Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 April 2006
Issue No. 790
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

On translating Shakespeare into Arabic

Mohamed Enani* outlines the problems at stake, and decisions made, in his translations of the Bard

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"Shakespeare Now", a conference held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (9-10 April) and organised by the English Department of Alexandria University, appealed to both generalists and specialists, not least through its range of speakers. Catherine Belsey provided a poststructuralist reading in a paper entitled " King Lear and the Missing Salt", Julia Thomas analysed the shifting conventions in illustrations of Shakespeare's plays from the 18th and 19th centuries, Mohamed Enani gave a presentation on his experience translating Shakespeare and Kate McLuskie read a paper entitled "Enter the Ghost in his Night Gowne: the Corpus or Corpse of Shakespeare". Ismail Serageddin, director of the Bibliotheca, demonstrated the relevance of the Bard to such contemporary issues as women's and minorities' rights. At a roundtable discussion Essam Fatouh launched a postcolonial critique of humanist interpretations of the playwright before three outstanding undergraduate students of his -- Doa Abdel-Salam, Nadia Saad and Sherine Taraboulsi -- engaged the question "Why do Shakespeare's tragedies give pleasure?"

In her magisterial The Egyptian Theatre: Cultural Encounters, volumes I & II (Cairo, 2004-5), Nehad Selaiha, the far-famed Arabic drama critic, asks "What happens to plays when presented in cultural contexts other than their own? -- to dramatic texts in translation ... ?" This is obviously the central question in any approach to translating Shakespeare into any other language, not merely into Arabic; but with Arabic the question acquires an added difficulty, namely the fact that Arabic lacks the dramatic tradition of most European languages.

Until less than a century ago there had been no Arabic plays, that is, plays written originally in Arabic. It is now commonly accepted that when Ahmed Shawqi, the great poet of the early 20th century wrote his verse plays in the inter-war period (1924-1932), he was giving sanction to the dramatic form as a literary genre: people began to take it seriously, to read and watch it not as a foreign novelty but an indigenous product. A string of poet-dramatists followed: Aziz Abazah who aped Shawqi in adapting rhymed verse to the stage, Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharqawi who chose blank verse, establishing it as the new dramatic medium, and practically all who followed in this field, the most important among whom was Salah Abdel-Sabour. Behind Shawqi's pioneering effort were the early translations of European drama which were successfully adapted to the Egyptian theatre, initially imported in the late 19th century from the Levant but soon striking root in the Egyptian soil. The earliest extant Shakespearean translation dates as far back as 1900, namely Mohamed Iffat's free -- perhaps too free -- translation of Macbeth. The early decades of the 20th century saw a variety of adaptations, notably Sheikh Salama Higazi's Shuhada' Al-Gharam (Martyrs of Love) ---- a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, presented to an audience brought up on the tradition of Ottoman music, and written in classical rhymed verse, in 1912. The full text is now lost, unfortunately, as most plays at the time were not printed but handwritten and the script left a great deal to the improvisation of individual performers, actors and singers alike.

It was not until the 1930s that serious translation work started in earnest. Khalil Mutran, the great Lebanese--Egyptian poet, produced prose translations, possibly from French, of some of Shakespeare's plays. As an early director of the Egyptian National Theatre Company, he exerted a double influence: he supervised the early Shakespearean productions which competed, with varying degrees of success, with the commercial theatre of the inter-war period (which were either too melodramatic or too farcical) and he established his translation language as the popularly accepted language of grand theatre. Great actors of the period made sure that that language was established as the Arabic equivalent of Shakespeare's English, so much so, in fact, that when the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts was first established, all those aspiring to a career in acting had to learn Mutran's prose by heart.

