death, around 1209. He is author of a number of significant works, including five masnavis collected as the Khamsa ('Quintet') or the Panj Ganj ('Five Treasures').

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