Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

An endless leg over leg

Veteran translator Humphrey Davies’s new version of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg is a triumph of the translator’s art, writes David Tresilian

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In 1994, the British orientalist Robert Irwin began his Arabian Nights: A Companion, an account of The Thousand and One Nights, by saying that according to a Middle Eastern superstition “no one can read the whole of the Arabian Nights without dying.” Something similar might almost be said of the 19th-century Lebanese writer Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq’s sprawling novel Leg over Leg, or, to give it its fuller title, Leg over Leg, Or, The Turtle in the Tree, Concerning the Fariyaq, What Manner of Creature Might He Be, Otherwise Entitled, Days, Months, and Years Spent in Critical Examination of The Arabs and their Non-Arab Peers.

Al-Shidyaq’s novel is a novel in the sense that the Irish writer James Joyce’s encyclopaedic book Ulysses is usually considered to be one, as is his often-bewildering subsequent book Finnegans Wake. Leg over Leg has something of the same length, something of the same ambition, and something of the same mix of autobiography, sociology, philosophy, politics and, above all, linguistic virtuosity as Joyce’s early 20th-century books, though it was written in Arabic and published in Paris in the middle decades of the 19th century.

Sometimes it is compared to the 18th-century English writer Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, also a record of a life, though a highly unusual one. Such comparisons can be useful to anyone approaching al-Shidyaq’s book for the first time and wondering “what manner of creature [it] might be,” as the title has it, or how it might be read.

Irwin says that the Thousand and One Nights requires the same sort of “literary stamina” on the part of the reader as Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. Leg over Leg offers something of the challenges of Joyce’s books and something of the eccentricities of those of Sterne. It has elements of Alice in Wonderland in its love of bizarre definitions and of Joyce-like dictionary-grubbing in its search for unusual words.

Sometimes it’s a bit like the Victorian nonsense of Edward Lear. Getting to the end of veteran translator Humphrey Davies’s marvelous English-language version of the novel – truly a triumph of the translator’s art – one might feel that while it certainly does not kill the reader, unlike the Thousand and One Nights, it does provide a challenging, rollercoaster experience.

Parts of it are very funny, parts are extended linguistic riffs, and parts are almost or actually incomprehensible. Fortunately, Davies provides useful and often dryly humorous notes. The translation first appeared in 2013-2014 in the New York University Press’s series of Arabic literature in translation published in cooperation with the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute. That version had a facing Arabic text, edited by Davies, and appeared in an expensive hardback edition of four volumes. For the new paperback edition that appeared late last year the Press has omitted the Arabic text and crammed the whole into two fat paperback volumes, making the translation available to a far greater number of readers.

As well as being an often fascinating, sometimes exasperating product of an extraordinary mid-19th-century mind, Leg over Leg in Davies’s version is a master class in Arabic literary translation. Previous translations of work by contemporary Arab authors have won him extensive recognition, for example his versions of Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, selected by the British Society of Authors as one of the 50 outstanding translations of the past 50 years, and Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun, winner of a British PEN Club award and the UK Banipal Prize for Arabic Literature in English Translation.

His version of the 17th-century Egyptian author Yusuf al-Shirbani’s Hazz al-quhuf bi-sharh qasid Abi Shaduf (“Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded”), published in 2007, was a scholarly translation and foray into early modern literature. In an interview with the Weekly in 2012, Davies described it as being a particularly “rich source for the Egyptian colloquial language of the period.” Masquerading as an introduction and commentary to a long poem supposedly written by an Egyptian peasant, it is strangely reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. His new translation of Leg over Leg, also originally a scholarly translation, will be read with gratitude by a whole new generation of readers.

The narrative content of the novel can be mapped onto the story of al-Shidyaq’s remarkable life, though he is probably not to be taken exactly as the “Fariyaq” (Faris al-Shidyaq) of the book’s title. Born in 1805 in Lebanon, al-Shidyaq tried his hand at various trades before falling in with the American and European missionaries who at that time were to be found throughout the Middle East but perhaps particularly in Lebanon.

In 1826 he left for Alexandria, subsequently working in Malta for the British Church Missionary Society on an Arabic translation of the Bible. He worked for the early Egyptian newspaper Al-Waqa’i Al-Masriyyah while in Egypt and found himself again in Lebanon when Egyptian troops under Ibrahim Pasha invaded in 1831. He taught Arabic to students in Malta and wrote panegyric verses for the bey of Tunis.

In 1845, al-Shidyaq travelled to London, once again as part of an Arabic translation project, and found himself advising on Arabic to the professors of Oxford and Cambridge. He then moved to Paris, where he met the leading French orientalists, and it was there that he decided to set down his life in the shape of a novel, Leg over Leg, a title chosen, Davies explains, because of its ambiguity. The book was published in Arabic by a French publisher in Paris in 1854, causing al-Shidyaq to write that whereas his experience with Arab typesetters had been uniformly disappointing he had had positive experiences of the French who did not know a word of Arabic.

