I recently finished reading Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain (1977), as translated by the able and lovely Maia Tabet.*
The translation, published in 1989, is full of footnotes. (It wasn’t until 1996 that the New York Times declared the footnote dead. But apparently parenthetical references are still okay.) Tabet’s footnotes sketch in details about caliph Omar Bin Khattab, yakhneh stew, abayahs, and zajal poetry. A number of the footnoted terms—abaya, for instance—are now quite familiar to English language readers. But many more names, dates, and places remain little-known.
Regardless, these days, English-language books have few footnotes. Humphrey Davies’ 2006 translation of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun** doesn’t seem to have any (I flipped back and forth a few times; perhaps I missed one or two.)
Still, Tabet remains a determined footnoter—her 2010 translation of Khoury’s White Masks has a number of footnotes, about ten—but they are greyed out now, appearing in much lighter font than Khoury’s story. One has to squint to read them. Really.
Part of me sympathizes with the trend away from footnotes. A piece in Stanford magazine quotes Noel Coward as saying that coming across a footnote in a story is like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while making love.
And yes, footnotes can interrupt the flow of the fictional dream. But more dangerous—at least with Arabic literature (in English)—is a translator with too much presence, whose voice is too loud and knowing. If we accept the idea that a translator is like the actor giving voice to an author’s (dramatic) text, then we certainly don’t want to become aware of the actor as critic.
Indeed, a few months back, I was reading the text of a young translator, and it seemed that the translator’s numerous footnotes were changing the text from a literary work into a socio-anthropological exercise, nudging the reader, telling her what those (funny, crazy) Arabs are like.
The footnotes in Little Mountain succeed because they treat literature as literature, not as a way of understanding or accessing Lebanon, or, God forbid, “the Arab world.” I did occasionally feel interrupted—like I was answering the door in the middle of, erm, a good book—but I also felt that many of the footnotes gave me a richer sense of Khoury’s work. Perhaps footnotes about food, clothing, and drink aren’t so important, but those that detail Beirut’s history and geography at times broadened my view of the work, and improved my understanding of what Khoury was doing.
Graying out the footnotes, however (as in White Masks), seems an odd half-measure, like someone knocking very, very quietly at your door. Perhaps this a greater interruption, in the end, than a full-throated doorbell buzz.
*What books do Maia Tabet and Humphrey Davies think you should read before you die? Find out here, and win!
**I admire this translation very much, and did not—at least while I was reading it—think about footnotes.
***I guess I didn’t footnote anything else.