Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 October 2005
Issue No. 763
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Virtuoso illuminations

Winner of the 2005 Prix Laure Bataillon for the best translated work of fiction, Le Livre des illuminations, a translation of Gamal al-Ghitany's Kitab al-tajalliyat, has refocussed French attention on the work of this leading Egyptian novelist. David Tresilian spoke to Khaled Osman, the novel's translator, in Paris

Click to view caption
A specimen of the signature of Ibn 'Arabi (1165-1240) -- whose work was a crucial source of inspiration for Gamal al-Ghitany's Kitab al-tajalliyat -- as it appears in a manuscript in Istanbul University. Reproduced from Sufis of Andalusia: The Ruh al-quds and al-Durrat al-fakhirah of Ibn 'Arabi, translated by R W Austin (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1971)

Published earlier this year by Paris publishers Editions du Seuil, Le Livre des illuminations, or "Book of Illuminations", is a French translation of Gamal al-Ghitany's partly autobiographical, partly historical novel Kitab al-tajalliyat, which appeared in its final Arabic form in Cairo in 1990. Translated by Khaled Osman, who has also translated other works by al-Ghitany, including Waqa'i harat al-za'farani (La Mystérieuse affaire de l'impasse Zaafarani, 1997) and Shath al-madina (Les Délires de la ville, 1999), it is an impressive addition to the list of al-Ghitany's works now available in French, beginning in 1985 with the translation by Jean- François Fourcade of al-Ghitany's best-known novel al-Zayni Barakat.

As Osman explains, the Kitab al-tajalliyat presents particular challenges to the translator, and presenting the nearly 900 pages of the text in French has been a formidable task. Recalling incidents from contemporary history and Islamic tradition, the book makes certain demands on French and European readers, though Osman's inclusion of extensive endnotes, explaining the frequent allusions in the text, helps to ensure that little of importance will be missed.

As a result, when taken together with earlier translations of al-Ghitany's work, the appearance of this scrupulously translated and beautifully presented book means that francophone readers are now able to read the works of one of Egypt's most important contemporary authors in a series of authoritative translations, something perhaps taken into account by the jury of the Prix Laure Bataillon in awarding the book the 2005 prize for the best work of fiction in French translation.

Gamal al-Ghitany himself presented the book at a launch event in Paris earlier this year, accompanied by Osman and a representative of Editions du Seuil. The novel, he explained, like many of his others, had been born out of a period of personal shock or crisis. Following Egyptian defeat in the 1967 war, for example, he had needed to find "a way of expressing my preoccupations", notably those having to do with promises made by the Nasser regime and their recent apparent defeat. He turned to the 16th- century writer Ibn Iyas for inspiration, and produced what is probably still his best-known novel, al-Zayni Barakat, sometimes read as an allegory of contemporary politics, from Ibn Iyas's account of the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517 and the defeat of the Mameluks.

The death of al-Ghitany's father in 1980 similarly caused him to look back to older models in the search for a form that would do justice to "the life of this modest man, which had so completely disappeared". Conventional biography could not achieve this, and al-Ghitany turned instead to the works of Ibn 'Arabi, and notably to his "illuminations", intending to use a paratactic, loosely constructed form of this sort to produce what he called an "open novel", or one that would be open to history, politics and all the circumambient materials of life, as well as to personal memories and preoccupations.

The result, part biography and part autobiography, is the Kitab al-tajalliyat, in which the narrator is guided through a series of illuminations, some sacred, some profane, that reveal features of his own life and of that of his father, as well as of the larger historical events that both lived through.

However, such a text presents formidable challenges to the translator, and Osman explains that of all the novels by al-Ghitany that he has translated, the Kitab al-tajalliyat was arguably the most challenging. In his view, while the text presents difficulties for the translator that have to be overcome if its meaning is to be made clear to the foreign reader, these involve choices that have as much to do with selecting an appropriate register in French as they do with identifying the nature of the original Arabic.

