On April 25, Lebanese author Rasha al-Ameer and Cairo-based translator Jonathan Wright will appear together in London to talk about al-Ameer’s Judgment Day (2002) and to celebrate its English-language publication (fall 2011). The book is a dense but wonderful portrait of a relationship, of ancient Arabic poetry, and of the struggle to define religion. In advance of the April 25 event, Wright answered a few questions about the book and his translation.
ArabLit: You have referred to this book as “special.” I have my own reasons for assuming why you’d say that, but I’d rather you discuss what you mean by that, both with regard to its original context and its translation.
Jonathan Wright: The distinctive quality of Rasha al-Ameer’s Arabic is widely attested. The word ‘classical’ often comes up and in my afterword, which I wrote last summer, I used the word ‘pre-modern’ to describe the initial impression it had on me. Over the last couple of weeks, in preparation for an event in London next week, I’ve been trying to pin down what exactly makes it different from the language of the average 21st century Arabic novel. In the absence of any historical dictionary of Arabic (to the best of my knowledge) I would be reluctant to suggest that Rasha has excluded all recent linguistic innovations and calques from European languages, or even that she ever intended to do so. But it’s noticeable that when the narrator occasionally uses phrases such as ‘objective criteria’ or ‘environmental activist’, which are clearly calques, they come across as deliberately out of harmony with his normal diction. Rasha also makes full use of what are technically known as nominal sentences, exploiting the semantic force of the Arabic prepositions – this is a distinctive feature of poetry and pre-modern Arabic, preserved incidentally in many contemporary colloquials. From her extensive reading and her interest in the language, which is very much a presence in the book, Rasha has also acquired a wider than usual vocabulary and, since she is speaking through a man who has the same education, she does not hesitate to use words that many readers might consider obsolete or unnecessarily obscure. But without a scientific analysis, I’m inclined, as a working hypothesis, to believe that the really special quality of Rasha’s writing lies in her meticulous attention to detail, especially the workings of the human mind. This is a book that lingers over small incidents and analyzes with precision the motives and reactions of the two main protagonists – the sheikh and the woman he loves.
AL: Whenever I read a book by a man that’s told in a woman’s voice, or vice versa, my antenna are always up: Does this person “get” the other gender? Does he/she understand what sex/pregnancy/various body parts feel like? How was it for you, as a man translating a book that was ostensibly narrated by a man (but written by a woman)?
JW: This is something that readers can easily judge for themselves. As for me, I was impressed by Rasha’s ability to get inside the mind of a sexually and socially repressed cleric struggling with his inhibitions, first acknowledging them and finally overcoming them. The sheikh is very much a man, from start to finish, and I detected no false notes. I challenge anyone to show how her account of the sheikh’s encounter with a prostitute in some unnamed coastal city could not have been written by a man. Though it is strictly speaking irrelevant to the quality of the book, this is undoubtedly a great achievement.
ArabLit: How did you find your way to such a challenging (one could say impossible) project, and what made you agree to take it on?
JW: That’s simple. The book had been sitting on the AUC Press’s list of books under consideration for translation. I went through quite a number of titles but this book was the one that stood out for quality and as a challenge to translate. The subject matter – religion and ‘modernity’, Islam and the state etc., love and repression – struck me as topical and timely. It was also a powerful account of a man’s psychological evolution and the transformative power of love. I felt that the ideas in the book transcended any linguistic complications and when I started playing with an English version of the text, I found that it fell into place much more easily than I expected. But it took me far longer than any other book I have ever translated and required much more thought.
AL: You seem to have found yourself as a serious translator pretty quickly. Was it something you had long thought of and planned toward? Or was it something the translation of Taxi brought to you, and there was no turning back (or you had no desire to turn back)?