The upshot of this was that by the early 1950s, the Shakespearean canon came to include three of the four "great tragedies" ---- Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth ---- and three other plays, The Merchant of Venice in Mutran's version, Julius Caesar in Mohamed Hamdi's version, and Romeo and Juliet in Ali Ahmed Bakatheer's blank verse version. The omission of King Lear from the canon seems odd; it was not done into Arabic until the 1960s in modern standard Arabic prose, then into verse in the 1990s. So, in fact, was the omission of the rest of the comedies and all histories. Even after Taha Hussein had initiated in the 1950s the grand project of translating all of Shakespeare's plays, under the aegis of the Arabic League, into Arabic prose, the other plays of Shakespeare remained largely unknown.

The fact that Shakespeare had remained for too long associated in the popular imagination with the classical Arabic idiom of pre-Islamic and early Islamic times meant a great deal to any "modern" translator of Shakespeare. Reading or listening to the lines of a king, a military commander or a Roman potentate delivering a speech, the audience expect the oratorical tones of an ancient Arab, as the language was far removed from what I have referred to as Modern Standard Arabic, the language developed by the press from the 19th century onwards and used in writing and in learning. The language itself ensures a distance in time, confirming the foreign nature of the work of art presented. People were inured to it, learnt to accept it and indeed developed a taste for it.

When in 1981 I presented my adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor at Al-Tali'a Theatre, in Egyptian Arabic, the audience found it hilarious, and for months they simply flocked to enjoy the pranks of the merry wives and pity Falstaff, but when the critics commented it was a different matter. One wrote an article in a Cairene weekly, a virulent attack on my "frivolous" work, entitled "The killing of a dramatist", by which he meant that I had murdered Shakespeare, the grand writer of tragedies. Another exclaimed "Is this the Shakespeare we know? This is an act of forgery, committed by a man who should know better than to vulgarise the venerable poet of the English-speaking world." I weathered the critical storm and had to defend what I had done publicly, but the old Shakespearean image persisted. Samir Sarhan, a fellow dramatist and "university wit", presented in 1983 and 1984 two other hitherto ignored Shakespearean comedies, viz. As You Like It and A Midsummer Night ' s Dream in the same Egyptian Arabic I had handled. His fate was less severe than mine, but no further translations of Shakespeare into Egyptian Arabic were ever attempted since.

The problem of tone has always seemed to me essential in choosing the right medium for translating Shakespeare: an idiom too classical and grand would lead to declamation and inanity; an idiom too common and "low" may falsify certain "effects" in Shakespeare. It was not until I had my surgical operation -- when for five months I was practically incarcerated in a room in a French hospital -- that I gave the matter serious consideration. The right way seemed to me to make use of Egyptian Arabic, realising I was addressing an Egyptian audience and possibly a wider Arabic-speaking audience reasonably familiar with Egyptian Arabic, in varying the tone of my Modern Arabic Standard translation of Shakespeare. That solution seemed to work well enough in the Windsor experiment (which I never published, by the way) and now, in 1993, I looked again at two early translations I had done largely in prose, A Midsummer Night ' s Dream (1964) and Romeo and Juliet (1965).

I re-translated the entire text of the latter in a mixture of prose and verse, especially as I had produced a verse adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, complete with song and occasional music, in 1985. The all-verse version was printed and went out of print, but not out of my memory. I varied the tone adequately in the new version, giving preponderance to verse in accessible modern Arabic. The reception encouraged me to try to do the same with the Dream, but too much of the original prose remained. I republished my 1988 verse translation of The Merchant of Venice, as the reading public seemed interested in finding out more about Shakespeare, though the attempt to present it at the National Theatre failed twice -- once because it was said that the language was not Egyptian enough, and, more recently, for political reasons. In the mid-1990s, the BBC Arabic service commissioned the translation of a number of Shakespearean plays and successfully presented them, and they are re-broadcast regularly as part of the BBC Shakespeare programmes, namely Julius Caesar, Richard II, Henry VIII, and The Tempest, having been gratified by my earlier versions of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night ' s Dream. All have been published, though, I fear, some are out of print.

