The history of translating Kurdish literature from foreign languages into Kurdish

By Farhad Pirbal, The Kurdish Globe, 17 July 2008

This essay attempts to explain the history of translating Kurdish literature, written in foreign languages by Kurdish authors, into Kurdish from its beginning stage till 1932.

The most ancient historical source proving that Kurds worked in the field of translation is the book by Greek philosopher Xenophon (Anabase) that was written in 401 B.C. When Xenophon met the Cardouques (ancient Kurds of that time), he indicated that Greek soldiers, via translation, spoke with them.

By Farhad Pirbal, The Kurdish Globe, 17 July 2008

This essay attempts to explain the history of translating Kurdish literature, written in foreign languages by Kurdish authors, into Kurdish from its beginning stage till 1932.

The most ancient historical source proving that Kurds worked in the field of translation is the book by Greek philosopher Xenophon (Anabase) that was written in 401 B.C. When Xenophon met the Cardouques (ancient Kurds of that time), he indicated that Greek soldiers, via translation, spoke with them.

He brought an interpreter with him to talk to the Cardouques about ceasing war and making peace, and he asked them for the return of Greek corpses. The Cardouques told Xenophon that they would return the corpses on the condition that the Greeks stop burning their houses.

This testimony by Xenophon tells us that Kurds, the Cardouques, had their own language. Kurds, via translation, had contact with other nations. The language of the Cardouques was widespread and other nationalities, including Greeks and Persians, spoke it.

In the 10th century, after Xenophon, the Arab scholar Al-Tanakhi used the name of "Lisan al Akrad- language of Kurds", but he mentioned nothing about and work of translation by Kurds.

There is evidence in the book Sharafnama by Sharafkhani Batlisi (1543-1606) about Kurdish commanders who were concerned about culture, but no details are mentioned about translating.

In 1614, Italian Orientalist Pietro Dilla Valla talked about the Kurdish language. "The Kurds have their own language that doesn’t look like the Arabic and Turkish languages," he said, but he didn’t mention translation.

Awlia Chalabi, in1655, was the second source mentioning translation by Kurds. The first text translated from Kurdish into Turkish, Siahatnama, written by Chalabi, was published.

Chalabi said: "One of the fourth Sultan Muradkhan contemporaries was a Kurd from Diyar Bakir whose name was Qawachi Zada; he knew 20 languages. When the ambassadors of Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, and Russia came, he was able to interpret fluently."

There are several reasons that there was no translation movement in ancient literature. For instance, there was no Kurdish country to form a ministry for language, media, or educational organizations in Kurdistan; essentially, there was no one to care about the Kurdish language. Having no publication house in Kurdistan was another reason. Kurds had no direct political, diplomatic, or cultural relationships with other nations and countries via their own country. Kurdish authors and intellectuals were unable to move out of their land in order to learn foreign languages and understand the benefits of translation. As Haji Qadri Koiee complained:

No one of you had a trip to abroad; you consider thatthere are only the Rome and Persian Kings in the world.
In spite of backwardness and being politically oppressed along history, the Kurds used to write and study in the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish languages, and were forbidden to use the Kurdish language. Peter Lurch, a famous researcher of Kurds, stated that when Kurds sent letters or messages to each other, they used the Persian language.

Ancient poets translated Turkish, Persian, or Arabic lines of poetry into Kurdish and then used them in their own poems, or they used religious stories (Islamic or Christian) in their poems. These are not considered translations, however.

Poetic translations at the time of the Ardalan Emirate and the first translated work into Kurdish in the second half of the years.

An interesting opportunity existed during the Ardalan Emirate, especially in 1700, to develop Kurdish literature and particularly poetry. The nature of loving poetry and imitating the Persian poets by some of the people of the Ardalan Emirate were two main reasons Kurdish literature in the districts of Ardalan and Goran were so looked after. Literature of that area was under the influence of Persian literature. Some of the Kurdish poets were busy with translating Persian texts into Kurdish, like Khanay Qubadi, Mirza and Shafihi Kandolaiee.. Anwar Sultani talked about this phenomenon. "Although the translated texts were foreign works, they showed and expressed the phenomena of Kurdish society and especially the Kurdish language, and they looked like the Kurdish original works. One of these translated texts (perhaps the most successful) was Khusraw w Shirin by Nizami Ganjawi that was translated into Kurdish by Khanay Qubadi (1672- 1754). Under this light, Qubadi is considered the first Kurdish translator who translated the foreign (Persian) poetry and epic into Kurdish.

