‘It’s a Shame When a Novel Aspires to be a Glossary’

I found this observation today in the Guardian books blog, posted by Jonathan Beckman. The main thrust of his post is that Howard Jacobson should not win the Booker for The Finkler Question, a book I haven’t read and likely never will. Anyhow, at the moment, I am very happily occupied with Radwa Ashour’s Specters.

Beckman objects to how The Finkler Question—he says—relies on ethnic cliche.

Such [ethnic guidebooks] are easily identified by the pile-up of italicised foreign words coupled to their translations. (Want to know what a feygeleh is? Turn to p160 of The Finkler Question. How about a mamzer? It’s on p174) It’s a shame when a novel aspires to be a glossary.

I don’t, as a rule, object to “foreign” words in English-language texts. Would Beckman call Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart an ethnic glossary? And yet it’s full of untranslated terms, and not just the Big Three: flora/fauna, food, and dress. Many of the italicized terms, in Things Fall Apart, force the reader to try to see Igbo culture on its own terms instead of “in translation.”

On the other hand, italicized foreign terms are often unnecessary, exoticizing, and perhaps even misleading. Ahdaf Souief, in a talk at last year’s Emirates Lit Festival, said she was very careful when using Arabic words, and that “there must be a reason for it.”

And Dr. Samia Mehrez has expressed her particular dislike for leaving “religious formulas” willy nilly in a literary text.

Obviously that’s constantly misread…that these are a religious people, that they cannot speak one single sentence without a religious evocation.

Indeed, the only moment of dislocation I have felt thus far with Barbara Romaine’s translation of Specters was when two italicized terms appeared one after another: “By the time the youngest of them went to the kuttaab, the house—maa shaa allah—was full of young people….”

I suppose there’s the initial possibility of a non-Arabic speaker confusing the word “kuttaab” with the English term that comes immediately after it, “house,” but I think that’s a relatively minor issue. What dislocated me was the “loud” maa shaa allah, not only set off by hyphens, but also stretched into three separate words and italicized. It seemed, almost, like a ululation.

Certainly, there’s no adequate translation for masha’allah, just as there isn’t one for insha’allah, except on a case-by-case basis.  I suppose one could translate masha’allah as “As God has willed,” or “Whatever God wills,”  but those phrases carry little useful meaning in English.

Personally, when I say masha’allah, I am generally also touching wood and trying not to “envy myself,” or be too proud, or call down any calamities on my head.  Perhaps—although it erases the term’s religious origins and meanings—the closest English equivalent is indeed “touch wood.” (Yes, I realize it wouldn’t work in the above sentence.)

On the other hand, a pair of “insha’allahs” (but as one word now) are put to excellent use a bit later in Specters, when they’re used as a curse by a foreign teacher, Madame Michelle: “Inshallah! Inshallah! This is how you conduct your lives, and you always will! Carelessness, oafishness, and disorganization.” This is apparently Madamde Michelle’s definition of inshaallah.

Unlike in many books translated from the Arabic, Specters does not have a glossary of terms at the end, but instead a (very useful) list of historical notes. After all, this is not an “ethnic guidebook” in any sense, but an  examination of history, narrative, family, memory.

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