More from the Arabic Library

David Tresilian , Tuesday 14 Apr 2020

The Library of Arabic Literature has been making more of its English translations of Arabic literature available in paperback editions


Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly in a 2018 interview, the editors of New York University’s Library of Arabic Literature, an ambitious series of mostly classical works of Arabic literature in new English translations, explained that “the series is aimed at the general reader who may not know anything at all about Arabic literature or Arab-Islamic civilisation… [and is] intended to reach out directly to this readership, requiring of readers as little effort and occasioning them as little cultural and intellectual anxiety as possible in order to enjoy our books.”

Two years on, the Library has produced further volumes of works of classical Arabic literature in hardback editions featuring newly edited Arabic texts and facing English translations. Many of these have then been republished in English-only paperback versions aimed at readers not requiring the original Arabic texts and some of the scholarly annotations, the intention being eventually to produce English-only paperbacks of all the books in the series.

“Our editions of the Arabic texts are aimed to reach out to readers of Arabic. These editions are authoritative, but they are not burdened with excessive annotation. All our translations will in due course appear in English-only paperback versions. We also produce PDF files of our Arabic texts and make them available on the library’s Arabic Website,” the editors explained, adding that in this way the Library aimed to meet the requirements of multiple constituencies, from scholars, to classroom use, to interested general readers.

The Library “does have a house style,” the editors, who include professor of Arabic at NYU Philip Kennedy, who also serves as general editor of the series, James Montgomery, professor of Arabic at Cambridge University in the UK, Shawkat Toorawa, professor of Arabic at Yale University, and executive editor Chip Rossetti, told the Weekly. “Its main feature is that the English used for the translations should be modern and lucid… [even if] modern and lucid is not always easy to achieve… We want to make sure that these Arabic texts, in some cases written by towering intellects, sound very good in English and do not sound wooden” in translation.  

Among the recent volumes in the series re-issued in English-only paperback versions are perhaps two of the Library’s more daring translations. The first, a translation of the sixth-century Arab poet Antarah ibn Shaddad’s War Songs by Montgomery, first appeared in a parallel Arabic-English version in 2018 and was then reissued in an English-only paperback. The second, a translation by veteran translator Humphrey Davies of a 17th-century Egyptian prose work entitled Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded, was published in two volumes in English-only paperbacks late last year, having first appeared in the Library in a parallel Arabic-English version in 2016.

Both books contain comprehensive introductions situating the texts and their authors in the circumstances of their time and in the relevant literary traditions. Both also contain discussions of the challenges of translating the texts into modern English, challenges compounded in the case of the poems by Antarah both by the temporal distance between these poems and the present day, resulting in difficulties in finding a convincing modern voice in English for the poet’s sixth-century voice in Arabic, and by the weight of the scholarly tradition, with over a thousand years of commentary needing to be taken on board by the translators.

In the case of Brains Confounded, Davies has produced a virtuoso English version of this still little-known Arabic text written in Egypt by author Yusuf Al-Shirbini in the late 17th century. It is reproduced with a characteristically penetrating foreword by novelist and Weekly culture editor Youssef Rakha.

Davies has drawn upon the techniques of translation set out in his version of the 19th-century Lebanese writer Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg, which appeared in the Library in 2016. The latter posed particular difficulties for the translator because of its “fondness for arcane vocabulary and verbal playfulness” and the need to find equivalents not only for its rhyming prose, or saj, a feature of many literary texts of the period, but also for its “fundamental practice [of]…the presentation of large numbers of words, usually rare, in the form of lists,” he said.

English simply did not have the resources of Arabic in terms of vocabulary, Davies suggested, meaning that he had had to have recourse to phrase-making and invention, even “using Google’s Latin translation facility to create non-existent [lexical] items” and coming up with recondite terms that, if ‘culturally plausible… [could be] appropriate or even desirable to transfer lock, stock and barrel, into the English text.”

Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded

BRAINS CONFOUNDED: Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded was written by the Egyptian man of letters Yusuf Al-Shirbini sometime in the later 17th century and presumably in Cairo, though it takes as its subject matter the condition of the country people of the time. It is presented in the NYU series with a shorter text called Risible Rhymes by the 17th-century Egyptian writer Muhammad Ibn Mahfouz Al-Sanhuri.

Brains Confounded is Al-Shirbini’s only surviving work of any length, and as Davies explains in his introduction, it is also the only work by which the author is known. Very little has come down to us about Al-Shirbini, and the little that can be said with confidence has been deduced from clues in this text.

“While Al-Shirbini apparently failed to attract the attention of his contemporaries for his learning, or, apparently, to attain any post in a teaching or other religious institution… Brains Confounded demonstrates that he was a man of broad culture, familiar with both the religious and secular sciences of his time,” Davies says.

He also says that Al-Shirbini was keen to distinguish himself from the country people who make up the subject matter of his book, even if he himself hailed from a village in the Delta. “The primary argument of the satirical dimension of Brains Confounded [is] that the people of the countryside are possessed of characteristics and guilty of practices that exclude them from consideration as civilised beings,” Davies says, with particular animus being directed at peasant cultivators (fellahin), rural men of religion (fuqaha), and rural dervishes (khawamis), all of whom are presented as being irremediably coarse and uneducated, unlike more refined and cultivated city-dwellers like Al-Shirbini himself.

Part one of the book, contained in the first volume of Davies’s two-volume translation, consists of sections with headings such as “anecdotes showing the stupidity of country people,” “more anecdotes illustrating the stupidity of country people,” “further accounts showing the ignorance of country pastors [fuqaha],” and “an account of their poets and of their idiocies and inanities.” In these sections Al-Shirbini presents evidence bearing out his views, with an introductory section entitled “the author embarks on a description of the common country folk” containing comments of extraordinary vitriol.

“Even were one of them to reside for a while in Cairo and Dimyat [Damietta], he would not acquire an ounce of refinement, and should one of their great men, the cynosure and patron of all, go to Cairo to meet with the emir or to settle some business with the vizier, he will be seen wearing fine clothes, but, for all that, walking barefoot, innocent of shoes,” Al-Shirbini comments.

Davies once again demonstrates the inventiveness of his translation, already seen in his version of Leg over Leg. In Brains Confounded there are similar lists, of peasant names, for example, with Al-Shirbini producing nicknames such as “Junayjil (‘Little Bell’) and Julayjil (ditto), ‘Afr (‘Dust’) and Du’mum, Zu’ayt, Mu’ayt, and Qusayt (‘Little Milk Can’), Shallatah (‘Mattock’) and Lahhatah, Shuqlayt and Muqlayt, Saffar (‘Whistler’), Bahwar (‘Braggart’) and Ja’mar, Imran and Sha’wan, Shamdut and Burghut (‘Fleas’), Al-‘Afsh (‘Field Trash’) and Al-Natsh (‘Snatching’).”

In the endnotes Davies provides an analysis of such “rural forms,” sketching out their relation to the classical and colloquial languages. “Lahhatah” is related to the modern Egyptian dialect word lahat, for example (to guzzle), while “Muqlayt” survives in the “modern rural Egyptian yitmaqlit (‘to make fun of’).” What this shows is how valuable a source this book can be for the spoken language of its time, and it may have been this feature of Brains Confounded – a sort of linguistic goldmine for material not making it into other texts from the period – that first piqued Davies’s interest.

He wrote a PhD thesis on Brains Confounded in the 1980s and subsequently produced an Arabic edition and first translation of it between 2005 and 2007, together with a lexicon of 17th-century Egyptian Arabic drawing on the evidence it provides.