One such choice has to do with the many different kinds of writing included in the novel, among them proverbs, maxims, poetry, prayers and mystical experiences, giving it its "inter- textual" character. Identifying the stylistic shifts in the Arabic and then finding appropriate ways of signalling these in French is a first step for any translator, maintaining consistency over a long text of some 900 pages another.

"What I was particularly anxious to achieve in the translation," Osman explains, "was to convey the mystical dimension of the text, without taking away from its emotional charge. The option I took was to use ordinary language, which may nevertheless carry multiple meanings, avoiding the kind of 'scholarly' vocabulary that could have interfered with the text's immediacy."

Another task confronting the translator of a novel of this kind, carrying over meanings from an Arab and Muslim environment to a European, was the question of how much to annotate. Too much annotation runs the risk of presenting the text in an antiquarian light; too little of not giving foreign readers the information they need to make sense of what they are reading. Osman explains that the bulk of the annotations to his translation refer to quotations from the Qur'an, these being integrated into the text of the original since Arab readers would in general be familiar with them and no special signal would be required to pick them out.

For European readers, on the other hand, such familiarity cannot be assumed, and leaving quotations or allusions of this sort to fend for themselves, or not providing explanations for the frequent historical events or other cultural references mentioned, runs the risk of significantly reducing even the scrupulous reader's understanding. For this reason, Osman also chose to identify references in the endnotes appended to the volume for the benefit of foreign readers. "Though the text is a very rich one," he says, "and one that demands attention from the reader, it is also gripping and deals with the kind of universal questions that anyone might ask himself."

The task of the translator is at once to render this interest and excitement in a foreign language, while at the same time giving something of the linguistic and cultural depth of the original. For Osman, who has long followed the fortunes of contemporary Arabic literature in French translation, the publication of al-Ghitany's Kitab al-tajalliyat as Le Livre des illuminations is a sign that the concerns of the "Generation of the Sixties", a generation of Arab writers to which al-Ghitany belongs, have now become more familiar to readers, including its concerns to incorporate political themes into literary texts and to use literature as a vehicle for meditation on the situation of intellectuals in the wider society.

Thus, aside from the narrative and stylistic considerations to be found in the Kitab al-tajalliyat, having to do with finding an appropriate form for the experience of time and space that the novel seeks to apprehend, the book should also be approached as a manifesto piece, in which al-Ghitany explores his concern for "the destruction of cultural heritage and desire to 'reconcile' his compatriots with their past" in a way that cannot be achieved in writing based on European models.

Indeed, "this desire to use language and narrative forms drawn from the past was present from the beginning of al-Ghitany's career, whether in his first short stories, in al-Zayni Barakat, his acclaimed first novel, or in subsequent novels such as Zaafarani Alley, where this desire is mixed with a fine dose of black humour," Osman says. "However, whereas in his earlier works al-Ghitany was concerned with political and social questions, as in Barakat or Zaafarani Alley, as his career has advanced his concerns have turned inward and towards man's inability to grasp the present in which he lives. The central theme of the Kitab al-tajalliyat -- man's stance in the face of time that recedes from or escapes him -- naturally invites spiritual reflection and the use of mystical concepts and language. The book is a cornerstone or turning-point in al-Ghitany's career, and in the years since its publication he has taken a more poetic and meditative path."

Many of the specific concerns Osman identifies in his translation of al-Ghitany's novel are also general ones arising from the translation of contemporary Arab writing into French or other European languages. There is, for example, the question of commercial pressures, publishing being a private-sector activity in France as elsewhere, though one having perhaps greater access to public funds for special projects, such as literary translation, than elsewhere. There is also the difficulty of promoting writers and the literature to which they belong to a public spoilt for choice about what to read and tending to choose the most familiar writers or most heavily promoted books as a result.

