Hardly any Asian or African authors were nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in the first half of the 20th century, and Taha Husein (1889–1973) from Egypt was the only Arabic nominee. He was nominated several times from 1949 to the early 1960s, but never won the prize.
One of those who nominated Husein was the Quran translator and Uppsala professor of Semitic languages Karl Vilhelm Zetterstéen (1866–1953). At the time, the Nobel Committee regretted the lack of translations as it made it difficult to assess the nominee.
To fix the problem, Zetterstéen set out to translate Husein’s al-Ayyam by himself, and gave it the Swedish title Dagarna (The Days). However, the translation remained unknown and unpublished due to the passing away of Zetterstéen in 1953. The manuscript then disappeared together some other documents in a box archived at the university library in Uppsala. And that is where Professor Göran Larsson recently came across the translation as he was going through material left behind by Zetterstéen.
‘The manuscript is typed except for Zetterstéen’s handwritten corrections. It is the first Swedish direct translation of al-Ayyam, complementing an old translation via French that was published in the mid-1950s,’ he says.
Since al-Ayyam is considered to be a modern Arabic classic and the text is highly relevant in the context of theology and history of ideas, the Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion at the University of Gothenburg has now published the Swedish translation as an electronic facsimile edition.
The Days is an autobiography telling the story of the upbringing of a blind boy in rural Egypt, including his schooling at the Islamic Azhar university in Cairo around the last turn of the century.
‘It would be great if the publishing of Zetterstéen’s manuscript could encourage somebody to translate the book into modern Swedish,’ says Larsson.