In 1853, al-Shidyaq moved to London permanently, only leaving, Crimean War permitting, for Istanbul in 1857 when he accepted a job in the Imperial Translation Bureau. At the end of the second volume (in this edition) of Leg over Leg, al-Shidyaq says that the appointment was due to “a poem I wrote in praise of Our August Lord and Honoured Sultan Abd al-Majid – may God remain forever on his side and immortalise his glory and his pride – and presented it to his honourable and ennobled ambassador, Prince Masurus, who sent it on to His Honour, the Pride of Ministers, Rashid Pasha, may God grant his every desire.”

It was “presented to the Sultan’s Presence at a propitious moment” and followed by a “Sublime Command” confirming al-Shidyaq’s appointment.



CHALLENGES OF TRANSLATION: While Leg over Leg contains autobiographical elements and is the record of at least part of a life, its real interest lies not so much in its subject matter as in its expression. Commenting on this in his “Translator’s Afterword,” Davies says that while “it should perhaps be made clear that al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq, despite its reputation, is not always ‘difficult’,” it does pose difficulties for the translator because of its “fondness for arcane vocabulary and verbal playfulness.”

He explains that translating the novel has become much easier because of the resources that are available on the Internet, including books that al-Shidyaq himself used, such as al-Firuzabadi’s dictionary Al-Qamus Al-Muhit and Ibn Manzur’s Lisan al-Arab. These certainly help in tracking down the vocabulary. But as far as “verbal playfulness” is concerned, there are greater problems for the translator since rendering this in English means finding equivalents not only for al-Shidyaq’s rhyming prose, or saj, a feature of the literary texts of the period, but also for his “fundamental practice [of]…the presentation of large numbers of words, usually rare, in the form of lists.”

Joyce does this in Ulysses, where he also relies on what Davies says may be the “fonction incantatoire” (“incantation function”) or even “sense of terror” produced by the practice in the reader. In rendering the rhyming prose, “the translator is obliged to do the best he can,” he comments. On the lists, he comes up with some ingenious solutions. Some of them include definitions – the words were presumably not familiar even to al-Shidyaq’s 19th-century readers – and some do not, relying instead on a sort of cumulative pressure, or copiousness. Davies gives the example of al-Shidyaq’s list of headgear worn in Alexandria in volume two of the novel.

This says that “as far as the city’s situation is concerned, it’s elegant because it’s on the sea, and the number of foreigners it contains adds to the brio: in it you see people whose heads are covered with tall pointed hats and others with tarbushes, some with round caps and others with maqa’it turbans, some with burnooses and others with ordinary turbans, some with asna’ turbans and others with madamij turbans, some with sailors’ caps and others with hoods, some with caps and others with bonnets, some with further turbans and others with watermelon-shaped and cantaloupe-shaped caps, and others with head scarves large and small, some with judges’ tun-caps and others with anti-macassars, some with undercloths as turbans and others with head rags, some with the turban under the name mishmadh and others with the turban under the name mishwadh, and some with Frankish hats shaped like earthenware jars, or carp, or the creases between the cheek, nose, and eye, or the crevices between the same, or the children of the jinn, or armpit sinews, or white varan lizards, or disreputable demons, or babies’ clouts.”

In other lists, al-Shidyaq comes up with virtuoso accounts of women’s ways of walking, ugliness in women, and forms of insincerity, among many others. Davies says that in cases where the English language is simply unable to reproduce the copiousness of the Arabic, he has resorted to phrase-making, even if this betrays the concision of the original. A good thesaurus can obviously help, as can the resources available on the Internet. But sometimes it is necessary to invent terms to render Al-Shidyaq’s Arabic, for example by “using Google’s Latin translation facility to create non-existent items.”

Of women’s ways of walking, also in volume two, Davies thus comes up with “her staggering and swaying, her tottering and strutting, her bending and bowing, her coyness and bough-like curvaceousness, the trailing of her skirts over the ground as she walks and her sweeping by, her turning of her face aside as she proceeds and her walking with a swinging gait, her stepping out manfully and her walking proudly in her clothes, her ambling and rambling, her stepping like a pouting pigeon and her rolling gait, the swinging of her mighty buttocks and her sashaying, the insinuating wriggling of her shoulders, her pretty waddling and the way she walks as though she were short, her shaking of her shoulders, her sprinting and her haughtiness…” and so the list goes on.

Of ugliness in women, riffed on in volume two, he writes of women who are “nanoid, endomorphic, adipose, fubsy, hebetudinous, impulchritudinous, chamaephytic, and troglydytic,” of others who are “crockadillapigs, shorties, runties, trolls, long-necked pinheads, midgets, wide-wooed woofers, waddlers, bitty-butted beasts, scrawnies, and spindle-legs,” and those who are “brevo-turpicular, magno-pinguicular, vasto-oricular, ignobilar, exiguo-deformicular, flaccido-ventricular, obsear, randicular, nigero-malo-incultular and hyper-rustico-rapacular.”