JW: Taxi was just an easy way in, and since then I have usually singled out books that I especially liked – books that tested the limits of Arabic fiction, as Taxi did in its own way. I’m not sure I would now take on a book that merely ‘told a story’ without aspiring to provoke thought and even controversy. I suppose my literary tastes in any language have always tended to what you might call the serious – Joyce, Proust, Tolstoy, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Ishiguro and now Roberto Bolano, along with some popular oddballs such as Robert Louis Stevenson, George Borrow and Patrick O’Brien. After Taxi and then Azazeel, I found that the translation process induced in me a kind of trance-like state that blanked out everything else and was mildly addictive.
AL: Back to “Judgment Day.” Footnotes are more common in Arabic books (few Anglo novelists have used them of late). Did you worry either that they might be off-putting or that the reader would confuse your voice with Rasha’s, as you both use them?
JW: Almost all the footnotes are Rasha’s and I must commend AUC Press for allowing them to survive. The French edition cut them out. My attitude is that if someone if willing to take on this book, they can almost certainly handle the footnotes, which are informative in themselves. The book would be the poorer without the footnotes explaining the circumstances of al-Mutanabbi’s death and the arrangements for the ‘fear prayer’, for example.
AL: Were there any English-language books that (consciously) inspired you, in terms of their use of language? How did you go about trying to create this book’s voice in English?
JW: No, I can’t say that any particular books inspired me. But, as I mentioned in the afterword, there are obvious parallel with Jane Austen – the discipline, the long sentences, the detail piled on detail, the magisterial examination of human motivation, the cunning little insights.
AL: Can you talk, for instance, about your decision to go with the word “evildoer”?
JW: The Arabic was simply ‘ashraar’. It’s been some time since I chose ‘evildoers’, but in retrospect the choice seems obvious, almost inevitable. The word arises in the context of government propaganda to discredit a group of troublesome Islamists. The parallels with President Bush’s ‘Global War on Terror’ and his use of labels to win public support were certainly on my mind.
AL: This book provides some of the most interesting thoughts on monotheism I have read in any language. Even to the point where I couldn’t believe that the narrator himself didn’t…doubt himself more. (Reviews of the services of mosques!) Rasha hasn’t had any trouble with the book? I almost imagine another layer to the book where parallel events are happening to the author…. Although of course the stakes are different in TV vs. books.
JW: Yes, some of the most interesting material in the book, among a mass of interesting material, is the narrator’s account of the folk religion of his childhood and how his seminary training tried to root that out in favour of an austere monotheism, as well as his thoughts on the relationship between the usually accepted tenets of Islamic law and the practical requirements of living in the real world. His speculations on the latter certainly entertain heretical possibilities. Personally, I imagine the narrator ending up a deist of some kind, though steeped in the lore of Islamic civilization, but this is never made explicit. I’m not aware that Rasha has had any trouble as result. But of course it’s all expressed in a very elevated, dignified way in a book that hasn’t, unfortunately, captured the limelight.
AL: It’s also interesting in the current context of Bashar al-Assad vs. Islamists, for instance. Did you think of trying to bring in this kind fo context for English-language readers? Or they have to bring it themselves?
JW: No, I handed in the text just before the Arab uprisings began. Of course, it is very relevant. By the way, I think of the sheikh as a Syrian living in Lebanon, but I hear that other readers have imagined him in other guises – even as an Algerian living in Tunisia or Morocco. Remember that, other than al-Mutannabi and other historic characters, the book contains no personal names or place names.
AL: Is it “possible” to translate al-Mutanabbi?
JW: Well, I did it, albeit only a few lines here and there, when I couldn’t find an existing translation. But my versions clearly fall short. People much more skilled than I have tried and had the results published, but the fact that such a small part of his corpus has been translated suggests that in the end it’s impossible to do it in a way that non-specialist readers would ever appreciate. If al-Mutanabbi is indeed ‘the Seal of Poets’, then maybe he is only so in Arabic, and will remain so forever.
REGULAR READERS: If you are attending this event (details here) and wouldn’t mind bringing a camera, notebook, and/or digital recorder and sharing your impressions, please let me know.