The first in a series of translations of classical Arabic literature, a new anthology is setting new standards for Arabic translation, writes David Tresilian
In the introduction to his Classical Arabic Literature — an anthology of translated extracts from literary works written in Arabic between the sixth and 18th centuries CE — the editor, Geert Jan Van Gelder, says that the anthology grew out of the set texts studied by students of Arabic at Oxford University, the aim being to give a fuller sense of the variety of classical Arabic literature than such texts sometimes allow.
The result is an anthology of pieces, all of them also translated and annotated by the editor, that ranges remarkably widely, taking in both poetry and prose and presenting both familiar and less familiar authors. The use made by the Oxford students of the new anthology is not recorded. For the general reader, it makes for a stimulating and intriguing introduction to a literature that is still sometimes unfamiliar to English-speaking audiences.
The book is one of the first publications in a new series of translations from classical and early modern Arabic literature sponsored by New York University and published in handsome paperback format by New York University Press. Other early publications in the series include the mediaeval writer Abul-Ela Al-Maari’s “Epistle of Forgiveness”, apparently the first complete English translation, and Ahmed Faris Al-Shidyaq’s sui generis work from 1855 al-saq ala al-saq fî ma huwa al-faryaq, translated as “Leg over Leg” by the distinguished translator Humphrey Davis.
According to the editors of the series, the idea is to make works of classical and early modern Arabic literature available to English-speaking readers in lucid new translations. There is also a scholarly intention behind the series since the books include the original Arabic texts on facing pages and the translations have been commissioned from recognised authorities in the field.
Aside from the opening lines from each extract, Gelder’s anthology does not in fact include the Arabic texts of the pieces chosen, though his intention has been to stick as closely as possible to the original texts, even if this results in some awkwardness in the English expression, with the originals showing through the English versions. He writes in his introduction that “the task of the literary translator is not to transport the original author to the English-speaking world of today; rather, one must transport the reader to the place and time of the author as much as possible and as much as is tolerable” to that reader.
In practice, this means avoiding the kind of “poetic recreations” that can give a false idea of the Arabic original, though it apparently does not always mean avoiding the kind of “poetic” language sometimes used by earlier translators that had managed to make some mediaeval Arab poets sound, in English translation, like 18th-century English clergymen. “A slightly archaic diction is not always a bad thing,” Gelder says of his own translations, and he has some harsh words for the efforts of others in which “poems by Al-Abbas Ibn Al-Ahnaf, Ibn Al-Mutazz, and Abul-Ela Al-Maari have been subjected to amputation, reinterpretation and rewriting” to create “pretty poems” that give little sense of the originals.
As far as the poetry is concerned, Gelder’s anthology contains what he calls a “mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar”. Shorter poems have been translated at the expense of longer ones, and “splendid poems [that] are readily available in numerous translations and interpretations,” among them the mu’allaqah by Imru Al-Qays or Al-Shanfara’s lamiyyat al-Arab, have been omitted in order to make room for less well-known ones. Each translation is prefaced by a headnote giving information about the authors and their works.
While Gelder says that he has tried “to keep annotation to a minimum”, the fact that the notes have been placed at the back of the volume means that the texts can be read without reference to them. But it would be a pity to ignore Gelder’s notes, as these are an attractive feature of the volume and they help to introduce the reader to the conventions of classical Arabic poetry as well as to the challenges it presents to the translator.
Writing on lines in a poem by the pre-Islamic poet Al-Muthaqqib Al-Abdi, Gelder says that the tenth-century critic Ibn Tabataba found them “silly”, for example, though he apparently liked the poem’s opening. Readers may well stumble at the lines “winds wailing like she-camels, calf-bereft / that sniff at dummies, straw-stuffed camel hides,” which occur in an “invective poem” by the eighth-century writer Jarir, Gelder making attractive use of adjectival compounds in his translation. However, in the notes he helpfully points out that the hides of slaughtered camel calves were apparently sometimes stuffed and used as dummies to stimulate milk production.
Readers used to the commonplaces of English poetry, historically drawn from European landscapes or classical originals, may also find those used in classical Arabic hard to fathom without reference to Gelder’s notes. Commenting on lines in his translation of a poem by the eighth-century poet Abu Al-Harith Ghaylan Ibn Uqbah, known as Dhu Al-Rummah (“he with the frayed rope”), Gelder says that the poet describes the limbs of his beloved by comparing them to “the twigs of a plant that dictionaries give as Asclepias gigantea… used in securing and fortifying sand dunes.”
“Her anklets and bone wristlets seem to twist / round ushar twigs that block the wadi’s torrent,” the translation reads. Gelder glosses this by saying that “the word for ‘wristlet’ is aj, which also means ‘ivory’. One commentator says they are made of ivory; another specifies that they are made of the ‘backbones of a sea animal’.” Sometimes Gelder confesses to inescapable difficulties at cruxes in the poems. Glossing lines from a poem by the Abbasid writer Ibn Al-Rumi, for example, he says that it is impossible to be sure what the lines mean, and in the introduction he mentions at least one mediaeval author whose works he has omitted since they are “impenetrable” to even the best-informed readers.
