Footnoting Arabic Literature (in English): Yay or Nay?

My cover doesn't look like this

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.


  1. It’s probably Zajal poetry, no? (i.e. not zajah)

  2. Did I say zajah? Typo, thanks.

  3. no footnotes. but then, i speak as a translator in a culture where prefaces/afterwords are encouraged, so obviouly i have a chance to explain all i think needs explaining there.

  4. I find all of this ironic because I have read a lot of novel where Arabic language novelists themselves footnote. Example: if I am not mistaken, one that comes to mind is Chicago by our much beloved, albeit sarcastically, 3alaa Al-Aswaany. I remember them clearly. I love categorical judgments in stylistics as much as others, but some novels ought to be socio-cultural thought-pieces. It sure beats the drivel I read in non-Arabic newspapers about the Arab world, and it is creative while insightful. That goes for research with footnotes to boot.

  5. Yes, sure, some novels can be socio-cultural thought pieces, but the author should, in most cases, be in on the joke.

    I’m talking about the situation where the all-knowing (Western) translator is commenting on the (Arab) author, turning real art into exposition. I mean, of course, this has happened lots. It’s what most Arab-English literary translation was like until 50 years ago.

    And absolutely, Arabic writers footnote. Myself, I don’t object to footnotes. I just object to feeling superior to the author.

  6. Miramar is full of endnotes. There must be nearly a 100 of them. While some of the backgrounding on politics is helpful, the geographic locations are somewhat tedious. What has been really funny, though, are some of the notes that have an editorial feel, which has not dated well. The notes can create a strange tension between the work and an outsider whose voice is awkward. And I find they distract from the well written book.

  7. ok, so i had to look up “editorializing notes” 😉

    then i pulled my copy of don quixote off the shelf: it was published in 1964, a reprint of an earlier translation from 1935. it comes with a 78-page long introductory note from the translator, explaining tons of interesting stuff about siglo de oro and spain in general, cervantes and lope de vega, the lot. in addition, every single chapter has between 5 and 10 footnotes. all these decades later, they’re still interesting to read. sure, some are dated and seem unnecessary, but to me it certainly means a lot that someone took great care in making sure that readers will have all the necessary information to get the most out of the novel. i don’t think it’s about wanting to be smarter than the author, it’s making sure that the reader doesn’t feel to uninformed. and yes, it’s a fine line …

  8. *too uninformed.
    (and i still prefer not to use footnotes in my own translations.)

  9. But I don’t think Quixote translators (who would likely be reverent?) would be nearly so likely to fall into that trap as translators of modern Arabic lit, particularly those who think we read it not because it’s good, but because we should be “learning more about the Arab world.”

    Ah, Bibi, but you use footnotes in your blog comments!

  10. i don’t know … it’s all about respecting your reader. because, obviously, not everybody who picks up a book will “know about the arab world”. (much like it can’t be expected that everybody who reads about señor quijote knows about spain in late 16th century.) as long as the notes don’t reinforce the stereotypes, or give out wrong information, i think they’re a fair game. as al-haraka notes above, some of them are a lot more insightful than the shlock we get from media.

    the * in my blog comments serve to correct faulty spelling, unfortunately. i’ve been (re-)trained to avoid footnotes and endnotes if possible.

    as for the visual impact of footnotes: when you read so much stuff in translation as i (and probably anyone who doesn’t read english as their first language) do, you get used to them and can actually block them out. they’re a bit like subtitles: there to help, but so unobrtusive you sometimes can’t even tell if you’re using them or not.

  11. I dunno, some scholars can be even worse than media shlock.

    But it’s true, since my first language is English (and the majority of reading I do is in English), I *really notice* whenever I run across footnotes.

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