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 

Arabic translation

Rebecca C. Johnson is Associate Professor of English and the Humanities at Northwestern University, with a specialization in modern Arabic literature and translation studies, and is Associate Editor of the Journal of Arabic Literature. Though a native of California, she has lived and studied in Cairo, New York, and Paris before settling in Chicago. Her academic work has appeared or is forthcoming in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Middle Eastern Literatures, Comparative Literature, The International Journal of Middle East Studies, and Modern Language Quarterly. Along with her academic writing, she has also published literary translations from Arabic; her translation with the author of Sinan Antoon's I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody is available from City Lights Books, and translations of Faraj Bayrakdar’s poems will appear in A Dove in Free Flight (Upset Press, Ed. Ammiel Alcalay and Shareah Taleghani). She currently serves as Director of Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern. Stranger Fictions: A History of the Novel in Translation (Cornell University Press) is her first book.


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