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The European Reception of 'Kalila wa-Dimna', XIIIc–XVIIc

Rachel's project offers a comparative, ideological and materially-focused analysis of the European reception of a famous Arabic collection of exemplary fables known as Kalila wa-Dimna by examining a selection of its medieval and early modern vernacular translations. 

Kalila wa-Dimna was itself not an original work but rather a translation of a translation. The text on which it is partially based was the Panchatantra, which had its roots in a popular eastern tradition of storytelling associated with wisdom manuals. This collection of fables originated in India in the fourth century and underwent a complex process of transmission via Persian, Syriac, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, Turkish, German, Castilian, Italian, English, and French (to mention only some of the languages into which it was translated). It was highly influential, contributing to the development of vernacular prose fiction and directly influencing major authors such as Boccaccio, Chaucer, Juan Manuel, and Jean de La Fontaine. 

The cornerstone of Rachel's project is a comparison of the three Spanish translations that were made between the XIII and the XVII centuries, each from a different language and version of the work: Calila e Dimna (1251, from Arabic), the Exemplario contra los engaños y peligros del mundo (1493, from Latin), and the Espejo político y moral para príncipes y minístros y todo género de personas (1654 and 1659, from Turkish). Although focusing on Iberia, a fertile crossroads between East and West, her study will also consider the work's evolution outside the Peninsula into early modern Italy and England, where it was printed as the Discorsi degli animali ragionanti tra loro (1548), La moral filosophia del Doni (1552), and the Morall Philosophie of Doni (1570). 

Very little scholarship has so far considered the Spanish translations comparatively, let alone viewed them alongside other European versions. Yet such an approach offers a fruitful way of addressing the history of this work's reception and certain key issues. An inherently mobile 'travelling text', Kalila wa-Dimna exemplifys how 'culture' is not a static, pre-existing entity but rather a dynamic process that is constituted by movement and interaction across borders, and how cultural forms and their ideological significance evolve as they travel across time and space. This study views translation as an act of storytelling: a conscious re-creation of previous perspectives that brings to the fore the constructed, conflictual nature of a society’s engagement with its own history, other cultures and ideologies. Kalila wa-Dimna and its translations demonstrate the fluidity of pre-modern cultural ‘traffic’ and provide a meta-fictional account of the socio-historical processes of translatio studii. As such, they enable us to trace the evolution of the perception of intercultural relationships between East and West across a period of profound change, when the geo-political and ideological boundaries of the world were being recalibrated. 

Issues of identity, alterity, and intercultural relations are woven into the very fabric of these fables and the paratextual frameworks that develop around them. Both the tales and the translations' prologues also deal with notions of journeying and home, exile and belonging, and address the difficulties of relations within and between social groups. These themes are of course highly relevant to medieval and early modern Iberia, which exhibited a complicated and often contradictory attitude to the cultural and religious Other, the Muslims and Jews and their convert descendents that were for so long part of the Peninsula's societies. By following Kalila's journeys into early modern Italy and England, countries which had very different relationships with and concepts of the East and the Other, we can thus gain a different perspective on these issues.

Rachel's project therefore engages with some of the key thematic concerns of the Travelling Concepts strand, including intercultural relations along a perceived East/West binary, concepts such as 'culture’, ‘civilisation’, and ‘tolerance’, and conceptualisations of ‘Europe’ and the 'Orient' – terms that are not neutral but rather shifting concepts constructed in a dialogic relationship of exchange and conflict. By focusing on pre-modern literature, the study also provides an important historical perspective on the interconnectedness of modern society, demonstrating how the concept of ‘Europe’ as understood today has been shaped by encounters with other cultures and languages. The ongoing modern reception of Kalila wa-Dimna and its translations demonstrates that the work and the topics it touches upon remain highly relevant to today’s world; her work therefore intersects with that of Yuval Evri on the early twentieth-century Hebrew translations of Kalila. Her project is also relevant to a city like London – a site of multicultural exchange, like medieval and early modern Iberia, where east and west interact, exchange, and influence one another linguistically and culturally on a daily basis.