The Mysteries of Translation in “Stranger Fictions”

14 December, 2020

Excerpt from Stranger Fictions: A History of the Novel in Arabic Translation by Rebecca C. Johnson - [Illustration: Socrates and his Students, illustration from ‘Kitab Mukhtar al-Hikam wa-Mahasin al-Kilam' by Al-Mubashir, Turkish School, (13th c) Photo by Bridgeman]< arabic translators preserved greek philosophy socrates.jpg

Excerpt from Stranger Fictions: A History of the Novel in Arabic Translation by Rebecca C. Johnson

[Illustration: Socrates and his Students, illustration from ‘Kitab Mukhtar al-Hikam wa-Mahasin al-Kilam’ by Al-Mubashir, Turkish School, (13th c) Photo by Bridgeman]

Stranger Fictions: A History of the Novel in Arabic, by Rebecca C. Johnson
Cornell University Press 2021
ISBN 9781501753060

In her fascinating new book Stranger Fictions: A History of the Novel in Arabic, out from Cornell in January, Rebecca Johnson argues that academic scholarship largely maintains the view that the novel developed in Europe and that therefore Europe is the center of literature and the location of “originals” and that everywhere else simply “receives” the novel as that original’s inferior copy. But hold your literary horses:

“If we look at translation as literary production, rather than reception, then we see that the translations are not at all copies of the original,” Johnson points out, “they are original works that are created in a critical relationship with the French or English text. Translation as critical reading, interpretation, political critique. The translated novel is not a copy of an original novel but a theorization of it; and the corpus of translated novels that comprise the earliest history of the novel in Arabic (and elsewhere, you might argue) is therefore not a belated version of the European novel, but a theorization of it.”  (Ed.)

Rebecca C. Johnson

To read in translation is the condition of modernity. Abdelfattah Kilito, Moroccan author and philosophical literary critic, comes to this conclusion after giving a lecture about the maqāmāt of Badī` al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī to a French audience. Anticipating how he will explain the narrative genre to a foreign audience, he decides to introduce it as having originated in the tenth century of the Christian calendar rather than the fourth century of hijrī one: “I would connect Badī` al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī to a period known to the audience and link him to his contemporary European writers,” he decides. But that did not quite work as he had hoped; he could only find one such author, Roswitha of Germany, with whom he doubted any would be familiar. And so he did as many scholars had done before him: he compared the maqāmāt to the Spanish picaresque novel of the sixteenth century.[i] “So when speaking about Abū Fatḥ al-Askandarī, I referred to Lazarillo de Tormes, a work of anonymous authorship, to Quevedo’s The Swindler, and others. In other words, I translated the Maqamāt…. I transferred them to a different genre, a different literature.”[ii] He had realized that “Arabic literature is untranslatable.”[iii] Reading a literature that is untranslatable and therefore in need of translation, he argues, has required a special way of reading that “takes translation into account, that is, translation as comparison.” Reading in translation, he concludes, is the “fundamental change for us in the modern age.”[iv]

Order  Stranger Fictions  from  Cornell University Press .<

Order Stranger Fictions from Cornell University Press.

A century and a half earlier, during the middle of the nineteenth century, in fact, others had come to similar conclusions. Buṭrus al-Bustānī, a foundational thinker of the nineteenth century, literary reformer, and translator, addressed his own “Lecture on the Culture of the Arabs” to a “well-attended assembly of Westerners and Arab sons of Beirut on the fifteenth of February, 1859,” where he compared Charles the V to the Caliph al-Ma’mūn.[v] An often-cited text that circulated in pamphlet form after the lecture’s delivery at the Syrian Society of Arts and Sciences (1847-1852), the “Lecture” inaugurated a discourse of Arabic literary modernity as a future state in which literary culture will be lifted out of its current “stagnancy” through translation and comparison.[vi] As he argued, just as the Golden Age of classical Arabic literature was cultivated through al-Ma’mūn’s patronage of translation from Roman, Byzantine, and Persian sources, and Europe’s Dark Ages were enlightened through King Alfonso X and Charles V’s patronage of translations from Arabic and Latin (which oftentimes had Arabic sources), the current revival—the nahḍa—was already emerging in translation projects sponsored by Mehmet Ali and Sultan Abdel-Majid I, as well as in those carried out by foreign-based Orientalist presses and missionary presses in the region. Modernity, al-Bustānī argued, required reading literary history in translation, and uncovering the history of translation that was contained within Arabic literary history. As al-Bustani reminds his readers, they “are not alone in this world” but are the “middle link” “in a great global chain [that] connects and separates the Eastern and Western worlds.”

