Thursday, May 7, 2009

"Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language" - A Review of Abdelfettah's Kilito's Book on Arabic and Translation

How about a break from politics and the economy with a little literature? Here is a review of Abdelfettah Kilito's book, Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language that ran on The National's website.

Prison-house of language

Abdelfattah Kilito’s new book explores Arabic literature’s long, tortured relationship with translation. Meditating on the perils and possibilities of multilingualism, Kanishk Tharoor reads across the divide.

Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language

Abdelfattah Kilito
Translated by Wail S Hassan
Syracuse University Press

In the much-quoted 2002 Arab Human Development Report, literature stood as a barometer for stagnation and cupidity in the Arab world. According to the UN-sponsored study, there was a paucity of new, dynamic writing on the market, where “religious books and educational publications that are limited in their creative content” held sway. Moreover, dialogue between the sacred realm of the Arab language and the world outside was meagre. The report noted that “the figures for translated books are also discouraging. The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates. The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Ma’mun’s time is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year.” Published in the bellicose early years of the now winded “war on terror”, the report’s blizzard of statistics have since been challenged. (Spain, for example, translates less than 10,000 books each year.) But at the time the report provided damning evidence for critics of the Arab world: open societies required an open exchange of literatures.

But translation, particularly in the world of Arabic letters, has never been an innocent or simple process. In his slim, energetic work Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, the Moroccan scholar Abdelfattah Kilito burrows into the age-old problem of the translation of Arabic literature. The book, itself translated from Arabic, privileges anecdote over argument, drifting playfully through the centuries to explore the relationship between the Arab and the foreign. Kilito indulges in a wide panoramic view, taking into account writings of numerous periods and styles, including ninth century theoretical musings on Persian-Arabic translation, various accounts of Arab travel writing (including Ibn Battuta’s famous journey to China), and passages from 20th century crime novels. This disparate material is shaped by the premise that there is something essentially unsound and compromised about the very act of translation, and that foreigners have yet to treat Arabic literature with appropriate sensitivity and care.

Arabic occupies a rather lonely place in the landscape of world languages. With the possible exceptions of Chinese and Tamil, no other major modern idiom enjoys such a long, unbroken scriptural history. Classical Arabic remains intelligible to much of the literate Arab world, while most other modern languages only emerged in their current written form in the last 600 years. Modern Greek is gobbledygook compared to its ancient predecessor; French is the ruins of a ravaged Roman Gaul; English is the flighty, Latinised step-child of earthy Anglo-Saxon; Hindi (and Urdu) are the mongrel beasts of Mughal army camps in South Asia. Arabic in the 21st century looks into the mirror of its antiquity and sees a familiar reflection. Its continuity can be threaded through the centuries, endowing contemporaries with both a deep sense of the coherence of Arab linguistic traditions and the burden of their legacy.

At the same time, the Arabic language has always been surrounded by others. From the days of the first caliphs, Arab intellectual history was framed by interaction with other languages. Kilito – echoing fairly conventional wisdom – places the high noon of Arab thought and writing in the period between the seventh and 13th centuries. As Arab forces gobbled up the lands of the Persian and Byzantine empires, Arab scholars absorbed Persian and Greek texts. Translation here was principally one-way, from ancient languages like Greek, Persian and Syriac into Arabic. It was guided by the arrogant but understandable assumption that those seeking knowledge should now do so in Arabic; at its peak the caliphate was the real heir of both the Mediterranean power of Rome and the universal pretensions of Persian kingship. Much has been written and said in recent years about how the accumulated lore of other lands stirred a cauldron of intellectual ferment in the Arab world, and about how the eventual flowering of the Renaissance in southern and western Europe rested on the soil of Arab knowledge. In this period, Arabic indisputably surpassed its regional competitors as the principal vehicle – and engine – of scholarly innovation.

But while numerous philosophical, historical and scientific works crossed into Arabic, barely any poetry made the same journey. As early as al Jahiz, the ninth century Afro-Arab writer, Arab scholars had already begun to argue that while it was possible to translate philosophy, the same could not be said of literature. In fluent close readings, Kilito shows how al Jahiz distinguished between the two; the “universality” of philosophy allowed it to be shared across tongues, while the “particularity” of poetry confined it to its language. How can schemes of alliteration, rhythm, and word play be made sufficiently legible in the parallel universe of another language? Poetry in its very nature resists the estranging force of translation.

Al Jahiz maintained a fundamental distrust of translation and the translator, and he suggested multilingualism was a form of failure: “Whenever we find [the translator] speaking two languages, we know that he has mistreated both of them, for each one of the two languages pulls at the other, takes from it, and opposes it.” Some echo of this belief is present in the possible association between the modern verb to translate, tarjam, and the root verb rajam, which means, among other things, to throw an object through space (as in stoning, but also as in shooting stars and, by association, spell casting); in this sense the practise of translation, or tarjamah, may carry a subconscious connotation of arbitrariness, unreliability, or transgression.