At the end of the 19th century, a number of Kurdish foreign dictionaries appeared, especially as a result of the work of Orientalists. The first dictionaries and linguistic books are:

  1. Dictionary of Noyara Bchookakan (Arabic-Kurdish): Written by Ahmedi Khani (1650- 1706) in 1682-83 for children to learn the Arabic language. There are Arabic phrases translated into Kurdish in this dictionary.
  2. The famous Italian-Kurdish dictionary by Italian Saint Garzoni is 287 pages. It contains brief details about Kurdish grammar. In his book, Garzoni translated Kurdish sentences, phrases, and conversational terms into Italian, especially in pages 62-74.
  3. A research about Iranian Kurds and Khaldekan (their predecessors) was written in the Russian language by Peter Lurch in Petersburg in 1856-58. The third part of the research paper is a dictionary of Kirmanji- Russian and Zaza- Russian.
  4. An American missionary who once lived in Hakkari published a grammatical book in 1872 in which the second part, from pages 135-154, is a small dictionary of Kurdish- English.

In the mid 19th century onward, some of the Easterners who knew things about Kurds (Alexander Java and Peter Lurch) urged the Kurdish religious scholars and others to write and work in the translation field. Meanwhile, the Kurdish Islamic Sheikhs and scholars started to translate religious texts into Kurdish. The well-known religious (Islamic) texts were the genres of Mawloodnama, Haqidanama, and Mihrajnama. In Erbil city, Sultan Muzafaraddin presented prizes to those religious scholars who had written Mawloodnama and chanted with it; that are why Kurds have religious scholars who had worked in the translation field.

The number of Mawloodnamas translated into Kurdish from Arabic are many, the most famous being Ibn Hajari Haitami’s Mawloodnama, translated by Sheikh Hussieni Qazi (1791- 1870) into Kurdish in Suleimaniya during the 1860s. The translated text narrates the biography of Prophet via poetry and mostly via prose.

Haqidnama is another classical literary genre of the Islamic nations. Kurds had written and translated a number of Haqidanamas in the 19th century. In the same era, we see Islamic works that were translated into Kurdish from Arabic and Persian languages by Kurdistan scholars like Jami Wahdat, Nasihat, Sharih Al- Tasrif, the epic of Fathi Khaibar, Mihrajnama of Nusari Arab, Tarjumat daqaieq al Akhbar, etc.

Above all, famous poet Haji Qadri Koiee indicated that Kaka Ahmedi Sheikhi Sheikh Marufi Nodi (1789- 1885) translated some of Quran Ayats and other religious texts into Kurdish.

These translators didn’t have artistic aims; instead, they intended to spread Islamic religion in Kurdistan as most of them were religious figures (scholars, sheikhs, etc.).

Most of these translated works were in Sorani dialect and in Arabic alphabetical letters, and also influenced by the Arabic language.

We can conclude that translation in classical literature was directed by Islamic religion and imitated the ancient culture; thus, the classical translators didn’t depend on the reality of translation and were unable to choose contemporary and modern texts in order to translate them into the Kurdish language.

These translators were always imitating the Arabs; therefore, there was only Islamic culture among Arabs. It was at the time the Arabic nation started to imitate Western culture.

With the translation of the Bible and other Christian religious books, we call this time the Era of Missionaries. Historical sources tell us that Western missionaries worked with the Kurdistan saints and especially the saints of Turkish Kurdistan. With that information, we conclude that the second group who began translating foreign languages into Kurdish were foreigners.

The missionaries were Christian saints and pious people who were sent abroad in order to Christianize people and help other Christians. These missionaries settled in the states of Van and Betlis during the 1850s and the Armenians were the first to help them. It was General Sharif Pasha who said: "When the missionaries came to Kurdistan, they started their mission with the Kurdistan Christians; the Armenian Orthodoxies were the first people who agreed with the mission."