As with Kilito, however, al-Bustānī indicates that this history of translation was not always straightforward: inserting the maqāma into a comparative literary history of the picaresque required a temporal leap of six centuries and a transformation of the genre. And comparing European translators and editors of classical Arabic texts to Arab translators of Greek classical works—both whom “preserved the middle link in the chain of knowledge which ties ancient to modern knowledge”—revealed the frequent inadequacy of that transfer:[vii]

“It is obvious that the Arabic presses in Europe and America are more numerous than in this country. If not for the labor of these presses, no trace of Arabic literary works would have survived. And so we see many of our Arabic books returning to us, after a long exile, printed in beautiful letters. If only we were able to say with complete accuracy and perfect soundness.”[viii]

The knowledge that these literary links were often weak caused Bustānī and others to cast a suspicious eye on the role of imported knowledge in what was called “civilizational reform.”[ix] Instead of wholesale adoption of European knowledge, al-Bustānī argues, transmission should be carefully surveilled by intermediaries who would keep a “sharp eye” on the translation process, catching and correcting linguistic errors.[x] Translators transformed texts rather than reproduce them. And so al-Bustānī narrates the history of Arabic letters itself as a history of translation as transformation:  knowledge that had circulated “from West to East coming from the direction of the North, was returning with numerous profits from East to the West from the direction of the South.”[xi] Knowledge never merely travels for these thinkers; it is made to travel by multiple mediators and is transformed, either in improvement or degradation (in the case of Orientalist translators), in the process.

Abdelfattah Kilito<

Abdelfattah Kilito

Understanding the “new age” [al-`aṣr al-jadīd] of print not only required reading in translation, but theorizing it. As Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq writes, in what has become an emblematic literary text of the period, al-Sāq `alā al-sāq fī mā huwa al-Fāryāq [Leg over Leg Concerning That Which Is al-Fāryāq, 1855], the New Age is distinguished by new modes of transmission:

I tell you that the world in your late grandfather’s and father’s day was not what it is now. In their day, there were no steamboats or railway tracks to bring close far-off tracts, to connect the disconnected…Then, one didn’t have to learn many languages. It could be said of anyone who know a few words of Turkish—Welcome, my lord! How nice to see you, my lord!—that he’d make a fine interpreter at the Imperial court.[xii]

A central and polarizing figure of the nahḍa, al-Shidyāq was a belle-lettrist, poet, travel-writer, translator, lexicographer, grammarian, literary historian, essayist, publisher, and newspaper editor; he is known as a pioneer of modern Arabic literature, a reviver of classical forms, the father of Arabic journalism, and no less than a modernizer of Arabic literature and the Arabic language itself. He was also a translator, and indeed we might see translation as the central conceptual category in his writing at large. Instead of fathers and grandfathers, al-Shidyāq claims to write a modern literature of steamboats and railways: the new age draws literary connections that emphasize horizontal over vertical connections, and that require translation as well as a keen eye of a reader-in-translation.

Nahḍa authors cast the writing and reading of modern Arabic literature, and even modern Arabic language itself, as a question of transmission in the age of new connectivity arising from print. Early presses printed numerous editions of pre-modern linguistic studies, which in turn became the bases for new scholarship that updated or revised their predecessors. The vigorous and often vicious discussion around the modern usage of the Arabic language launched a series of public philosophical debates in periodical pages, critical editions, and printed pamphlets. Those on the liberal side of the debate advocated for reforming Arabic and making it “suitable for the tasks of this age,” while conservative scholars believed that the deficiencies of modern language lay “not with the Arabic language, but with its people,” and sought to return Arabic to its purest roots in medieval grammars.[xiii]

This meant that scholars not only transmitted knowledge that would lead to “progress” and theorized the language in which it would conveyed, but identified and corrected the mistakes in its media of delivery. To do so, they employed a mode of criticism referred to as takhṭi’a, fault-finding, derived from khaṭa’, or error). Much in the spirit of medieval laḥn literature in which authors refuted unorthodox or incorrect linguistic usage with word-by-word critiques, they brought detailed charges of error in each other’s grammatical explanations and linguistic usages. A widening circle of enmities and alliances was drawn around these linguistic opinions, drawing in some of the most prominent nahḍa intellectuals and placing this debate in some of the most widely circulated journals.[xiv] Tracking transmission meant keeping a keen eye out for places where the chain broke down.