Kilito himself seems to share in this distrust, but his own suspicion grows from more modern, political roots in the inversion of power relations with Europe and in the experience of colonialism. Breached and looted, Arabic has been invaded by the west. The problem now is not one of translating into Arabic, but of the implications of translation from Arabic. “The fundamental change for us in the modern age,” Kilito says, “is that the process of reading and writing is always attended with potential translation, the possibility of transfer into other literatures, something that never occurred to the ancients, who conceived of translation only within Arabic literature.” Classical Arab poets never considered the world of letters beyond their own. Their contemporary counterparts have no option but to do so.

Europeans since the 19th century have had none of al Jahiz’s qualms about translation, and have eagerly studied and translated works from Arabic; Kilito’s roaming explorations spring in part from his disquiet at how foreigners have misappropriated Arab writing. He is particularly startled by the insistence of the French Orientalist Charles Pellat – who devoted much of his career to the study of al Jahiz – that all Arab literature “produces a sense of boredom”. European interpreters of Arab writing, Kilito says, find it “boring unless it bears a family resemblance to European literature.”

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.”

Of course, the sins of translation are not simply those of Europeans. Though he laments the fate of these marooned Arab writers, Kilito opens the book with his own account of the pitfalls of cross-cultural translation. Invited to give a lecture in France on al Hamadhani’s maqamat (a 10th century collection of stories written in rhymed prose), Kilito describes his struggle to find a way to make the genre comprehensible to a contemporary European audience. The only European contemporary to al Hamadhani, he finds, is an obscure female German poet named Roswitha, who wrote dialogues in verse. He declines to make this connection – it strikes him as absurd, for who in his audience will have heard of Roswitha – but in his lecture he does equate the maqamat with the picaresque novels popular in Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.

“In other words,” he writes, “I translated the maqamat, not in the sense of transferring them from one language to another, but presented them as though they were picaresque novels, I translated them into a different genre, a different literature.”

The celebrated 12th century philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Kilito writes, was another victim of the traps of translation. His fine commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics won him even the respect of Dante, who placed him alongside Plato and Aristotle in Limbo. But his treatise on Aristotle’s Poetics remains an embarrassment of literary muddling. Ibn Rushd grappled with subjects of which he knew nothing (the Greek theatrical genres of “comedy” and “tragedy”) which in the translation provided him had been rendered in the terms of Arabic poetry (“satire” and “panegyric”). Kilito calls this blunder a “sterile misunderstanding” that failed to open “new horizons” while bordering precipitously on farce. Legions of other Arab scholars have mourned the botched job as a missed opportunity for the mingling of Greco-Roman and Arab literary traditions. But was that ever possible? One can almost imagine al Jahiz grumbling in the background: I told you so.

Whatever uncertainties Kilito himself holds about the possibility of translations, they are not – like those of al Jahiz – seeming observations of fact. Instead, they were forged in the furnace of recent Arab-European history and, more importantly perhaps, in the memory of colonisation by the French, who were far more aggressive in their use of language as a pacifying and “civilising” tool than the British. However poignant within their own context, Kilito’s doubts about multilingualism carry a whiff of the parochial about them. While discussing al Jahiz, Kilito argues that “to speak a language is to turn to a side. Language is tied to a location on the map or a given space. To speak this or that language is to be on the right or the left ... and since [the bilingual] looks in two directions, he is two-faced.” This is a real dilemma for al Jahiz and for Kilito (albeit slightly less so). But it forgets that multilingualism in much of the world is (and was) a comfortable, untortured fact of life. Language is not always wedded to geographical and political loyalties. That Kilito suggests it is says much about a common Arab and European understanding of language: not the caliphate-era vision of language spread boundlessly by the sword and the book, but a vision of a fissured landscape of languages, each guarded by its own political project, its own nation. To accept this view of the world is to succumb to that false cliché produced by the era of the modern European nation-state: a language is but “a dialect with an army.”

We can forgive Kilito, perched as he is in Rabat, on the joined frontiers of Arab and European history. Just as poetry (in al Jahiz’s view) could not be lifted from its original language and dropped into another, Kilito’s misgivings about multilingualism should not be translated out of their own context. His book should be understood as a commentary on the Arab experience of translation, not on translation in general.

In fairness, Kilito takes great pains always to cushion the sharp edges of his arguments. He disassembles the Orientalist view of Arab literature without resorting to the disheartening thunder (and fog) of post-colonial jargon. He even questions his own doubts about translation, spying an unsettling chauvinism in his jealous guardianship of Arabic from the European interloper. At all times, he uses a light touch, relying frequently on implication and allusion, leaving much unresolved and open to conjecture. Such a drifting, almost whimsical style may frustrate readers who need the anchor of a systematically and clearly articulated argument. Kilito does not guide, but instead charms you into his floating adventure.

Kanishk Tharoor, an associate editor at openDemocracy, is a frequent contributor to The Review.

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