12 - 18 August 1999
Issue No. 442
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A Diwan ofTwo of Egypt's top intellectuals locked horns in a war of words over literary formats in 1921, using the pages of Al-Ahram as their arena. The controversy erupted after Mustafa Lutfi Al-Manfaluti, a well-known novelist, published his book The Poet. It was an adaptation in story form of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, a poetic drama. Mansour Fahmi, a professor of philosophy who later became secretary of the prestigious Arabic Language Academy, wrote an article applauding the book. Taha Hussein, who became known as the Dean of Arabic Literature, objected to the conversion of a drama written in verse into a novel. The sparring between Hussein and Fahmi in Al-Ahram lasted for two months. Dr Yunan Labib Rizq * provides an almost verbatim text of the debate
contemporary life (298)
Duel of the masters
Al-Ahram rarely exceeded four pages. In spite of this limited space, in which political events knocked elbows with crimes, accidents and news from the countryside, the newspaper nevertheless made sure to print intellectual and literary articles. Indeed, sometimes the literary features would coalesce into a regular section that would last for weeks and perhaps months before being swept away by the tide of other news.
Mansour Fahmi Mustafa Lutfi Al-Manfaluti
In late 1901 and early 1902, for example, Al-Ahram introduced a column that lasted several weeks, entitled "Literary Praise". Later, in 1917, the column re-emerged under the title "Composition and Criticism". Once again, four years later, the newspaper ran another literary column that was given the headline: "Between the effort to explain and the fruit of the pen".
Naturally, the 20 years between the first and third literary columns left their mark. In 1901, it was dedicated primarily to introducing readers to new works in print. In 1917, an element of critique was introduced. Then, in its third evolution, the column invited the contributions of prominent intellectuals, not least among whom were Taha Hussein, Mansour Fahmi and Mohamed Hussein Heikal. Moreover, not infrequently, this forum became the arena for heated debate. This was the case in the summer of 1921 when two of Egypt's most prominent literary and intellectual luminaries of the day locked horns on the pages of Al-Ahram.
The protagonists in this battle were Mansour Fahmi and Taha Hussein. At the time, Mansour Fahmi was a professor of philosophy in the Faculty of Arts. He later became dean of that faculty, director of the Egyptian national library and secretary of the Arabic Language Academy. Taha Hussein was a professor in the same college and would eventually become the Dean of Arabic Literature. The focus of their debate was the recently issued Arabic adaptation of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, under the title Al-Sha'ir (The Poet), by the well-known writer of the era Mustafa Lutfi Al-Manfaluti. At issue was the controversy that preoccupied Egyptian intellectuals in the 1920s: literary renovation of which Taha Hussein was among the major proponents and traditional Arabic literature of which Al-Manfaluti was a leading symbol.
Because the debate between Taha Hussein and Mansour Fahmi has appeared nowhere outside Al-Ahram -- it is not listed, for example, in the many bibliographies of Taha Hussein's works -- we thought it appropriate to make an exception and let the two men speak for themselves in full, in the hope that this will be of value to scholars of Egyptian intellectual and social history. We have, therefore, reprinted their articles in full, as they appeared in Al-Ahram in July and August 1921, with only minor omissions that have no direct bearing on the focus of discussion.
Mansour Fahmi -- 19 July 1921:
About a month ago, there appeared in the world of Arabic publications the exquisite poetic drama, Cyrano de Bergerac, by the great contemporary French poet, Edmond Rostand, which was adapted into an exhilarating prose narrative by the Egyptian writer Mustafa Lutfi Al-Manfaluti.
Cyrano, the hero of the story, as the Arabic adapter described him, was "a French poet of the 17th century, an eccentric with a blend of qualities that could rarely be found together in one of his contemporaries. He was courageous to the point of recklessness, shy to the point of weakness. He was brutal in punishing his enemies for the slightest offence, so gentle as to be driven to tears over the miseries of his friends and colleagues. He was so generous as to be left with nothing, self-respecting and forthright in confronting people with their errors. He had very few friends who understood him well and appreciated his true value. But his predominant characteristic was pride and dignity; he guarded his honour jealously. He was a struggler and a rebel. His greatest problem and the source of all his woes was that he was ugly, with a nose so large and protruding as to draw stares and raise eyebrows. He was acutely aware of this trait which caused him great anguish because he was in love with his cousin, Roxanne, renowned for her rare beauty and uncommon intelligence. He believed that no woman, no matter how virtuous and noble-minded, could succumb to the wiles of love other than through the charm of beauty, that the only beauty women cared for was the beauty of form. As a result, he could not summon the courage to declare his love because of his timidity and shame generated by his appearance.