Despite their biting differences, what these scholars all agreed on was that a main cause in the crisis in modern usage was foreign language itself. Many lamented the rising position of foreign language learning and reading among educated Arabic speakers, and the consequent de-emphasis of Arabic proficiency, worried about eroding effects of foreign colloquialisms in everyday Arabic speech, and debated the means by which Arabic might accommodate and name the introduction of new, foreign concepts and objects while retaining its integrity. Al-Shidyāq’s grammatical simplifications were geared toward this competition with European languages, which he thought were attractive because they were easier to learn.[xv] He advocated for flexibility in terms of the incorporation of foreign concepts into Arabic, making an argument for the wide use of ishtiqāq, or derivation from existing Arabic roots, to form new terminology.[xvi] Conservative scholars, who also lamented the rise of European languages, meanwhile rejected the use of foreign expressions, or t`arīb (Arabization, and in other contexts, “translation”), and sought to limit the use of ishtiqāq to only minor deployments. Both t`arīb and al-ishtiqāq al-akbar (“major” or liberal derivations that allow the order of root consonants to be changed), he lamented, had become all too common in an age when foreign clothes, furniture, and household devices had become permanent fixtures in Arab homes, and new discoveries tested the limits of Arabic vocabularies.[xvii] As Salīm al-Bustani complains, the use of foreign words like “al-kūmsīyūn [commission], al-sīkūrata [security] and sikūzmī afandam [excuse me, sirs]” are “opiates” that sedate Arabic speakers and prevent them from serious scholarship in Arabic philology.[xviii] His magazine, al-Jinān, published several articles warning the greater public against the infiltration of foreign language, arguing that it creates a generation of people who can neither speak their own language nor a foreign one (figure 0.2). In the New Age, translation was a linguistic modernity that unsettled conservative critics.

In both cases, transmission and translation were understood as forms of critical reading that invited and even required more critical reading in a chain of verification and error detection. When al-Shidyāq describes the translations of European Orientalists, as he does at length, he meticulously (and often mockingly) details their inaccuracies and misunderstandings. As he describes them, the scholars at Cambridge and Oxford who acted as the transmitters of the Arabic literary tradition—storing, teaching, editing, and translating the manuscripts that could no longer be found in Ottoman libraries—often had difficulty deciphering the texts in their stewardship. Their interpretations were full of “laḥn wa zaḥāf,” errors and miscalculations, as they misread manuscripts and mistranslated idioms (with one English scholar translating the common curse yuḥraq dīnuhu, or “damn him” literally as “his religion became radiant with fire,” which he erroneously explained to mean “from the heat of his faith”).[xix] Al-Sāq delivers on its promise to detail the “errors of Arabic speakers both Arab and foreign” by appending a list of the “errors of the great and noble professors of the Arabic language in the schools of Paris” that include those found in “the translation (naql) of Persian letters by Alexandre Chodzko” and in the correction of a correction: Joseph Toussaint Reinaud and Hartwig Derenbourg’s 1847 revised edition of Silvestre de Sacy’s translation of the Maqāmāt of al-Ḥarīrī.[xx] Transmission and translation were often considered indistinguishable forms of the critical reading required to produce modern Arabic, modern literature, and progress more generally. And all necessitated an engagement with errors.