There was a strong relationship between the missionaries and Armenian religious personalities to translate the Bible and other Christian books into the Kurdish language. For this purpose, the missionaries benefitted from the Armenian patriarchs, saints, and intellectuals because these patriarchs, saints, and intellectuals had an effective role and were able to translate texts into Kurdish. Also, the Armenians were closer to the Kurds than any other Eastern nation, especially socially and religiously. Politically, Armenians shared the same suffering with Kurds.

The first translation of the Bible into Kurdish was in 1857, when a 398-page Bible was translated from Greek to Kurdish in the Armenian alphabet in hardcover (10 x 17 cm) in Istanbul by Armenian Christian missionaries. The title of the book, which follows, is in the Kirmanji dialect: The Bible: Our God, Jesus, written by Matthews Marcos and Lucas Jonathan in Istanbul, 1857.

The translated Bible has no introduction and begins directly with the core of the subject. The pages of the book and all passages have numerals. For example, in the Matta section, the first part contains 25 passages and the second part contains 23 passages.

There is no other translated (into Kurdish) work in book form before this Bible. So, in the field of history of comparative linguistic translation, this Bible is of great benefit to many.

The prior interest of this Bible is that it is one of the first works written in prose in the Kurdish language (1857). It is also important in the fields of terminology, syntax, and morphology. Also, it is stylistic and narrates the stories of the life of Christ.

The second translated book, this one actually explaining or interpreting the Bible, in the mid 19th century is Alpha Be Je Kirmanji and Armenian, in the Kirmanji dialect of northern Kurdistan and also in the Armenian alphabet. It was printed and published in 1861 in Istanbul.

Under this title, on the book cover, there is information for Kurdistan youths about Christianity. It is written in Armenian that the book was prepared with the assistance of Armenian Mathews in Echmiazeen, Jerusalem Patriarch Bawa Hovantu, Patriarch Bwa Hankut Sieylo, and Istanbul Patriarch Bawa Sarkesi. On the book cover is written in the Kurdish language: "Second edition 1861. District of Khalatia/ Istanbul. Haivanu Publication House (owned by Muhandsian)."

The cover of the 56-page book is yellow. There is a portrait of a woman and two kids, and angels surround her. There are 42 photos inside. Each page consists of two columns; one is written in Kurdish and the other in Armenian. Clearly, the Armenian authors first wrote in Armenian and then translated it into Kurdish. Various brief texts are included.

The first page is an introduction in the Kurdish language. "Fi Alpha Bi has written for the Kurdistan Kids" is the first line, which explains the content of the book. The second page is the same introduction in the Armenian language.

The third page is a beautiful picture of the school, teachers, and pupils. It attractively illustrates the image of the school and the process of studying for the readers. At the bottom of the page, it explains the role of the school in Armenian.

Pages 4-7 consist of the Armenian alphabet opposite Kurdish sounds. Opposite each Kurdish sound and phonetic, a suitable Armenian letter is written. In Armenian, it explains how to associate Armenian letters with Kurdish phonetics. It explains how to read Kurdish in Armenian alphabetical letters.

Pages 8-12 contain practical lessons in order to formulate Armenian alphabetical letters to use the letters within the Kurdish language and also using it for writing in Kurdish.

On page 13, "The oneness of the languages Kirmanji and Armenian" is divided into two parts, and each part into two columns. One column contains Kurdish words, and the meaning of these words in the Armenian language is in the opposite column. It is a small Kurdish-Armenian dictionary and includes 108 Kurdish-Armenian words.

Pages 20-24 are divided into two columns. Above each column is written, in Kurdish and Armenian, "Industrialism Is the Cause of Success." On the bottom of the page is written "Publication House" in the Kurdish language. The same thing is written in the Armenian column. It talks about the role of the publication house in both languages and the field of human development.

On pages 26-29 is written, in Armenian: "The daily usable vocabularies." The pages are divided into two parts and each part is divided into two columns. It is a small Kurdish-Armenian dictionary containing the names of various types of plants, grains, foods, birds, animals, and other natural things. "This tiger is living in the mountains of Armenia" is written under the photo of a tiger.

