Among the many translations of works of mediaeval and early modern Arabic literature that late translator Humphrey Davies produced for New York University Abu Dhabi’s Library of Arabic Literature, several stand out for their sheer ingenuity. Davies always had a signal talent for producing fluent and readable translations of works that would likely challenge even the most competent reader in their original Arabic.
His translation of 19th-century polymath Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq’s Saq ala Saq, as Leg over Leg and appearing in 2015, was something of a masterclass in literary translation, as he not only managed to find English equivalents for al-Shidyaq’s exuberant outpouring of Arabic synonyms, but also a convincing English voice for the book as a whole.
Doing so meant ransacking the dictionary, in fact several dictionaries, and drawing on English prose styles from the late 16th century onwards, but few would argue that the effort was not worth it. The result is that al-Shidyaq’s famously challenging book is now available in a translation that does what for many might have seemed nigh on impossible – to produce a plausible English equivalent for it.
Davies did something similar with other works, including the strikingly named Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded by the 17th-century Egyptian writer Yusuf al-Shirbini. The challenges facing the translator here were perhaps even greater, since the Arabic text was considerably older than al-Shidyaq’s, and there was less material to go on when trying to gauge the author’s intended readership and the effects he wanted to produce.
With no previous translations to suggest how it might sound in English, Davies came up with a highly readable version of this fascinating text. A sort of early prototype of the kind of literary games perhaps most associated with the Russian émigré novelist Vladimir Nabokov, the second part of Brains Confounded is an elaborate commentary on a bogus poem by the Abu Shaduf of the book’s title. Like Nabokov’s commentary on a similarly bogus poem in his novel Pale Fire, or the 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope’s efforts in his mock epic The Dunciad, al-Shirbini’s parody might have been intended to guy the scholarly community of his time.
Davies’s early death last year led many to look back on his enormous contribution to literary translation from Arabic. Not only are there the older texts he translated for the Library of Arabic Literature, including material from Sudan as well as from Egypt and Lebanon, but there are also his important translations from contemporary literature that include novels and non-fiction work from Egypt and fiction from Lebanon and Palestine.
As Davies told the Weekly in an interview in 2012, foreign publishers at least since the 1990s have been more and more open to commissioning translations of a wide range of Arabic literature, both historical and contemporary, and they have been more and more open to venturing into new territory and away from just well-known writers.
“I have never agreed to translate a book that I didn’t like or didn’t think of as deserving of translation,” he told the paper. “Fortunately, the publishers I work with have a clear idea of what they want, and this tends to coincide with the works that I would want to translate.”
A last translation by Davies has now appeared in a paperback edition from the Library of Arabic Literature and constitutes a distinctive addition to the series. Jamal al-Din al-Jawbari’s kitab al-mukhtar fi kashf al-asrar, the “book of the exposure of secrets,” translated as The Book of Charlatans, was written in the early 13th century by this originally Syrian author about whom almost nothing is known.
The few snippets of information that have come down to us are almost entirely taken from The Book of Charlatans itself, also al-Jawbari’s sole surviving work, and while these go some way towards excusing what could have been seen as a disreputable interest in the mediaeval underworld, al-Jawbari’s extensive anecdotes about all manner of scams and trickery also suggest that he may once have been something of a charlatan himself.
Among the many forms of fraud that al-Jawbari considers are those used by bogus sheikhs, quack doctors, confidence tricksters, alchemists, astrologers, beggars, lawyers, and apothecaries, all of them intended to trap the unwary or part them from their money. Some types of trickery are committed by market traders or street vendors, while others are carried out by respected professionals, but what they all have in common is their ingenuity.
Al-Jawbari says that his intention in his book is to expose such tricks in order to protect the public, but he can also come across as sometimes awestruck by the careful planning behind the techniques involved. Among the many examples of fraudulent miracle-workers that he describes are those who claim to be selling magic amulets that allow people to read other people’s minds. The supposed demonstration is faked by planting stooges in the audience and then using a pre-arranged code, all convincing enough if one does not know the trick in advance.
Then there are dodgy lawyers, quack doctors, and bent professionals of various types. The former are known for manipulating contracts, easily done if the documents are drawn out to unnecessary length, while the latter can simulate all sorts of apparently effective procedures and powerful medicines, whereas what they are actually offering is based on the manipulation of the credulous and snake oil.
Davies comments in his introduction to his translation, the first full version to appear in English, that what al-Jawbari “most violently condemns are the deceitful practices of false astrologers, geomancers, and alchemists, who abuse their sciences for their own nefarious ends.”
