Arabic Translation – A History

The Complete Review has a link to a review in the National of a new history of translation and Arabic, Prison-house of Language. The author raises some interesting issues about translation and power, but what caught my eye was this paragraph.

The translation of Arab literature into western languages yokes it to western sensibilities and conventions. As Kilito muses, “Who can read an Arab poet or novelist today without establishing a relationship between him and his European peers? We Arabs have invented a special way of reading: we read an Arabic text while thinking about the possibility of transferring it into a European language.” That long thread of Arab language and culture unravels under the heat of the European gaze. “Woe to the writers for whom we find no European counterparts: we simply turn away from them, leaving them in a dark, abandoned isthmus, a passage without mirrors to reflect their shadow or save them from loss and deathlike abandon.”

I have had the feeling at times when I read a story that was originally writen in Arabic, that it is so different in style and approach from the common ways of writing stories in the US and Europe that I’m not sure what to make of it. Is it good? Os it considered good there and I just don’t understand? Hassouna Moshbahi’s The Tortoise in Sardines and Oranges is a perfect example. Using the refrains “that was my first adventure” and “they beat me” the story mixes day dreams, boyish adventures and descriptions of everyday life in Tunisa. There is no ephinanic moment, no Frytag’s triangle, so what is going on? At such moments I think of the reverse, too, when Nagib Mahfouz talks about looking for models for his fiction. In each case, the cultural associations on each side make it difficult to know what the tradition is.