Printing this book was an attempt for the young Kurdish generation to learn the Armenian alphabet and facilitate reading the Bible and other translated Christian texts.

Thus, we can see, Matthews and three other Armenian patriarchs were busy with formulating a Kurdish systematic alphabet, and later in 1861, translated this book about Christ in Kurdish-Armenian alphabetic letters, and also wrote about peace and culture to explain the role of religion, the publication house, and the industry in human life.

Certainly, most of these missionaries and Armenian patriarchs must have known the Kurdish language. They translated many instructive books into Kurdish for children, and they may have also opened several schools for Kurdish kids in order to teach them linguistic and religious lessons.

The benefit of this translated book is that it explains the Bible, it is the first educational book for children, it is the first book writing the history of the Kurdish language, it is the first book containing illustrations, and it is the first book attempting to formulate alphabetical letters into the Kurdish language.

It is also the first Kurdish-Armenian dictionary that is of interest in the field of translation. It contains more than 300 vocabulary words and Armenian-Kurdish terms, and gives their meanings in both languages. Armenian and Kurdish translators, linguists, and writers of dictionaries can also benefit. It is beautifully written Kurdish prose from the mid 19th century important in the field of Kurdish prose and writing.

The second Bible in the Kurdish language is The Holy Bible, Rab u Khalaskari ma, which was published in four volumes. This book was translated from the Greek language into the Kurdish Mukiryani dialect in the Arabic alphabet. The four volumes are Marcos, 53 pages; Lucas, 94 pages; Mata, 87 pages; and Johanna, 72 pages.

The American Bible Society, an American missionary group founded in New York in 1816 with the assistance of another missionary organization in Britain, translated all four volumes in 1919, and published and printed them in New York.

Many other sources talk about translating several parts of the Bible, the New Testament, and several proverbs in the Syriac alphabet in 1888.

The translation of the Bible and other Christian religious books from the mid 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century is an obvious phenomenon paralleling the translation of Quran and Islamic texts.

Translating the Bible in the Armenian and Syriac by missionaries and Armenian patriarchs has several aims, including issuing the Armenian and Syriac alphabet instead of using Arabic letters, and to write and read the Kurdish language. Another aim was to make the Kurdish nation stop using the Arabic alphabet, and stay away from the Turkish, Persian, and Arabic cultures and instead commit to the Armenian-Christian culture. Another aim was to make it easier for Kurds to read the Bible and other Christian religious books and create a brotherly relationship between Armenians and Kurds. These translations were useful for those Armenians who forgot their mother language and were speaking Kurdish in Kurdistan.

The translators of these books were not Kurds or authors; they were non-Kurdish people, patriarchs, saints, and Matthews. They didn’t have artistic or literary purposes, but religious purposes. They wanted to spread Christianity in Kurdistan.

The translation period, or the Era of Missionaries, had a classical basis-a religious basis-imitating the ancients. On one hand, missionaries and Christian pioneers translated the Bible into Kurdish, and on the other, Sheikhs and Islamic scholars translated Mawloodnama, Mihrajnama, and Quran into Kurdish.

Thus, these two religious groups of translators-"imitators" and "religious"-were classical. They were not able to depend on the reality and contemporary phenomena in translating. For this reason, they were not able to choose contemporary and modern texts to translate into Kurdish.


  1. GARZONI: Grammatica e Vocabulario della lingua Kurds, Rom: 1787.
  2. EXENOPHON: Anabase, etabli et traduit par Paul MASQUE- RAY, ed. Societe d edition, Paris: 1967. T. 2, Livre IV, 5, 10 et 34.
  3. Mohammad MOKRI: Kurdologie et enseignement de la langue Kurde en URSS, in Recherche de Kurdologie, Contribution aux etudes Iraniennes 1956-1964, Paris: 1970. PP. 65- 95.
  4. E. B. SOEN: A short anthology of Guran poetry, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Pt. 1, 1921, PP. 57-81.

Source: The Kurdish Globe