Friday, May 08, 2009

On Translating Arabic Literature

Kilito, A. (2008) Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language. Syracuse University Press

It has been said that the difference between a language and a dialect is that a language is a dialect with an army. Both the act of translation and bilingualism are steeped in a tension between surrender and conquest, yielding conscious and unconscious effects on language. First published in Arabic in 2002, Abdelfattah Kilito's Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language explores the tension between dynamics of literary influence and canon formation within the Arabic literary tradition. As one of the Arab world's most original and provocative literary critics, Kilito challenges the reader to reexamine contemporary notions of translation, bilingualism, postcoloniality, and the discipline of comparative literature. Waïl S. Hassan's superb translation makes Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language available to an English-speaking audience for the first time, capturing the charm and elegance of the original in a chaste and seemingly effortless style.

At the center of Kilito's work is his insistence on the ethics of translation. He explores the effects of translation on the genres of poetry, narrative prose, and philosophy. Kilito highlights the problem of cultural translation as an interpretive process and as an essential element of comparative literary studies. In close readings of al-Jahiz, Ibn Rushd, al-Saffar, and al-Shidyaq, among others, he traces the shifts in attitude toward language and translation from the centuries of Arab cultural ascendancy to the contemporary period, interrogating along the way how the dynamics of power mediate literary encounters across cultural, linguistic, and political lines.

And an excerpt from a review of the book by Kanishk Tharoor, an associate editor at openDemocracy:

[T]ranslation, particularly in the world of Arabic letters, has never been an innocent or simple process. In his slim, energetic work Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, the Moroccan scholar Abdelfattah Kilito burrows into the age-old problem of the translation of Arabic literature. The book, itself translated from Arabic, privileges anecdote over argument, drifting playfully through the centuries to explore the relationship between the Arab and the foreign. Kilito indulges in a wide panoramic view, taking into account writings of numerous periods and styles, including ninth century theoretical musings on Persian-Arabic translation, various accounts of Arab travel writing (including Ibn Battuta’s famous journey to China), and passages from 20th century crime novels. This disparate material is shaped by the premise that there is something essentially unsound and compromised about the very act of translation, and that foreigners have yet to treat Arabic literature with appropriate sensitivity and care.

While numerous philosophical, historical and scientific works crossed into Arabic, barely any poetry made the same journey. As early as al Jahiz, the ninth century Afro-Arab writer, Arab scholars had already begun to argue that while it was possible to translate philosophy, the same could not be said of literature. Poetry in its very nature resists the estranging force of translation. “Whenever we find [the translator] speaking two languages, we know that he has mistreated both of them, for each one of the two languages pulls at the other, takes from it, and opposes it.”

Kilito himself seems to share in this distrust, but his own suspicion grows from more modern, political roots in the inversion of power relations with Europe and in the experience of colonialism. Breached and looted, Arabic has been invaded by the west. The problem now is not one of translating into Arabic, but of the implications of translation from Arabic. “The fundamental change for us in the modern age,” Kilito says, “is that the process of reading and writing is always attended with potential translation, the possibility of transfer into other literatures, something that never occurred to the ancients, who conceived of translation only within Arabic literature.” Classical Arab poets never considered the world of letters beyond their own. Their contemporary counterparts have no option but to do so.

The translation of Arab literature into western languages yokes it to western sensibilities and conventions. As Kilito muses, “Who can read an Arab poet or novelist today without establishing a relationship between him and his European peers? We Arabs have invented a special way of reading: we read an Arabic text while thinking about the possibility of transferring it into a European language (...) Woe to the writers for whom we find no European counterparts: we simply turn away from them, leaving them in a dark, abandoned isthmus, a passage without mirrors to reflect their shadow or save them from loss and deathlike abandon.”

Of course, the sins of translation are not simply those of Europeans. Though he laments the fate of these marooned Arab writers, Kilito opens the book with his own account of the pitfalls of cross-cultural translation. Invited to give a lecture in France on al Hamadhani’s maqamat (a 10th century collection of stories written in rhymed prose), Kilito describes his struggle to find a way to make the genre comprehensible to a contemporary European audience. The only European contemporary to al Hamadhani, he finds, is an obscure female German poet named Roswitha, who wrote dialogues in verse. He declines to make this connection – it strikes him as absurd, for who in his audience will have heard of Roswitha – but in his lecture he does equate the maqamat with the picaresque novels popular in Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Whatever uncertainties Kilito himself holds about the possibility of translations, they are not – seeming observations of fact. Instead, they were forged in the furnace of recent Arab-European history and, more importantly perhaps, in the memory of colonisation by the French, who were far more aggressive in their use of language as a pacifying and “civilising” tool than the British. However poignant within their own context, Kilito’s doubts about multilingualism carry a whiff of the parochial about them. [He] argues that “to speak a language is to turn to a side. Language is tied to a location on the map or a given space. To speak this or that language is to be on the right or the left ... and since [the bilingual] looks in two directions, he is two-faced.” This is a real dilemma for Kilito. But it forgets that multilingualism in much of the world is (and was) a comfortable, untortured fact of life. Language is not always wedded to geographical and political loyalties. That Kilito suggests it is says much about a common Arab and European understanding of language: not the caliphate-era vision of language spread boundlessly by the sword and the book, but a vision of a fissured landscape of languages, each guarded by its own political project, its own nation. To accept this view of the world is to succumb to that false cliché produced by the era of the modern European nation-state: a language is but “a dialect with an army.”

We can forgive Kilito, perched as he is in Rabat, on the joined frontiers of Arab and European history. Just as poetry (in al Jahiz’s view) could not be lifted from its original language and dropped into another, Kilito’s misgivings about multilingualism should not be translated out of their own context. His book should be understood as a commentary on the Arab experience of translation, not on translation in general (...) He even questions his own doubts about translation, spying an unsettling chauvinism in his jealous guardianship of Arabic from the European interloper.

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