The reasons behind the extraordinary animus Al-Shirbini apparently felt towards the country people of his time, making them the butt of his bitingly vitriolic humour, are never clear. Davies says that while the full answer can never be known, “the people of the countryside” may be surrogates “for all that Al-Shirbini perceived as ‘coarse’ in the Egypt of his day.” His book “may represent a counterattack on behalf of… the representatives of ‘refined’ culture against the threat to their hegemony from the ‘coarse’,” he says. However, he also says that it is not only the “coarse” who are the targets of Al-Shirbini’s humour, since the second part of the book also seems to parody the “refined” culture of his time.

This second part consists of a mock commentary on a poem – the “Ode of Abu Shaduf” of the book’s title – “expounded” or explained by bringing the heavy guns of literary exegesis to bear. The results may remind some of the Russian émigré novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s similar jokiness in his novel Pale Fire, in which he imagined a third-rate scholar laboriously producing a commentary on an equally third-rate poem while revealing more than he had intended of his own obsessions. Others may be reminded of the Dunciad by the 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope, an astonishingly sustained attack on the literary “dunces” of his time.

In Brains Confounded, the primary text is supposedly by Abu Shaduf, a peasant poet, and the commentary goes to enormous lengths to explicate this text using all the methods of the literary culture of Al-Shirbini’s time, pushing them close to, or beyond, self-parody.

The poem begins with the lines “Says Abu Shaduf: from all he has suffered / Of want, his body’s ever skinny,” with Al-Shirbini’s commentary pedantically explaining “yaqalu [Abu Shaduf says] – i.e., he intends to initiate speech (qawl) external to himself that will contain an explanation of his state and evidence of the accidents of time with which he was inflicted.” He then goes further by producing cod cognates and etymologies, many of them ridiculous or obviously false, in order to “expound” Abu Shaduf’s Ode. For qawl, “the paradigm is qala, yaqulu, qawlan, and maqalatan,” Al-Shirbini says, producing a list of grammatical forms, before adding “qulatan (‘water pitcher’) and qaylulatan (‘midday snooze’)” for good measure, which, as Davies comments in his notes, are obviously false since these words derive from unrelated roots.  

Volume Two of Brains Confounded runs to some 260 pages of text and “commentary” with a further 60 pages of explanatory notes, and it represents a herculean effort on the part of its translator. The question arises of why Al-Shirbini, the scourge of peasant ways, should also have thrown in this parody of scholarly practices. Davies’s answer is that it may have been designed to demonstrate Al-Shirbini’s mastery of this form of discourse, while also questioning “the sanity of the discipline [of scholarly commentary] in whose name [it was] produced.”

“The tendency of these techniques to make textual commentary itself appear comic raises the possibility that Al-Shirbini intended to subvert the genre and the literary culture from which it grew,” he says.


WAR SONGS: Perhaps more difficult for the general reader to take on board, but culturally of enormous significance, are the poems of the pre-Islamic poet Antarah ibn Shaddad that have appeared in the series in a translation by James Montgomery.

“From the moment in the third [AH] /ninth century [CE] that ‘Antarah appears… he is cloaked in uncertainty, having already become the stuff of legend,” Montgomery explains in his introduction. Some things, however, have come down to us in the tradition, including that he “was black and born a slave to a black mother, herself a slave; that he belonged to the tribe of ‘Abs [in the Arabian Peninsula]; that he lived in the second half of the sixth century,” and therefore in the period before Islam, “that he was the most ferocious and accomplished warrior of his age; that he won his freedom in battle; and that he excelled as a poet.”

His poetry, originally in oral form, “emerged abruptly in the second half of the sixth century [and] was subject to an astonishing variety of experimentations, manipulations, conceptualisations, and imaginings in the seven or eight decades before the advent of Islam,” Montgomery adds, with Antarah and other warrior poets of the period choosing “to express their views of the world, their war culture, and their ethos in qasida poetry, which is poetry composed in prestige language (classical Arabic) in works of varying length and complexity, from simple poems to complex odes.”

The poetry shows “the emergence of the warrior-poet as the spokesperson of a war culture… [and its] ideals were informed by a universal vision of manly virtue (muruwwah), at the heart of which lay a passionate and uncompromising adherence to honour (ird)” and a “scrupulous adherence to an ever-changing and flexible social dynamic of alliance and protection, as well as by their expression of ties, kinship, and loyalties through genealogy, both acquired (hasab) and inherited (nasab),” Montgomery says.

His introduction provides information about the transmission of the poems to the present day, starting with the “Abbasid discovery of Antarah” in the 8th and 9th centuries CE. “This body of oral verse came to be salvaged, recorded, and studied by Abbasid language experts, scholars, enthusiasts, and intellectuals,” in the capital of the Abbasid Dynasty in Baghdad. For such individuals, the poems of Antarah, of enormous significance in understanding the Arabic language and the history of the Arabs, were already foreign to the “new social, cultural, and political structures” of Abbasid society, and the task thus became to collect and study these now distant materials.

“In their quest for a pure, original Arabic to set the pristine (divine) Arabic of the Qur’an against, the philologists of third/ninth century Iraq sought to imagine a correspondingly pure, original Arabia inhabited by noble warrior nomads. It is hard to think of a figure that could have met their requirements more completely than Antarah ibn Shaddad,” Montgomery comments.

Such a back story is likely to make any translator have second thoughts about the possibility of translating such poems into English, with one of the first tasks being to establish authoritative texts and a plausible corpus. Montgomery, like others before him, has relied on scholars working centuries after Antarah’s death to do so, notably the two “recensions” (collections) of Al-Shantamari and Al-Batalyawsi working in Al-Andalus, or Arab Spain, in the 10th and 11th centuries, which contain some 40 poems. “Antarah’s poetry survived because of the amazing fifth/eleventh century efflorescence in Arabic philology that characterised Al-Andalus, the Muslim-controlled regions of the Iberian Peninsula,” Montgomery says. “It is a remarkable story of the literate continuities of Islamic civilisation and Arabic scholarship during the classical era.”

The translation opens with a version of Antarah’s most important composition, his Mu’allaqah, or “Suspended Ode,” so called because it was hung or suspended from the Ka’aba in Mecca. “This is a difficult poem, one dominated by grotesquery, where meaning and established order are in flux,” Montgomery says. “It is a poem that pushes the qasida as art form to the very edge of signification and derives its meaning from the obliteration of existence in death.”

Probably the best-known English translation of the poem is by British Arabist A.J. Arberry, appearing in his 1957 book “The Seven Odes” where it is called “The Black Knight”. Arberry’s translation begins, “Have the poets left in the garment a place for a patch to be patched by me; and did you know the abode of your beloved after reflection? / The vestige of the house, which did not speak, confounded thee, until it spoke by means of signs, like one deaf and dumb. / Verily, I kept my she-camel there long grumbling, with a yearning at the blackened stones, keeping and standing firm in their own places,” with the modern reader immediately recognising the vaguely Victorian diction.

Montgomery wants Antarah to sound different in English translation, and his version, now called “Did Poetry Die?”, begins “Did poetry die in its war with the poets? Is this where Ablah walked? Think? The ruins were deaf – refused to reply, / then shouted out in a foreign tongue. / My camel tried to withdraw -- / I couldn’t move, / ranting at the charred stones.” We have moved from the language of the Authorised Version to something like Robert Browning or an imagist version of Antarah in a translation by Ezra Pound.

Montgomery’s notes and introduction to his translation are a constant delight, keeping up a conversation with the reader as he wrestles with translating these remarkable poems. No reader can fail to learn an enormous amount from it.

Antarah ibn Shaddad, War Songs, trans. James Montgomery with Richard Sieburth, New York: NYU Press, 2018, pp320; Yusuf Al-Shirbini, Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded, trans. Humphrey Davies, New York: NYU Press, 2019, two volumes, pp292 & 380.

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