Geert Jan van Gelder has translated classical Arabic poetry and prose into Dutch and into English. Among these are the two volumes he’s translated and edited for the Library of Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology and the Epistle of Forgiveness Volume One: A Vision of Heaven and Hell, which he worked on with Gregor Schoeler. In an interview that first appeared on the Library of Arabic Literature blogVan Gelder talked about a range of poetical & translational issues, including why his admiration for — and irritation with — al-Ma‘arri have deepened. 

GJvGelder photo
Geert Jan van Gelder

ArabLit: What brought you to translating poetry?

Geert Jan van Gelder: Translation is one of the best ways of understanding a text. I suspect that many Arabs reading classical poems—or native English speakers reading difficult English poems—often think they understand them. But if they were questioned in detail, they would have to confess ignorance of what they thought they understood. Classical Arabic poetry, for me, apart from being beautiful, offers plenty of puzzles, far more interesting than sudoku or crosswords or whatever. Translation is not an exact science, and one needs to make compromises all the time; this subtle art appeals to me. Moreover, I want others to share in my pleasure.

AL: What guiding criteria did you use in selecting particular poems and prose excerpts, beyond that they be “literary”? Were the criteria different when you used it as a text at Oxford vs. when you expanded it for the LAL?

GJVG: Actually, only a small portion of the anthology, some 60 pages, were used in class in Oxford, to enable beginners to get an overview of what Arabic had to offer in terms of literature. My choice of these excerpts, and subsequently of the Anthology as a whole, was purely personal. These are mostly texts that appealed to me for one reason or another, and some thrown in for the sake of making a more-or-less balanced whole.

AL: Why, for instance, the (delightful) passage by al-Jahiz on flies instead of on something a bit more “serious”?

GJVG: You thought the long chapter on flies was “unserious”? The whole point of al-Jahiz is precisely that lowly creatures and subjects are in fact extremely serious, pointing as they do to God’s providence and the wonders of nature just as much as loftier topics. Well, I may not have quite the same view as he, but I think that “mixtures of jest and earnest,” to quote the title of an article I once wrote, are important and illuminating. Here again I concur with al-Jahiz.

AL: How did you decide on their organization?

GJVG: At an early stage, I decided to follow traditional Arabic literary views in strictly separating poetry and prose — although in the prose section there are many quotations from poetry. Poetry should come first, for it is always older, in Arabic, than literary prose. Within the two main sections, I more or less followed a chronological order.

AL: Did you have particular theories that developed as you worked on the translation, “rules” that you began with or that appeared through the process?

GJVG: I don’t do theories, at least not consciously (theorophiles tell me that one always follows one). Only practices.

I strongly believe one should stay as close to the original language as is tolerable. I admit that what readers can tolerate in this respect differs widely. I also believe in the necessity of annotation. A pity that footnotes were not allowed.

Translating poetry forces one to make a choice. A crib would have been very useful for students of Arabic, but virtually unreadable for the non-specialist reader. I wanted to reach non-specialists and specialists alike. In poetry, sound and form are essential, so I had to shape the texts as poems.

I happen to dislike non-metrical verse, in general. All classical Arabic verse has a meter and a rhyme; ideally, a translation should also use rhyme. But doing this consistently for Arabic, even if you replace “monorhyme” with aabbcc and so forth, implies many sacrifices and I have used it only rarely, especially for “light” verse, where the English tradition demands rhyme. But for serious poetry, you can also use blank verse—metrical but without rhyme—for which there is a tradition in English.

AL: Was your process different with the verse vs. the prose?

GJVG: As for that typically Arabic form, rhymed prose, I have imitated it in English in a number of pieces, for one robs the text of something essential if by omitting the rhyme. It was a risk, I know. Both in Holland and in the English-speaking world, I have experienced doubts among non-Arabist readers. I feel comforted by the fact that I am not alone; Humphrey Davies uses rhymed prose in his translations, and so do others.

AL: When I first read the Library of Arabic Literature Anthology last year, I noticed that you wrote that the translations can be “informative, entertaining, and perhaps even enjoyable not only as curiosities but as examples of genuine works of literary art.” Why the “perhaps even”?  

When I read translations from foreign languages and cultures, for instance Sanskrit or Chinese, I may find the texts “informative,” “entertaining,” and “curious” without actually finding them “beautiful” or being moved by them. In fact, I can say the same about Arabic. Sometimes, I even suspect myself: Do I like this poem because it moves me, or merely because, for once, I actually understand it and enjoy having solved the puzzle, a mere intellectual enjoyment?