To be fair to the author, these lists come in the context of 12 pages of words describing beauty in women, these also severely testing the resources of English. Since that language is not up to the task of translating it, Davies writes that sometimes he has had to resort to a strategy of “representation,” rather than “translation,” of al-Shidyaq’s text, aiming not so much for “one-to-one equivalence as similarity of effect.”

“If the works of Rabelais – another list-maker and lover of recondite words – or of Robert Burton [author of the Anatomy of Melancholy], or of any other writer with a sensibility similar to al-Shidyaq’s, had been found to contain word lists resembling those in al-Saq and if these were culturally plausible (i.e. did not produce distractingly European resonances), it might have been appropriate or even desirable to transfer these, lock, stock and barrel, into the English text,” Davies says. “In the event, no lists that matched the Arabic sufficiently were found.”

Davies’s translation is enormously inventive even without such transfers. He describes it as “exploratory” and “an attempt to map the highly varied terrain of al-Shidyaq’s masterpiece.” There are other texts he might have mined in search of unusual words or analogous rhetorical strategies. There are the works of Joyce, of course, which it is strange that he does not mention, and there are those of Sir Thomas Browne, like Burton a 17th-century antiquarian. There is also the case of John Lyly, an Elizabethan author whose famously mannered style might have suggested ways of rendering al-Shidyaq’s rhyming prose.



VERSIONS OF THE MODERN: Aside from issues raised by the translation, there is also the question of what one is to make of al-Shidyaq’s copious invention.

US academic Rebecca Johnson comes to the rescue here, writing in her foreword to the novel that while some critics have seen Leg over Leg “as a transitional curiosity between the ‘intellectually frivolous’ and decadent post-classical age [of Arabic literature] and the 20th-century flowering of the modern novel,” the time has come for a re-evaluation in order “to engage critically with the Nahdah [the 19th-century Arab Renaissance] and its output, to understand the importance of both translation and philology to modern Arabic literature, and to reconceptualise global frameworks of literature and Arabic’s place in them.”

 What this means is setting al-Shidyaq back into his historical context and seeing Leg over Leg as somehow emblematic of his age. As well as being a translator, al-Shidyaq was also a journalist and an editor and, especially in later life, a considerable scholar. In 1861, he became the editor of Al-Jawa’ib, according to Johnson the first Arabic periodical to be published in Istanbul and “perhaps the most influential Arabic publication to be produced in the Nahdah.” He wrote critical works on Arabic and other languages and in 1870 began work on an edition of the 13th-century Arab scholar Ibn Manzur’s dictionary Lisan al-Arab, later published in 20 volumes in Cairo.

Much of his work was “neo-classical” or even “revivalist” in character, Johnson writes, adding that he “was not interested in abandoning inherited Arabic literary modes and rhetorical styles [but] was interested in reviving classical rhetoric and forms for the new reading public.” Modern literature did not need to imitate western forms, and neither did it need to chasten traditional Arabic rhetoric or vocabulary. Al-Shidyaq’s version of modernity, Johnson says, “was pioneered precisely through an interest in Arabic literary pre-modernity,” rather as if the modern age of breakneck technological, social and moral change, associated in al-Shidyaq’s case with contact with neighbouring Europe, could best be apprehended by traditional means – modern content in traditional form, then, or new wine in old bottles.

“Becoming modern was never a question of abandoning Arabic and writing in the languages of the European colonisers, whether French or English,” Johnson quotes one authority as saying, any more than it was a matter of simple imitation. Yet, she also quotes another critic as holding that Leg over Leg, in its linguistic variety and employment of traditional rhetoric, can nevertheless be seen as “a last glance at a fading language” and as a document conscious of “the precarious state written classical Arabic had reached under the growing impact of European languages and local attempts at reforming the Arabic language in the Ottoman world” of the time.

Is al-Shidyaq glancing backwards or is he looking forward? Is he a “neo-traditional” or a “modern” writer? Johnson deploys powerful battalions on both sides, writing that whereas critics like Luwis Awad and Shawqi Dayf have seen Leg over Leg as a “maqamah or neo-maqamah,” a modern pastiche of a pre-modern form (the maqamah was a pre- or early modern prose genre), Radwa Ashour has called it “the first and most important Arab novel.” Al-Shidyaq’s “interruptions, digressions, and lists create an endless leg over leg of narrative, where text seems to generate more text,” she says.

What Johnson describes as al-Shidyaq’s “unruly patchwork of a text whose unity is in danger of disintegration,” “interruptions of literary convention,” and undermining of a “linguistic authority [that is] always tied to political authority” again makes him sound like Joyce, creating an intriguing connection to European modernism and Ireland under British rule. Translator Humphrey Davies has done sterling service in making Leg over Leg available to English-speaking readers in this excellent translation which can only stimulate further debate.


Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, Leg over Leg, New York University Press: New York, 2015, 2 vols, pp494 & 620

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