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The excellence of the Arabs

Two intriguing new volumes have been added to the Library of Arabic Literature of classical Arabic literary works in English translation

David Tresilian , Friday 29 Jan 2021
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Since its inception a decade or so ago, the Library of Arabic Literature of mostly classical Arabic literary works in English translation has been going from strength to strength. Published by New York University Press in Abu Dhabi, it now produces a handful of new titles a year, with each bringing a work of classical Arabic literature within the grasp of English-speaking readers.

The format has remained the same since the earliest titles in the series, with hardback editions containing facing Arabic and English texts being complemented by English-only paperback editions. These contain the translation and editorial matter of the original edition and are keyed into Arabic texts available on the Library’s Website. The latter are newly edited to scholarly standards, meaning that both Arabic and English-speaking readers can enjoy easy access to professionally edited and translated works from the Arabic.

Recent months have seen the publication of two intriguing new titles. The first, The Excellence of the Arabs by the 9th-century writer Ibn Qutaybah, has now appeared in paperback, reproducing a translation by Sarah Bowen Savant and Peter Webb originally published in 2017. The second, for the moment in hardback only and unusually containing only the English version, is a translation of the 11th-century writer al-Hariri’s Maqamat, or “assemblies”, in a version by Michael Cooperson.

 Like many other volumes in the series, neither book is perhaps immediately accessible to English-speaking readers. However, they have both been made so in part by the quality of the introductory and explanatory material and in part by the clear and lively translations. Cooperson, in particular, has produced a virtuoso English version of a famously challenging Arabic text. His translation, or translations – more on that below – demonstrates something of the “excellence of the Arabs” vaunted by Ibn Qutaybah, even pushing this to unusual limits.

In their introduction, Savant and Webb explain that Ibn Qutaybah’s book, a wide-ranging defence of the cultural and other achievements of the Arabs, must be understood against its historical background. It was written during a “politically and socially precarious moment of early Islam,” they write, when the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad was “being challenged by political instability from which it would never recover.” The older “Arab noble families who had enjoyed preponderant power in the caliphate since its inception” were being edged out, and “Arab military elites were being replaced by Turkic and other mercenaries from outside the imperial borders.”

“Five caliphs in succession were murdered between 247/861 and 256/870; the wider Iraqi economy deteriorated; and caliphal central authority declined sharply as many regions of the empire, including North Africa, Egypt, Arabia, and eastern Iran, asserted increasing local autonomy.”

It was against this background of widespread challenge to traditional Arab rule that Ibn Qutaybah composed his book in praise of the Arabs. It is “one of the most explicit, sustained, and detailed descriptions of Arab identity written before modern times,” Savant and Webb write, intended to “defend the social prestige of Arabness” at a time when this was under threat both from rising elites not necessarily claiming an Arab heritage and from the increasing self-confidence of others.

The book tends to project definitions of Arabness onto the past, often seeing Arab virtues as “a function of desert life.” Arab achievements are seen as being “not the province of urban folk,” such as those who lived in the increasingly cosmopolitan city of Baghdad, “but of the Arabian desert nomads” whose Arab-Bedouin identity made “the rise of Islam a uniquely Arab venture.”

Among the choices made by Savant and Webb in their translation are to render shu’ubi as “bigot” and ajam, often translated as “Persians,” as “easterners”. The al-shu’ubiyyah (“shu’ubism”), the movement to which the shu’ubi belonged, has often been seen as an early egalitarian movement seeking to open up Islamic culture to contributions from non-Arabs. The latter were often Persians whose country had been conquered in the earlier Arab conquests and who were enjoying “increasing cultural confidence… and a disregard for the proper place of Arabs and Arabic.”

Savant and Webb do not argue with the idea that Ibn Qutaybah saw the shu’ubis as part of the challenge to Arab prestige that his book seeks to combat – he says on the first page that it was written against “the prejudice of the bigots (shu’ubis), whose hearts are so full of envy and ill will that they deny the Arabs every virtue and ascribe to them every vice.” But they say that the “ideological content of shu’ibism is quite vague,” and aside from its hostility to the Arabs it does not seem to have had “an agenda, proponents, or public profile.”

Ajam, they say, though it could be used of Persians, most often refers to people further east whose “confused and unclear way of speaking” was a “contrast to the clear eloquence of Arabic speakers,” the Arabic language being for Ibn Qutaybah a pre-eminent “excellence” of the Arabs.


IMPOSTURES: Al-Hariri’s maqamat, rendered here as Impostures, was written some 200 years after Ibn Qutaybah’s praise of the Arabs, and Michael Cooperson begins his translation with an apology.    