GJVG: When I read translations from foreign languages and cultures, for instance Sanskrit or Chinese, I may find the texts “informative,” “entertaining,” and “curious” without actually finding them “beautiful” or being moved by them. In fact, I can say the same about Arabic. Sometimes, I even suspect myself: Do I like this poem because it moves me, or merely because, for once, I actually understand it and enjoy having solved the puzzle, a mere intellectual enjoyment? I usually do not stop to answer the question. Enjoying good poetry is often a mixture of intellectual, aesthetic, and emotional appreciation.

AL: You write that the translations are not meant to be “poetic recreations” that turn the poems into modern English poetry and thus “betray the original.” You don’t think there is a role for that sort of translation? 

GJVG: There has been a tremendously important role of this kind of translation. Homer, Ovid, Omar Khayyam, Hafez and countless other poets have inspired high-quality “recreations” in English and other languages that have been sources of endless inspiration to others. If translators would like to continue to do so with classical Arabic, let them, if publishers and readers like it. But I don’t, in this age.

AL: How do you work to “transport the reader to the time and place of the author”? By the introductions and footnotes? Elsewise?

GJVG: Introduction, and lovely footnotes, yes—unfortunately demoted to endnotes in LAL. But more importantly, by the translations themselves, using an “exoticizing” technique rather than always giving equivalents. Thus, it’s “if God wills” instead of “perhaps.” Or  “Let the one in the grave alone” instead of what in English would perhaps be “Speak no ill of the dead” or, if one has had an old-fashioned education, “De mortuis nil nisi bene”.

AL: What did you want to change about how predecessors like Nicholson and Arberry translated? How do you see your guiding light as different from theirs? 

GJVG: I don’t want to change their translations; both produced good versions in many instances. But they lived two or three generations before me, and I expect that after two or three generations my own versions will look quaint, if they don’t already. Here is how Arberry translated a line from a love poem by Ibn Hazm in his The Ring of the Dove (1953):

Long she denied my heart’s desire,

Then ah! so ardent kisses pressed

Upon my lips, that all the fire

Of love rekindled in my breast.

Nicely rhymed, isn’t it? But do you like “Then ah!” or the “ardent kisses”? Now let me offer a far more literal version:

He liberally kissed me, having first denied me:

my love pangs stirred again, that were submerged inside me.

The Arabic, in simplifed transliteration, is Fa-jada bi-l-lathmi li min ba‘da man‘atihi / fa-htaja min law‘ati ma kana maghmura. The only liberty I have taken was adding “inside me” for the sake of the rhyme.

Please note the change of gender. In Arberry’s translation, the poem is said to be about “a man sorely smitten with the desire for a maiden,” but neither the Arabic introduction of the poem nor the poem itself uses feminine forms. Ibn Hazm often mentions women in his poems, employing the feminine. I am pretty sure that this poem is about a boy, as are countless pre-modern Arabic love poems. But in 1953, this was still unacceptable to a Western reading public. And many scholars even believed that using the masculine form was just an Arabic convention for speaking about females. Some still do!

AL: Have you gotten reaction from general readers? What sort of readers did you imagine coming to the text?

GJVG: What I imagine when I translate is, very subjectively, someone who is precisely like myself when I read translations from the Japanese or Sanskrit or Zulu. I am well aware that this is a highly solipsistic ideal and that the real world is different. I don’t envisage being read by millions: a few sympathetic readers will do for me. I am therefore very grateful that this uncommercial attitude was apparently no barrier for the LAL publishers.

AL: Did you have particular favorite works that you included?

I should have included more poems, I think, by Abu Nuwas — the most enjoyable poet in Arabic.

GJVG: Al-Jahiz, whose Book of Living Beings would probably be on my Arabic desert-island list. And al-Isfahani’s great Book of Songs, another serious candidate for this list. In fact, most of the selections belong to my favourites. I should have included more poems, I think, by Abu Nuwas — the most enjoyable poet in Arabic.

AL: In your introduction to al-Ma‘arri’s Epistle of Forgiveness, you give a lot of reasons why this work has been overlooked, and why it might seem a strange choice among the Syrian poet’s works. What is the story of why you did choose it to translate?

GJVG: I didn’t choose it, but was chosen myself to do the job with Gregor Schoeler, who had already worked on the text and had published a shortened German translation of Part One.

