Non-traditional Translations: The ‘Art of Party-crashing in Medieval Iraq’ and ‘A Bit of Air’

If you’re afraid, as Burton Pike seems to be, that, “A creeping homogenization is developing in prose fiction, a kind of generic international content and style that transcends national borders,”* well, never fear! There are still plenty of Arabic translations that defy these (apparent) norms: 

partyTwo recently published translations don’t fit at all within contemporary genre boundaries. One  is Selections from the Art of Party-crashing in Medieval Iraq, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, trans. Emily Selove (Syracuse University Press) and the other A Bit of Air, Walid Taher, trans. Anita Husen (University of Texas Press).

Admittedly, Party-crashing is from a few centuries back, so little wonder it doesn’t fit a contemporary taste. Still, I don’t worry that Selove’s quirky, amusing selections will find a home. At the very least, the collection will grace the syllabi of a few Classical Arabic Literature courses. It might also catch the eye of lay readers. After all, party-crashing? Medieval Iraq?

From passage 166:

I heard Bunan saying, “I memorized the entire Qur’an, but I’ve forgotten all but four words: ‘Give us our lunch.'”

The book is a dissonant text in our contemporary world — structurally and otherwise — but nonetheless readable (as long as you skim all the details on provenance) and sometimes thought-provoking or funny.

I worry much more about Walid Taher’s A Bit of Air not finding its intendeds. University of Texas Press has done a great job of finding quirky books to translate (previously Ghada Abdel Aal’s funny I Want to Get Married!) but has not necessarily gotten those books out to interested audiences. In a bricks-and-mortar world, Taher’s book would either be shelved with collections of political cartoons or with the graphic novels, although it is closer to a collection of illustrated song lyrics.

bitofairTaher, who is also an award-winning and best-selling children’s book author (his book The Black Dot is appropriate for all ages), can be appreciated both for his insightful drawings and his musical aphorisms/poetry, which are reproduced in their original Arabic with plain-text translations by Husen.

A Bit of Air was listed as one of World Literature Today’s 75 notable translations of 2012, but no explanations were given as to why these 75 books were chosen, or who should want them.

Critics complain bitterly about the role the Internet may have played in diluting and deforming literary criticism. But the problem is not that there are too many spaces talking about wildly different sorts of literature, but rather too few reliable spaces, and most of these are talking about the same literature, again and again. A Bit of Air: If you like drawing and open-hearted poetry, open it up and breathe a little.

*Please note that I disagree heartily with Prof. Pike’s assertion that language and nation are becoming “increasingly decoupled” from one another. Yes, there are many French speakers beyond France (colonialism, right?), but that doesn’t mean language has become some free-floating agent, although certainly languages mean different things in different locations; one thing in France and another in Tunisia. In the best moments, these overlapping literatures can fertilize each other in interesting ways.

But this “homogenization” is also, perhaps, a way of seeing. Just because many Anglophone Indian writers are popular in the US and UK, this doesn’t mean English is a major language in India, and neither does it mean that the modes used by English-language writers have conquered all.

If the world of fiction were to become completely globalized, and authors were to write toward some international “norm,”  well, that would be one sort of apocalypse, wouldn’t it. But it won’t keep me awake nights. Artists will experiment, literature will live. Still, I would like to see us extend ourselves more, as critics and readers, to texts that don’t immediately sidle up to our expectations. 


U of Manchester: Thousand-year-old jokes bring out cleric’s funny side