“I have always tried to translate in [a] self-effacing way,” he writes, quoting a translator of the ancient Greek poet Homer who chose a deliberately low-key idiom for her English version to avoid “trumpeting its status with bright, noisy linguistic fireworks.” He also quotes a translator of Chinese who warns against “the idea that it is permissible, even necessary in some cases, to rewrite the original text to accommodate either the deficiencies or the particular strengths of the target language,” since this would be to run the risk of “self-display and the anticipated desires of an incurious audience.”

Before embarking on his translation of al-Hariri, he would have agreed with both translators, Cooperson says. But “having now learned something about the Impostures and its reception in various languages, I cannot imagine carrying it over [into English] without self-display.” Al-Hariri’s Impostures “do not simply include some excessive verbal performances; excessive verbal performance is what they are about,” he writes. “What is a translator to do with an original text whose avowed purpose is to fire off bright, noisy linguistic fireworks?”

His answer is to make a virtue of necessity and to find equivalents for such fireworks in English. Al-Hariri’s book consists of 50 anecdotes featuring the rogue and confidence-trickster Abu Zayd, all written in highly stylized Arabic. In fact, as Moroccan scholar Abdelfattah Kilito notes in his foreword to the translation, the stylization, and not the content, is probably the point.

Cooperson gives an idea of what this can entail when he writes that in the 28th tale “the roguish Abu Zayd delivers a sermon in which every word consists entirely of undotted letters (excluding, that is, half the letters in the Arabic alphabet)” since the “dots” are used to differentiate them.

“In Imposture 6, he dictates a letter in which every second word contains only dotted letters and the remaining words only undotted ones. In Impostures 8, 35, 43, and 44, he composes a story or poem that seems to be about one thing but contains so many words with double meanings that it can be read as telling an equally coherent story about something else.”

One possible model for translating such “trick writing” is suggested by the French writer Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style, Cooperson says, in which the same story is told 99 times over, each time in a different manner. More generally, there is the experimentation with various stylistic constraints associated with the French literary group Oulipo, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or “workshop for potential literature.”

There seemed to be “no point in producing another literal version” of al-Hariri’s book, he writes, adding that the way out of the “untranslatability trap,” the idea that it cannot be translated, “is to give up on the idea that one has to make the English distinctive in the same way as the Arabic.” The latter is full of allusions, verbal tricks, and rhymed prose, “which English (mostly) lacks. But English, unlike the kind of Arabic al-Hariri is using, can (for example) be written in a bewildering variety of historical, literary, and global styles. One way to show off English as al-Hariri meant to show off Arabic is to exploit these possibilities.”

Cooperson thus translates each of al-Hariri’s 50 tales in a different manner, sometimes by imitating English authors, the mediaeval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer for Imposture 10, for example, or the 16th-century English writer John Lyly for Imposture 4, sometimes by using “global varieties” of English, such as “Singaporean creole” for Imposture 3 or Scots for Imposture 14, and sometimes by using “specialised jargons” such as “management speak ([for Imposture] 22), legalese (32), and thieves’ cant (42).”

Other examples include Imposture 11, done in the style of 18th-century English preacher John Wesley, Imposture 18, recast as a Shakespearian play, Imposture 17, done in the manner of Edwardian English novelist Jerome K. Jerome, and Imposture 18, written in the style of a Sherlock Holmes detective story by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle.

The results are highly ingenious and very erudite, with each tale having its own explanatory headnote and bibliography. However, can they be readily understood? There could be a danger that readers might experience the “bewildering variety of historical, literary, and global styles” that Cooperson refers to as exactly that. No single voice emerges from these translations of al-Hariri’s tales, though it seems that he meant them to be read as a whole. What Cooperson has achieved is a marvelous series of possible translations, the results of a kind of Oulipo-style workshop, with some of his versions being easier to follow than others.

There is the issue of “cultural appropriation,” signaled by Cooperson when he discusses his use of “Singaporean creole,” “Harlem jive,” and “multicultural London English” for certain tales. There is also the issue of what he nicely calls “the aspirational quality of [al-Hariri’s] Arabic,” a kind of driving of the language to its limits in “punning, rhyming, riddling, or whatever the challenge might be.”

Al-Hariri’s tales were meant for public recitation, the origin of their English name of “assemblies,” and the literary culture of his time seems to have valued elaborate linguistic display. It is interesting to compare the “linguistic fireworks” of this new translation with the more plodding Victorian one by Chenery and Steinglass (1867-98) that is available on the Internet.

Ibn Qutaybah, The Excellence of the Arabs, translated by Sarah Bowen Savant and Peter Webb, New York University Press, 2019, pp254; Al-Hariri, Impostures, translated by Peter Cooperson, New York University Press, 2002, pp491.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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