I was introduced to this strange work during my undergraduate days in Amsterdam in the late ’60s, under the guidance of my teacher Pieter Smoor. Parts of the book are wonderful and other parts are excruciating, which is why all previous translations only give selections from Part One and omit Part Two (Monteil’s terrible French version, which includes most of Part Two, is an exception). The book has been famous for over a century, even outside Arabist circles, because of the alleged connection with Dante, so it had to be included in the LAL series. I accepted because it was a challenge and because I was looking forward to collaborating with Gregor Schoeler, a great scholar. Initially, we both baulked at translating the complete integral text, but such was the policy of LAL, a correct one in fact, and we complied, having been given permission to supply rather more notes than the LAL guidelines recommended.

AL: Has your reading of it changed at all as you worked on translating it?

GJVG: It has deepened both my admiration of the author—such as his pervading use of irony and his matchless knowledge of Arabic language and poetry—and my irritation on account of his obsessions—such as his pervading and often ambiguous use of irony and his pedantic showing-off of his matchless knowledge of Arabic language and poetry.

AL: How do you think your translation was influenced by collaborating with a translator who was bringing the work into German?

GJVG: The collaboration of Gregor and myself turned out to be extremely fruitful and pleasant. I benefited greatly, first from his published partial German translation, then from his unpublished German draft of large chunks of the rest which he sent me. And then, ongoing, through the countless email messages we exchanged. We certainly had, and have, differences. Gregor often wants to stay even closer to the Arabic than I. We both made mistakes that the other was able to correct. What I said before about translators needing to love compromises applies here too. I had the advantage of being able to say, from time to time: You are right, strictly speaking, but what you suggest simply does not sound right in English.

AL: You are also co-translating a book with Emily Selove. How is co-translating different from working by yourself? What process(es) do you use when working with a co-translator? In what ways does it improve the work? Are there sometimes “too many cooks”?

Inevitably, there are moments when one thinks, I wish I were working on my own! But with the right combination of people and skills, the end result can only gain.

GJVG: Inevitably, there are moments when one thinks, I wish I were working on my own! But with the right combination of people and skills, the end result can only gain. Working with Emily is in a sense the opposite of working with Gregor. She is the (real) native speaker, where with Gregor it was I who posed as one. She prefers a rather more colloquial, less exoticizing style, which suits the work in question; I limit myself to philological notes and comments.

Whereas Gregor and I worked as equals, with Emily I keep more in the background, being a kind of grey, rather colourless eminence, a role that I enjoy. She has chosen to use rhyme or assonance for all the poetry, which means making many sacrifices. So be it.

AL: Al-Ma‘arri’s Epistle of Forgiveness was not widely influential in Arabic, correct? 

GJVG: Yes, although the work is mentioned a few times, it was not widely used or quoted. His poetry was far more often cited, often with condemnation for its ideas, which are quite shocking at times. It is only through Nicholson’s discovery and the labours of the Egyptian editor and scholar Bint al-Shati’ that the work became famous.

AL: I would love to know more about Bint al-Shati’s theatrical adaptation of al-Ma‘arri’s Epistle of Forgiveness, which you mention in your introduction. She must have cut and condensed—as you mention previous translators have cut out passages on grammar—what did she focus on in the play? Who were the characters?

GJVG: It is a peculiar “play,” with no action to speak of. She envisages the author sitting in his house, dictating the story to his pupils. During his dictations, the many persons he mentions are supposed to appear. There follows a long series of dialogues between Ibn al-Qarih, “the Sheikh,” who strolls through heaven and talks to poets and grammarians, a few houris and some jinnees; there is a convivial scene with a banquet. Some girls dance and sing, which is potentially the most enjoyable and lively scene. The Sheikh peeps into Hell and has a chat with Satan and some doomed poets. A lot of poetry is quoted.

In all this, Bint al-Shati’ closely follows the text, not focusing on anything in particular, omitting the more technical passages and some bawdy passages too, unsurprisingly. Not all grammatical discussions are left out, for part of the funny passage about the morphological pattern of the word for “goose” has been preserved, and there are lots of learned discussions of lexicography. I wonder how she envisages the stage appearance of the “goose as big as a Bactrian camel” who is supposed to fly towards the banqueters to be consumed.

Altogether, it is a desperate and wholly unsuccessful attempt to transform an old text into a new and fashionable shape. I don’t think she seriously believed it could be performed. But who knows, there may have been some enthusiasts who actually produced it.

This interview first appeared on the Library of Arabic Literature Blog, which you can find at www.libraryofarabicliterature.org/blog/.

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