In Osman's view, while the translation of contemporary Arab writing got off to a slow start in France as elsewhere in the early 1980s, the market received a tremendous fillip with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Naguib Mahfouz in 1988, triggering "a kind of gold rush on the part of many French publishers". Even though few of these had a sophisticated sense of the field, or a long-term commitment to making it better known in France, there was a marked increase in the number of translations from this date on.

However, he adds, "I wouldn't really say that more publishers or institutions are showing more interest, only that we are now seeing the results of efforts made by a still small number of translators, publishers and associations." Moreover, while today "there is a larger number of Arab authors translated, with the notable exception of Mahfouz few of these can claim a sizable or regular public. Perhaps one can mention Gamal al-Ghitany and Sonallah Ibrahim as being Egyptian writers with a public in Europe, and Hoda Barakat from Lebanon. While many other writers are also translated, fewer of their works are published and they receive generally lower recognition."

There is also the question of the possibly distorted tastes of the European reading public, which will need to be educated if "an emphasis on translating works that satisfy Western prejudices about the Arab world is to be avoided," Osman comments, "or, worse, if works are written in Arabic with the intention of pleasing a Western audience for any eventual translation."

Anomalies of this sort exist, he says, and they may have led to the kind of situation, familiar from the accelerated flow of works from Latin America into Europe via Paris in the 1970s, of producing distorted change in the home environment, such that dual literatures emerge, one for foreign and one for domestic consumption.

While these things "will probably tend to disappear as the French public's awareness of the Arab world in general and of Arab literature in particular increases," Osman says, "ultimately, the relevance of the publishing choices made depends on the integrity of publishers and translators, as well as on their ability to identify the most representative and deserving works for international exposure through translation."

Whether writing of this sort will find foreign readers was a question that also provoked debate at the Paris launch of the Livre des illuminations. According to Osman, speaking on the challenges of getting the text published, the novel's length was an issue that might deter publishers from undertaking such a costly project with uncertain returns, French readers being likely to prefer shorter works. However, for Editions du Seuil publishing a French translation of the novel was a "public duty", and their representative explained that the company had not hesitated in commissioning one as part of a strategy to promote contemporary Arab writing in general and al-Ghitany in particular.

Over the past 25 years, she said, French publishers had built up an extensive back-catalogue of translations from contemporary Arabic literature, aiming to give it the same kind of international exposure as Latin-American literature had received in the 1970s and adding a contemporary accent to the French tradition of scholarly translation from the Arabic. Moreover, it was to be hoped that French promotion of Arabic fiction would give it the international success that Latin-American had enjoyed, once translations began to filter through to the international reading public through the medium of French.

For al-Ghitany, the question of translation was a vexed one, since "my texts are almost impossible to translate, each presenting particular problems. Al-Zayni Barakat, for example, is written in a 16th-century style, and it contains words that are not in the dictionary, since creation is also a matter of creating language. However, I have found translators in France who love my books, and without them translation would have been impossible... The former director of Editions du Seuil, Michael Chodkiewicz, himself fond of Sufi literature, many times commented on his dream of translating the Kitab al-tajalliyat, and fortunately Khaled Osman was able to undertake it and Seuil commit itself to it, despite the cost."

Finally, this situation might be contrasted with that in the English-speaking world, a recent Internet search revealing that none of al-Ghitany's works are currently available in English translation, aside from the valiant decision by the American University in Cairo Press to keep Farouk Abdel-Wahab's translation of Al-Zayni Barakat in print, first published by Penguin in 1988. This contrasts with the dozen or so titles available in French, which also outshines the meagre handful of titles apparently available in German.

While this lack of English translations might be taken as a sad reflection on the state of British publishing, it is also a comment on the resources that French publishers can bring to bear in publishing translated works of foreign fiction, together with the French reading public's apparent taste for it: al-Ghitany's Kitab al-tajalliyat was translated with support from the French Centre national du livre, for example, a public- sector body.

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 763 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Ramadan Focus | Features | Heritage | Living | Sports | Cartoons | Encounter | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map