"Cyrano's devotion to Roxanne was unmatched in the history of love. He pined for her and she was unaware of his pining. He agonised because of her and she was unsuspecting. She loved another man, but he was not jealous. On the contrary, he was her greatest ally in her pursuit of the man she had chosen to love. He befriended him and remained a loyal friend. He helped his friend keep in touch with her and ensured that his love for her remained kindled, because the thing he cared for above all else in the world was to see her happy in her life. That was how he found happiness, and he remained that way throughout his life until he departed from his world. Roxanne never new the secret he harboured until the last moment when such knowledge would be of no avail."
Thus, Cyrano, driven by his gallantry and true to his word, works to secure the happiness of his cousin and the man she loves, while he remains grieved and heartsick. He is like a man dying of thirst, who offers the cup around for others to drink, yet does not taste a drop himself despite the fact that the love which he brought to the two lovers was the product of his own chivalry.
This is the synopsis of the story which Lutfi Al-Manfaluti wrought from its original French dramatic version. It is my great delight that such stories are circulating in the hands of young readers. It is wonderful to see their minds exposed to the great figures they portray, the grand ideas they contain and the great meanings and morals and munificent hearts that are cast throughout their pages.
Any book containing profound views and intense feelings is a suitable model that rewards the reader with the beauty and perfection it contains. It would do emerging nations well to see the dissemination in them of such examples of literary excellence...
When you read such limpid prose you cannot help but say "well done" to the person who composed it and the person who published and distributed it. Al-Manfaluti excelled in his choice and exerted efforts that merit our most heartfelt gratitude.
I was in the company, one day, of two friends who are engaged in the field of literature. One is a successful translator of foreign narratives into Arabic and the other is involved in the field of press and political publication and is also a friend of Al-Manfaluti. When our conversation turned to the narrative that Al-Manfaluti rendered into Arabic, my friends said that Al-Manfaluti had taken upon himself an extremely arduous task. Such is the eloquence of the original, its verbal craftsmanship, and its distinctive particularities of French expression as to defy translation. They were both of the opinion that any translation of a work of that calibre would inevitably be flawed and distorted and that it would be better left untranslated. I agree with their view about the difficulties. However, the barriers to the translation of a work should not necessarily constitute an impediment to its adaptation into Arabic. Perhaps, too, such intrepidity in the face of the difficulties merits praise, particularly in the case of Al-Manfaluti who is blessed with an articulate pen and profuse erudition. If, in Arabicising that work he does not convey the fullest sense of the superior eloquence of the French he has certainly brought us a vivid image in lucid Arabic...
Taha Hussein -- 20 July 1921:
To my dear friend Mansour Fahmi,
There is an old literary feud between Al-Manfaluti and myself, in which I have formed a long-standing opinion from which I have not yet succeeded in deviating. It is this feud that has made me decide not to discuss the book, The Poet, whether favourably or unfavourably, although I do have an opinion on it. I held this opinion before it appeared, which is to say when I first learned that Al-Manfaluti was bent upon rendering this work in the story form in which it eventually appeared.
This very feud prevented me from discussing the book, because I know that literary criticism in Egypt has not yet attained the freedom whereby we can overlook grudges and resentments. I told myself that every word I write on that subject would only be greeted by Al-Manfaluti's defenders with considerable caution and suspicion. So, I opted for silence, if against my will.
However, Mansour praised the book, admired the translation, lauded the translator and touched briefly on the difficulties that might be encountered in the process of translation. Mansour is not one to write without our taking notice. In writing these lines, I am not addressing Al-Manfaluti, nor his enemies or detractors. Rather, I write them for the sake of art, firstly, and to Mansour secondly, in the hopes that he gives them consideration. I know him to be a fair and impartial man due to his prolific readings in philosophy. Thus, without further ado, I would like to address two issues.
Firstly, the author of Cyrano de Bergerac composed a story in dramatic verse. The beauty of the story is intrinsically bound, firstly, to its poetry, secondly, to the dramatic form and, thirdly, to the personality of Edmond Rostand himself and his craftsmanship in French expression. To what degree is a translator licensed to transform a dramatic work to a purely narrative form? Is this not a distortion of the original and a crime against its author? I imagine that Egyptians do not yet truly appreciate the power of dramatic dialogue, as the art of drama is alien and the Arabic language is unacquainted with it. I imagine that if they did appreciate dramatic dialogue they would not be able to stomach the transformation of dramatic narratives into story form.
