ATKINSON, Dr. James A. (1780-1852), a notable British orientalist, a scholar of the Persian language and literature, and the translator of Ferdowsī’s Rostam o Sohrāb, Neẓāmī’s Laylī o Majnūn, the popular Persian romance of Ḥātem Ṭāʾī, and others. Atkinson was born in Durham on 9 March 1780, and demonstrated early on an exceptional talent for versification. He studied medicine in Edinburgh and London, and was appointed assistant surgeon in the Bengal establishment in 1805. He studied Persian in his free time and in 1810 began his verse translation of the story of Sohrāb. The work was published as Soohrab, a Poem in 1814 in Calcutta where a year earlier Lord Minto, the Governor General, had appointed Atkinson to the post of assistant assay master at the mint, a position he retained until 1828, except for two brief intervals, in 1818 when he took up the deputy chair of Persian in Fort William College, and the period 1826-27 which he spent in England. In 1817 Atkinson was also entrusted with the superintendence of the Government Gazette, the official British journal in India. The next year he published his edition of Ḥātem Ṭāʾī : Hatim Taee, a Popular Romance, Calcutta, 1818. After 1823, when the government severed its formal ties with the journal, the Gazette—and the newly founded Press—were placed under his charge.
Atkinson spent the years 1828-33 in England where he completed his abridged verse and prose translation of the Šāh-nāma. The work, to which a revised version of Soohrab had been appended, was published by the Oriental Translation Fund in 1832, and won the Fund’s gold medal. Four years later the Fund published Atkinson’s verse translation in epitome of Neẓāmī’s celebrated romance under the title of Laili and Mejnun (1836). Meanwhile, Atkinson had returned to his duties in India, and in 1838 accompanied the British army of occupation into Afghanistan, where he remained stationed until the defeat and surrender of Dost Moḥammad in 1841. Atkinson retired in 1847 after forty-two years of active service, returned to England shortly afterwards and died of apoplexy on 7 August 1852.
Atkinson’s translations from the Šāh-nāma suffer from his over-zealous attempt to prove Ferdowsī closer in substance and utterance to Western epic conventions than was generally realized. In The Shah Nameh which is an abridgment in verse and in prose, he employs a variety of meters and measures, creating an uneven pace and, consequently, a false impression of the Šāh-nāma. The work thus conveys little of the majesty and poetic air of the original.
Atkinson’s other translations from Persian include The Aubid: An Eastern Tale (Calcutta, 1819), a verse translation of a contemporary Indian romance, and The Customs and Manners of the Women of Persia and Their Domestic Superstitions (Oriental Translation Fund, 1832), a loose prose translation of Āqā Jamāl Ḵᵛānsārī’s Ketāb-e Kolṯūm Nana.
Although these translations reveal the many pitfalls of pioneer work in the field, still they are a marked improvement over the cumbersome phraseology and elaborate diction of such late eighteenth-century translators of the Šāh-nāma as Joseph Champion. This tendency in turn reflects the departure in English Romanticism from the neo-Classical attitude towards Oriental literatures in general and towards epic poetry and poetic translation in particular.
In addition to his Persian translations, Atkinson is the author of two fascinating travelogues (ExpeditionintoAfghanistan and Sketches in Afghanistan, London, 1842), many valuable essays of statistical and topographical importance in the Gazette and the Press, and other works that are outside Iranian studies.
Proceedings of the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London, 1853.
The Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, Oxford, 1917.
J. Atkinson, Soohrab: A Poem Freely Translated from the Original Persian of Firdousee, Calcutta, 1814; repr. as Suhrab and Rustam, Delmar, N.Y., 1972.
Idem, The Shah Nameh of the Persian Poet Firdausi, London, 1832; repr. London, 1886, 1892.
Idem, Laili and Majnun: A Poem from the Original Persian of Nizami, London, 1836; 2nd ed., 1894; reissued in L. Crammer-Byng, ed., Love Stories of the East, London, 1905.
A. J. Arberry, ed., British Contributions to Persian Studies, London, 1942.
J. D. Yohannan, Persian Poetry in England and America: A 200-Year History, Delmar, N.Y., 1977, pp. 80-82.
A. Karimi-Hakkak, The Shāhnāmeh of Firdawsī in France and England 1770-1860: A Study of the European Response to the Persian Epic of Kings, doctoral dissertation, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., 1979
Originally Published: December 15, 1987
Last Updated: August 17, 2011
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Vol. III, Fasc. 1, p. 12