New Age literary production exhibited a central concern with mediation and its sometimes-faulty nodes of contact, commenting on the complex translational dynamics of Arabic print modernity. Errors erupt in textual transmission and produce errancy: wandering. “Being wrong,” as Seth Lerer points out, “is about being displaced,
about wandering, dissenting, emigrating, and alienating.”[xxi] Error, he notes, derives from the Latin word “errare,” or “to wander,” and in this it shares an affinity with the Arabic khaṭa’ (error), a word originally derived—according to Muḥammad Murtaḍā al-Zabīdī’s Tāj al-`arūs—from khaṭiya, a verb used when God makes a rain star pass over a piece of land without watering it.[xxii] Words deriving from it also mean to miss a mark or go astray, but since God is the verb’s original subject the act could be either a mistake or an “intentional fault” (as in khaṭṭaya al-sahm, “he made the arrow miss the mark”).[xxiii] Erring could be accidental or intentional, deliberate deviation from a path. While the detection of errors also took a central role, differentiating the mere misunderstanding from the productive deviation was not often possible and modes of comparison more complex. What is clear, and what this book seeks to account for, is how deviations, mistranscriptions, and easily detectible errors in translation could form the foundation of entire readings, arguments, and structures of thought. They were all understood to be as unavoidable as they were productive.

Reading in translation entailed reading in and for mistranslation. Accounting for errors was for nahḍa authors an “infinitely laborious task,” as Zachary Sng argues in his own history of error in European literature, and one that required both genealogical work—tracing errors back to their source—and an acknowledgment of the incoherent, non-systemic “alternative movement” that error charts in its production of new knowledge and revision of the old.[xxiv] Errorology made use of a multivalent comparative methodology that simultaneously opened onto the past and the future, entailing “multiple and repeated attempts at distinction that fail[ed] to foreclose entirely the possibility of new uncertainties and errors.”[xxv] Al-Shidyāq’s appendix listing the translation errors of French Orientalists, we might note, was followed by a second appendix listing the errors in his own work. It was the “middle link” on a chain of transmission constructed partially from error.

These nineteenth century writers’ focus on error in the transmission of language and texts raise debates about the origins of Arabic literary modernity (was it a European import, foreign to the Arabic literary tradition, or was it the outgrowth of a national literary past?) and reframes them as a debate about modernity’s transmission as well as the agents of that transmission—how they gathered and translated it, and how they transformed it in the process. Understanding how the novel arose amidst the vigorous debate about linguistic modernization as well as the scrupulous accounting of errors that attended it, we might see how translation transmits the novel as part of a larger self-critical process of modernity at large. This mode of comparative reading as “global dialectics” posits what Buṭrus al-Bustānī called a “wide field” of literature and Salīm al-Bustānī called the “single plane” of scientific and cultural effort as one in which universal standards and generic conventions are called into question.[xxvi] Instead, through translation and its errors, readers are asked to consider difference itself as constituting the single modern literary field, as well as the terms upon which they might enter it.

Stranger Fictionsreads these translators as de facto translation theorists and informed commentators on literary history. Through their prefaces, their journalistic writing, and their translation choices and techniques, they organized a transnational canon for an Arab readership, and they reinterpreted and recontextualized European originals within a longer arc of exchange in regions largely underemphasized in European accounts. They give readers a new account of the movement of novels in global literary space and describe an alternative history of European literature that bypasses accepted ideas about the division of subgenres and periods; they make European literary history strange. This book follows their theorization of the novel in translation as they compose literary history between languages, classifications of forms, and systems of literary value, and as they insert their own labors—sometimes tentatively—as part of this long and ongoing history. More than just interpreters, these translators were also producers of novels, working decades before scholars have understood the genre as having arrived. Their literary productions, I argue, are theorizations and ones that are relevant to more than just the history of literature in Arabic. Taking into their scope European literature and even “the world,” they have implications for discussions about world literature, the transnational novel, and the field of translation studies. Far from understanding the works of these translators as literary curiosities or footnotes to a “prehistory” of the novel, I write with them and follow them as theoreticians of the very modernity that they produced.



[i] Examples include James T. Monroe, The Art of Badī al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī as Picaresque Narrative (Beirut: Center for Arab and Middle East Studies, 1983) and Jareer Abu-Haidar, “Maqāmāt Literature and the Picaresque Novel,” Journal of Arabic Literature 5 (1974): 1-10.

[ii] Abdelfattah Kilito, Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, trans. Waïl S. Hassan (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008), 10. The original is `Abd al-Fattāḥ Kīlīṭū, Lan tatakallama lughatī (Beirut: Dār al-Ṭalī`a li al-Ṭibā`a wa al-Nashr, 2002).

[iii] Kilito, Thou Shalt Not, 18.

[iv] Kilito, Thou Shalt Not, 19.