Mansour's dedication to philosophy and philosophical works may have distracted his attention from such matters, but I will cite to him an example from his very philosophical studies. What would he do if a translator rendered into Arabic a work by Plato, but omitted the dialogue format of the discussion between Socrates and his pupils and cast it in the mould of a philosophical treatise in the style of the books of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Aristotle? Could Mansour read the recast version with the same admiration as when he read it in dialogue form?
I am not asking Al-Manfaluti to translate the book in verse, for that may not be feasible. In all events, poetic works are frequently translated into other languages in prose. However, I cannot condone the conversion of theatre into stories. That is an abomination acceptable only to those who do not accord art its true value.
The second issue I would like to raise is that every language has its own beauty that cannot be transmitted through another language. Cyrano embraces much of that beauty and it is impossible to savour that beauty in any language but French. The translator may well accept this as he proceeds, for he cannot be expected to achieve the impossible. Still, Cyrano contains delightful turns of phrase and play on words that cannot be translated. It also contains expressions that are not French at all, but rather come from the dialect of Gascony, one of France's southern dialects. Such lexical charms are lost immediately upon translation. If Al-Manfaluti has distorted the play by contorting it into a story and was incapable of transmitting its verbal beauty, what is left of the book?
Which is better -- to translate a literary work with definite failure to convey its most intrinsic aesthetic properties or to leave it in its original language, so as to save it from distortion and disfigurement?
Mansour Fahmi -- 26 July 1921:
My dear friend Taha Hussein,
I have no doubt that you agreed with me when I said of Cyrano that "such is the eloquence of the original, its verbal craftsmanship, and its distinctive particularities of French expression as to defy translation." Similarly, I agreed with you when you said, "every language has its own beauty that cannot be transmitted through another language. Cyrano embraces much of that beauty and it is impossible to savour that beauty in any language but French." Likewise, we both agree that we cannot ask Al-Manfaluti, as you say, "to translate the verse in which the book was written into Arabic verse, for that may not be feasible." So where do we disagree?
The difference between us, I believe, lies in the two questions you asked me and to which you might like to read an answer. You asked me firstly, my friend, "to what extent can the translator take license to distort and disfigure what he translates?" What a remarkable question and one that I would not answer were I not keen to respond to your wish for a reply.
My answer is simple. I would grant no license to the translator to distort and disfigure what he translates. But now, let me turn the question back to you in a slightly different form. To what extent do you call Al-Manfaluti's handling of the story of Cyrano de Bergerac a distortion and disfiguration and to what extent do you perceive distortion and disfiguration in the transformation of a narrative from its dramatic form to story form while preserving the original substance?
The second question you asked me was, "Which is better -- to translate a literary work of art with definite failure to convey its most intrinsic aesthetic properties or to leave it in its original language, so as to save it from distortion and disfigurement?"
My answer is that I believe it is better that the story is conveyed to us with some of the beauty of the original than to have all of its beauty kept hidden from us. I believe it is better that we develop even a small notion of what good literature is than not to know that literature at all. Were this not the case, the Europeans would not have translated the Qur'an into their languages, we would not have read the Torah in our language and we would not have been able to read in Arabic the poetry of Homer and other works translated from Greek literature.
I would add to this that the primary incentive to translate from one language to another may lie in the totality of the subject matter, not in the details, and in the import and not in its stylistic garb. It appears to me, my friend, that you ask for perfection and reject what does not measure up to that standard. I believe you would suffer considerably were you to apply that principle in your life's affairs. As for myself, I prefer to walk with the ordinary people in accordance with their familiar adage, "What you cannot attain in its entirety, do not forsake entirely." Having said this, I ask you one more question in the same mode as before: Would you prefer to be able to learn mankind's legacy of knowledge or to live in ignorance?
Taha Hussein -- 29 July 1921:
My dear friend Mansour Fahmi,
You asked me a question which I believed I answered in my first article. You asked me in what respect Al-Manfaluti committed distortion and disfigurement and you said that you do not understand how transforming a dramatic work into a story would constitute distortion and disfigurement. I believe I answered that in some detail in the previous article. I said that theatre has an aesthetic dimension that cannot be found in narratives and that the source of that aesthetic dimension is in the dialogue mode. I recall that I asked you what your reaction would be were someone to translate Plato's Republic, ignoring the dialogue and rendering it in ordinary prose form in the manner of the works of Avicenna and Aristotle. You did not address this point or you did not consider it. This oversight must be attributed to the scorching summer heat, for I know how thorough a philosopher you are and that you are not satisfied in your examination of any question until you have scrutinised it from all angles.