Having overcome the apparently central obstacles of language and tone (which are naturally related) I now proceeded to handle the last remaining great tragedies. As I have, since I survived cancer apparently by the skin of my teeth, regarded every work as my last, I began with Hamlet, believing it to be the most difficult, if only because it is the most popular. Students read it at school around the world and no student of literature anywhere can afford not to know Hamlet or to have heard about of it. My immediate audience, my implied reader (and the idiom of reception theory is inevitable) consisted, I thought, of actors or potential actors, students of English literature old and new, and, lastly (a minority) the general readers who might be curious to know more about Hamlet. The fact that I expect such readers was a real problem : most of them knew Hamlet in English or in Arabic translation, and each had formed an idea and knew what to expect. So, while for the actors the image was of an eloquent, even a rhetorical Prince solemnly condemning the ways of the world, the problem with the students was that many of them had learnt certain passages by heart and looked only for what appeared an "accurate" rendering. The "general-reader" category included those Arabists was cared only for "correctness" perceived in traditional terms, both in metrics and idiomatic usage. Some of them, I was sure, would object to my use of a certain metre, as modern and easy; others might object to my use of Modern Standard Arabic itself as unfit for the grandeur of Shakespeare.

To satisfy all these was well-nigh impossible; hence my "Introductions" in which I stated that every generation had the right to read, to interpret, the classics in terms of contemporary culture, and that our Arab version of that contemporary culture is to be found in Modern Standard Arabic. This is the language that was introduced, practically for the first time, by Tewfiq Al-Hakim in his The Return of the Spirit back in 1928. It was developed by the following generation, from Naguib Mahfouz on, and is now just about the only medium used in literature. My contention was that if Shakespeare had been an Arab writing in the early 21st century about the same characters and the same dramatic situation, in Arabic, for an Arab audience, he might do what I have done! This may be too much to claim, but then the translator is in part an impersonator: I never regarded myself as undertaking a linguistic exercise; my Shakespeare is my own personal experience of the play as part of this culture (me and the play). Truthfulness to the text requires more than "accuracy" in the sense we usually confine to single words: it requires the accurate rendering of what the verse says in verse, and what the verse says in determined by a perceived accurate reading of the character in a specific situation, and I am always guided in this reading by what the critics since Shakespeare's day have had to say. Hence my use of all available editions of the play, as well as the mass of critical opinions I could gather from books and articles in learned periodicals. My introductions tried to cover the critical views, and my notes were devoted to defending my choices.

In the act of translation words come alive, especially in verse, as each seems embedded in meanings suggested by a variety of associations in our tradition, and I have to opt for the one that seems to force itself on my consciousness as though I was re-writing Shakespeare's play. Lexical accuracy is never sacrificed for special effects, of course, but an individual interpretation may tip the balance in favour of an apparent synonym that seems to fit Shakespeare's sense better. In fact, I sometimes carry accuracy to an extreme if a given word in English is commonly misunderstood by the Arabic speaking audience/readers, even if by insisting on the right or correct rendering I seem to be pedantic. But then I had to take into consideration that erudite learner who may like to compare several translations and may have only accuracy (as commonly understood) as the ultimate criterion. Throughout, I must admit, it was a balancing act: for I wanted to present "my" Hamlet and, at the same time, satisfy my readers' need for "accuracy". Presenting my own version of the play meant, primarily, to present a poetic drama, or a verse play if you want, reflecting all the moods and nuances of the original text: I was Hamlet when I translated his lines, and Claudius when I did his; and, drawing on the vast resources of Modern Standard Arabic, and the rich metrics of our language, I believe I have more often than not managed to capture the essentials of each, always guided, that is, by the Shakespearean text. But then my reader also expects other things: he or she knows a few lines or words by heart and would like to find them there, in any Arabic Hamlet. And I duly obliged.

* The writer is a professor of English literature at Cairo University. The above is an excerpt from his talk given at the " Shakespeare Now " conference held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 9-10 April.

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