On Translating Jurji Zaydan’s ‘Tree of Pearls’

In the Chicago Tribune, I review Samah Selim’s new English translation of Jurji Zaydan’s Tree of Pearls.

treeI also have a sidebar discussion with Selim on translating the novel (nearly) a century after its publication. As part of this, I spoke to translator and scholar Roger Allen, who predicted that Arabic literary history, which thus far had largely been a post-World War II project,  would see a “revival of scholarship regarding the 19th century.”

The sidebar opens:

Five years ago, none of Jurji Zaydan’s 23 novels were available in English. Although Zaydan (1861-1914) was a pivotal figure in the early 20th century Arab renaissance and wrote books that remain popular to this day among Arabs, his work was largely ignored by scholars. After all, Zaydan didn’t write heavy social-realist reads, but fun, fast-paced historical novels. His books were translated into a dozen languages but never English.

It wasn’t until 90-some years after the author’s death that the author’s grandson George Zaidan and Samah Selim, an assistant professor at Rutgers University in the department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and literatures, independently took up the idea of translating the Lebanese writer into English. Selim said in a recent interview that, unlike most of her Arab peers, she came to Zaydan novels late — “late into grad school, actually.” But once she had started reading them, she didn’t stop. “‘Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi’ (‘Saladin and the Assassins’) was the first one I read. Then I raced through another half dozen of the novels, all in the space of a couple of months.” Keep reading at The Chicago Tribune.

Selim, who said she was a fan of the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, “felt that Zaydan had even gone beyond Scott in the way his [Zaydan’s] main characters are situated in a gray zone – neither heroes nor villains but always a bit of both. Or put another way, rather than being defined by scales of good and evil, they live in and through a combination of politics, self-interest, and  emotional attachments. Rukn al-Din Baybars is a good example of what I mean. All through the novel you see him working out his inner conflicts between these three poles in a really subtle and ‘realistic’ way. If he were a character in a Walter Scott novel, his ambivalence about his responsibility to Shwaykar would define him as more of a villain, but in Zaydan, he is first and foremost a good politician and a great warrior.”

samahShe added:

 I wanted to communicate all this to an English language reader for whom ‘politics’ in the context of the Arab world and Arabic fiction may sometimes seem to be a dry and somewhat incomprehensible affair. I wanted to translate a novel where politics is fun! Because of orientalism the medieval Muslim/Arab world is already a familiar theater of action and sensibility to this reader (film, fiction, visual arts). I’m hoping the translation takes off from this point into a kind of mirror image of European orientalist texts and produces a slight dissonance or dislocation in the expectations of the English reader.

In translating the book, Selim said she worked on the “language effect” as much as words and sentences, choosing a “simplified Scottian register.”

Selim saw several different teaching opportunities for the novel, although in the end her fantasy reader “is the lay person who would just pick it up for a good read. Then maybe he or she would decide to poke around in the Encyclopedia of Islam or go visit the Citadel in Cairo, or make connections between the Tatars and the US invasion of Iraq.”