It seems that art has bequeathed to us a law that you have also overlooked. I do not believe that the history of literature has ever recorded the conversion of a theatrical play into a story before Al-Manfaluti came along. It has, however, recorded the conversion of stories into plays. The ancient Greeks at first transformed the stories of the Iliad into dramatic narratives and the Europeans continue in the same vein.
I believe you love Anatole France and Marcel Prevault and have read many of their stories and I am certain that you know that many of their stories have been cast into dramatic form. I also imagine that you, like me, admire Corneille, Racine and Molière. But, can you tell me of any French, British or German writer who has converted any of these playwrights' works into stories? It seems to me that art has rules and principles that must be recognised in Europe and ignored in Egypt.
To me, your reference to the translation of the Qur'an is not convincing. The Qur'an was not translated merely for its aesthetic value but because it is a religious book and because it had to be translated. Cyrano, on the other hand, is an artistic work and a masterpiece of literary aesthetics but no more.
Still, that was not the point I stressed in my criticism. Rather, I emphasised the question of converting a play into a story. It is curious that Cyrano has been translated into Arabic in its dramatic form and that Al-Manfaluti composed his story after having read the Arabic translation which stuck to the original. Can you tell me the benefit of this distortion (story form) when the non-distorted Arabic version already exists?
I confess to you that I do not see any artistic value in that work. Perhaps I felt that the evil was compounded because it is first and foremost a distortion and because it deters people from reading the existing translation of the play. I am not able to describe to you the translation of the play because I have not read it yet. However, I can tell you that it is better than Al-Manfaluti's rendition because it remained true to the original and because it was a direct translation from the original. Al-Manfaluti's book, on the other hand, was taken from an Arabic translation, and was thus an exercise in wasting time or simply a way to acquire repute.
I know that you have read 18th century philosophy and were influenced by its spirit of tolerance. I have read 17th century literature and Arabic literature, both of which have had a strong effect on me. Both these literatures are stringent in their adherence to the rules and principles of art. As Boileau says, "I like to call a cat a cat." It is not easy for me to call a cat a lion however fat and inflated it may be.
Voltaire was a prophet of tolerance. But I know that while he was very tolerant in matters of religion and opinion, he was rigidly exacting in his literary criticism. Have you followed his example? I do not deny you the right to praise what you wish and to laud whom you please. However, for your sake and for the sake of your readers, of whom I am one, I do not want your articles to serve as encouragement to perverters of literature and impostors.
I believe that the best rule of philosophy is to judge things for what they are. So, say that Al-Manfaluti was zealous in his efforts and say that he merits your praise. But do not say that he did not malign art, that he performed a useful service and that he gave the public a true article of beauty.
Mansour Fahmi -- 17 August 1921:
My dear friend Taha Hussein,
Excuse my harsh words, although I do not fear that you will take offence. After all, you, too, are prone to that hazard when the frankness and severity of your criticism verges on the brutal and you abandon your customary mildness to associate Al-Manfaluti with impostors in literature.
I do not find that you have cause to associate Al-Manfaluti with impostors. No matter how lenient I am with respect to the rules of art, as you perceive, I do not believe it excessive to describe Al-Manfaluti as a fine writer.
You think that the recasting of the play Cyrano into a novel is a crime that should concern the defenders of the law. You find it odd and a waste of time that the drama should appear in novel form after it had already been translated into Arabic, remaining faithful to its original dramatic form. At the same time, you say that it is easier for people to read stories than plays. Can you not see that Al-Manfaluti has been faithful to the original yet has performed a service to the public, for he has made it easier for them to read and understand the beauty and substance of the work. Or do you think that making literature, art and science accessible to the masses has no place in your spirit of forgiveness?
I cannot imagine that you subscribe to this. As you know, the greatest scholars and the most scrupulous advocates of the language of arts and science frequent the public universities and present the findings of their complicated research in an easy-to-follow, palatable manner, and that they abridge their studies into simplified books in order to enable people unfamiliar with the technicalities and jargon of the sciences and arts to read them.
Every language has its own grace and splendour. If the mode of dramatic dialogue suits the splendour of Greek and French, the story form is the most appropriate to Arabic. In this sense, Al-Manfaluti did not distort art. On the contrary, he safeguarded it by rendering a Western art form into a thoroughly Arabic one.
Finally, my dear friend, since you like to call a cat a cat and not a lion, permit me to call you by your name. You are modest and you are kind. You are many other good epithets. However, when I think of your criticism of Al-Manfaluti, I call you cruel and prejudiced.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.