I Leave You With: Dueling Translations of Yusuf Idris’ بيت من لحم

Today, I finally begin my journey home. (Yes, I know about the power cuts and water shortages, museum theft and 38-degree temperatures, but I want to be home.)

I have never found translations of Yusuf Idris completely satisfying (because I fear the translator, perhaps?). I think this is something that has hindered world appreciation of Idris, who—whatever his mental-health and jealousy issues might have been—is a tremendous short-story writer.

بيت من لحم , or House of Flesh, (I am qualified to translate the title, but that’s about it), is a rich story about poverty, desire, “blindness”—literal and figurative—and culpability. It has been translated by one of the pioneers of modern Arabic-English translation, Denys Johnson-Davies, who also has translated the very successful Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih, and Alifa Rifat’s Distant View from a Minaret, among many, many other novels, plays, and stories.

Who doesn’t respect Johnson-Davies? He was lauded by Edward Said, among others. Still, a translation can always be re-done, and student C. Lindley Cross has attempted just that with Beyt men Lahm, also posting the original, the Johnson-Davies translation, and an essay about the translation process.

The Johnson-Davies version begins:

The ring is beside the lamp. Silence reigns and ears are blinded. In the silence the finger slides along and slips on the ring. In silence, too, the lamp is put out. Darkness is all around. In the darkness eyes too are blinded.

The widow and her three daughters. The house is a room. The beginning is silence.

The Lindley Cross version begins:

The ring, beside the light. Silence prevails, ears cannot see. In silence, the finger sneaks. It puts on the ring.

In silence, the light is extinguished.

Darkness consumes all.

In darkness, eyes cannot see.

The widow and her three daughters. The house is a room. The beginning is silence.

I have unfortunately not yet fully read them (well, I’ve read the Johnson-Davies version, but not recently), since I really should be packing. But you enjoy! There is much to love in Idris’s short works.