Gelder says in his introduction to the anthology that only “literary prose” has been translated, excluding legal and theological texts, as well as those dealing with medical, linguistic and philosophical matters. He has restricted the definition of literary writing, since historical and prosopographical writing is not included, and nor are sermons and orations, epistles, travelogues, geographical works, popular romances and epics and episodes from what is perhaps the best-known work of classical Arabic literary prose in Western countries, the Arabian Nights. The latter is already available in numerous translations.
However, what he does give is intriguing enough, and it includes stories, essays, works of literary criticism and popular science and ranges from the early 10th to the mid-18th centuries. Some of the material is designed for educated audiences, and some of it seems to be more popular in character. Highlights include Al-Farazdaq (died 728) recounting the story of Imru Al-Qays and the girls at the pond, the Abbasid writer Al-Jahiz writing on flies, the 11th-century writer Al-Tawhidi on the superiority of the Arabs, an intervention in the so-called shubiyah controversy over the merits of the Persians, and extracts from the letters of the Brethren of Purity, a 10th-century society based in Basra whose members wrote on a vast range of topics, from mathematics and the natural sciences to ethics and religion.
Sometimes individual voices emerge from these mediaeval texts with special force. Among the stories told by Al-Jahiz concerning flies is that of one man, someone from Al-Khuraybah, the site of a Sassanid castle near Basra, who said that “I used to like broad beans. Once I wanted to go to Basra, or Baghdad, I forget which, so I travelled in a barge that was loaded with broad beans. By God, I said to myself, this is really a stroke of luck! I can sit in this barge among these broad beans and eat them raw, boiled or baked; I can crush them, grind them, and make them into a broth or condiment. It is a nutritious and healthy food; it is fattening; and it is an aphrodisiac too!” The poor man had evidently forgotten that beans attract flies.
In the extract from Al-Tawhidi’s “Enjoyment and Geniality” recording discussions held at the house of the vizier Ibn Sadan Al-Arid in Baghdad, one of those present launches into an account of Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s views on the superiority of the Arabs, saying that “I do not wish to be accused of sycophancy or be suspected of toadying, [but] the Arabs had neither a model to follow, nor a book to instruct them. They inhabited a desert and desolate country, everyone on his own and forced to rely on his own thought, his own eyes, and his own reason.”
“They understood that their life depended on the earth’s vegetation, so they set about describing and categorising everything, discovering the beneficial qualities of every variety, whether fresh or dried, its optimal seasons and determining whether it was wholesome to sheep and camels… They are the most intelligent nation because of their sound natural disposition, their balanced constitution and their sharp understanding.”
Not everyone present agrees, and pressed by the vizier the narrator says that while “there are some Persians who are ignorant of statecraft, wholly without good manners, and to be classified as rabble or savages… there are also Arabs who are cowardly, brutish, frivolous, stingy and inarticulate. It is the same with the Indians, the Byzantines and others.” The whole text is fascinating, not only because it indicates the virtues that appealed to cultured mediaeval Baghdad audiences, eloquence being particularly prized, but also because of the scope of the geographical and historical examples used.
There is praise of the Arabic language, for example, one man saying that “we have heard the languages of all kinds of people, such as the language of our Persian friends, of the Byzantines, the Indians, the Turks, the Khwarazmians, the Slavs, the Andalusians and the East Africans. But never in any of these languages have we heard the splendour of Arabic… If you go from one language to another and finally come to Arabic, you will decide that difficulty and obscurity gradually disappear until you reach Arabic with its pure clarity and lucidity.”
Gelder occasionally experiments in his prose translations, even trying to reproduce the original “rhyming” prose, or saj, used among others by the tenth-century writer Al-Hamadhani in his maqamah or “scenes”. Lines from his translation read “once I was in Isfahan,* though going to Rayy* was my plan.* Therefore, I only stayed* as briefly as the fleeting shade,* expecting the arrival of the caravan every second* and any morning to departure to be beckoned.” It is interesting to compare this with the Arabic, lines from which are given in the headnotes, and possible to admire the translator’s ingenuity, while at the same time feeling that perhaps here the limits of what is “tolerable” are being reached, at least for non-scholarly reading.
Later in the book there are interesting translations from the 13th-century Egyptian writer Al-Tifashi’s “The Old Man’s Rejuvenation” and the 17th-century writer Al-Shirbini’s “Brains Confounded” in which Gelder also tries his hand at riskier modes of translation. Al-Tifashi’s book contains ten monologues by women embedded within a frame story that Gelder says should not be read as an “early ego-document about women’s experience, as it was doubtless written by a man”. On the other hand, one of the best-known “ego-documents” in modern English literature, Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, was also written by a man, though Gelder describes his translation, which reproduces the unpunctuated style of the original, as being a “far cry from Molly Bloom”. It reads very well.
Al-Shirbini’s “Brains Confounded” (hazz al-quhuf — Gelder suggests “Jolting the Yokels”) describes the lives of the Egyptian fellaheen in somewhat cruel terms, and it has an intriguing second half, reminiscent of Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, which consists of a mock commentary on a poem supposedly written in colloquial Arabic by a peasant called Abu Shadaf, perhaps a satire on traditional scholarship.
Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology, edited and translated by Geert Jan Van Gelder, New York University Press, 2013, pp468.