[v] Buṭrus al-Bustānī, “Khuṭba fī adāb al-`arab,” al-Jam`iya al-Sūriya li al-`ulūm wa al-funūn, 1847-1852 (Beirut: Dār al-Ḥamrā’, 1990), 117.

[vi] For an extended discussion of the “Khuṭba” see chapter one (“Unpacking the Native Subject”) of Stephen Sheehi, The Foundations of Modern Arab Identity Foundations of Modern Arab Identity (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004).

[vii] Al-Bustānī, “Khuṭba,”107.

[viii] Al-Bustānī, “Khuṭba,”115.

[ix] Sheehi, Foundations of Modern Arab Identity, 33.

[x] Al-Bustānī, “Khuṭba,”35.

[xi] Al-Bustānī, “Khuṭba,” 107. My emphasis.

[xii] Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, Leg Over Leg, trans. Humphrey Davies, 4 vols., Library of Arabic Literature (New York: New York University Press, 2012-2014), 4:19 [4.1.9]. This was originally published as al-Sāq `alā al-sāq fī mā huwa al-Fāryāq [Leg Over Leg Concerning That Which Is al-Fāryāq] (Paris: Benjamin Duprat, 1855). All references here refer first to the English page number of the four-volume bilingual edition of Davies’ translation. To facilitate access to the Arabic text, I have also included the volume, chapter, and paragraph number. In the rare instances when I have differed from Davies’ translation, I have indicated as much, but I defer to Davies who has, as al-Shidyāq put it, “rendered his reputation white by covering pages in black.” Al-Shidyāq, Leg Over Leg, 1:37 [1.1.1].

[xiii] Al-Shidyāq, al-Jāsūs, 3. Ibrāhīm al-Yāzijī, “Al-Lugha wa al-`aṣr” [Language and the Age], Al-Bayān [The Bulletin] 1, no. 4 (1 June 1897):), 149.

[xiv] Al-Yāzijī’s articles, which appeared in his journals al-Bayān and al-Ḍiyā’, al-Bustānī’s al-Jinān, as well as Yūsuf al-Shalfūn’s al-Najāḥ were the most ubiquitous and strident. They aimed not only to “point out [al-Shidyāq’s] mistakes from the beginning to the end by publishing them one by one” but more broadly to defend the Arabic language from improper usage by adhering to the principles of the most conservative classical grammarians and lexicographers. Ibrāhīm al-Yāzijī, “Al-Radd `alā ṣāḥib al-Jawā’ib” [A Reply to the Owner of al-Jawā’ib], Al-Najāḥ: Ṣaḥīfa siyāsiyya `ilmiyya tijāriyya [Success: A political, scientific, and commercial newspaper] 3, no. 6 (1 February 1872): ), 88.

[xv] Al-Shidyāq, Jāsūs, 3.

[xvi] Mikhā’īl `Abd al-Sayyid, Kitāb sulwān al-shajī fī al-radd `alā Ibrāhīm al-Yāzijī [Book of Solace for the Distressed in the Refutation of Ibrāhīm al-Yāzijī] (Istanbul: Maṭba`t al-Jawā’ib, 1872), 77. While Kitāb sulwān was published as the work of a friend of al-Shidyāq’s who lived in Egypt, most scholars believe it to be the work of al-Shidyāq himself, as it conforms to both his linguistic views and his rhetorical style. It was also published by al-Shidyāq’s press.

[xvii] Ibrāhīm al-Yāzijī, “Al-Lugha wa al-`aṣr” [Language and the Age], Al-Bayān [The Bulletin] 1, no. 4 (1 June 1897), 146.

[xviii] Al-Bustānī, “Khuṭba,” 108.

[xix] Al-Shidyāq, Kashf, 125.

[xx] Al-Shidyāq, “Dhayl al-kitāb” [Appendix], al-Sāq, 1-24.

[xxi] Seth Lerer, Error and the Academic Self (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 2.

[xxii] Cited in Edward William Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon Vol. 1 (Beirut: Librarie du Liban, 1968), 761.

[xxiii] Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon, 761.

[xxiv] Zachary Sng, The Rhetoric of Error from Locke to Kleist (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2010), 4.

[xxv] Sng, Rhetoric of Error, 4.

[xxvi] Salīm al-Bustānī, “Rūḥ al-`aṣr,” 385-386.

Also of interest
The Translator by Leila AboulelaImpostures by Michael Cooperson 

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