But he may also express his admiration for the skill of other charlatans, with these “lower forms of chicanery” attracting al-Jawbari’s attention as “deceptions that can be picked apart.” They may even be instructive since puzzling over how they are done can encourage a sceptical attitude in the wider public and, according to German scholar Stefan Wild, may constitute “a first and important step in something like an enlightenment literature in Islam.”
EMIRATI LORE: Love, Death, Fame: Poetry and Lore from the Emirati Oral Tradition, another recent title in the Library of Arabic Literature, is a collection of poems by the Gulf poet Al-Mayidi ibn Zahir translated with a facing Arabic text by the Dutch scholar Marcel Kurpershoek.
The collection contains 16 poems of various lengths all composed in the traditional poetic idiom of the region by ibn Zahir, a historical figure about whom almost nothing is known with any certainty, including his dates, but who has been adopted as something like the national poet of the United Arab Emirates. There is an additional poem that may be by ibn Zahir, and the collection as a whole is rounded out by six prose narratives about the poet that emphasise the affection with which he is held in the oral tradition.
As Kurpershoek explains in his introduction to the volume, ibn Zahir composed his poetry in the Nabati idiom traditionally used as a medium of literary expression by the Bedouin of the central and eastern parts of the Arabian Peninsula, and while collections of his work have been published in Arabic, this is the first major English translation and the first to contain the associated prose narratives. A large part of the book, something like the last 100 pages, is made up of notes on the Arabic text of the poems and the English translation.
English-speaking readers coming to ibn Zahir’s work for the first time, or to the traditional poetry of the UAE and the Gulf more generally, could scarcely be in better hands as far as the translation and commentary are concerned. Kurpershoek has spent the last three decades researching the traditional poetry of the region, and he has more recently begun to publish the results of his research. In addition to two other translations of such material in the Library of Arabic Literature, there are also five volumes of transcribed recordings designed for scholars.
His Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th-Century Najd, a translation of poems by the 18th-century poet Hmedan al-Shweir writing in the Arabic of the Najd region of what is now Saudi Arabia, appeared in the Library of Arabic Literature in 2017 and was followed by Arabian Romantic: Poems on Bedouin Life and Love, early 20th-century poems by Ibn Sbayyil, also from Najd, which was published a year later. His five volumes of Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia, the fruit of an extensive collection programme, appeared in 2005 and were recently reissued.
This extensive scholarship is reflected in Kurpershoek’s edition and translation of ibn Zahir’s poems, though it is always lightly worn. While “the poet is venerated in the UAE as a national icon, outside his native area he remains virtually unknown,” he comments, meaning that he has had to introduce not only ibn Zahir, a “proto-Emirati of Bedouin stock,” but also the poetic traditions within which he worked.
These draw on centuries-old Nabati idiom and the Arabic poetry of the classical era and include themes such as the “beauty of natural life, art, and poetry, the spellbinding spectacles of rainstorms, the Bedouin’s colourful transport of a mass of animals and people, and the game of love.” The language of the poems, incorporating the “artistic idiom of the 16th to 18th-century Nabati tradition of the wider eastern and central Arabian area” and drawing on older tropes and figures, has meant that in translating them Kurpershoek has had to search through the classical poets for analogues, “an indispensable treasure trove of kindred material.”
The results are reported on in the notes, and the volume is as much a masterclass in literary translation as Davies’s translation of al-Jawbari. In producing modern English versions of ibn Zahir’s poems, Kurpershoek has tracked down similar vocabulary in the Arabic of the classical as well as the Nabati poets, and by consulting the notes readers can follow his decisions in detail.
Ibn Zahir’s surviving poems are characterised by a “wise and mildly sceptical spirit,” Kurpersheok says, his poetic persona being that of a “feisty sage.” This impression is underlined by the biographical material about the poet in the Emirati oral tradition, which, taken from recordings made with Emirati transmitters in the 1990s, says something about how he is remembered today.
He was a “combative, kindhearted, witty, resourceful, hard-bitten, and scruffy poet” who was often engaged in a battle against authority, and he commemorates an older, simpler, and more traditional lifestyle rooted in occupations such as keeping camels, growing dates, and fishing and pearl-diving.
Jamal al-Din Abd al-Rahim al-Jawbari, The Book of Charlatans, trans. Humphrey Davies, Library of Arabic Literature, 2022, pp 300; Al-Mayidi ibn Zahir, Love, Death, Fame: Poetry and Lore from the Emirati Oral Tradition, trans. Marcel Kurpershoek, Library of Arabic Literature, 2022, pp 325
* A version of this article appears in print in the 5 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly