Abdelfattah Kilito on ‘The Real Miracle’ of Translation and What Classical Arabic Literature Can Offer Us

Moroccan novelist, essayist, and critic Abdelfattah Kilito has a new book out in English translation this fall: Arabs and the Art of Storytelling: A Strange Familiarityco-translated by Mbarek Sryfi and Eric Sellin. Kilito recently exchanged emails with translator and critic Robyn Creswell, who shared the exchange on Aesop:

Coming soon from Syracuse University Press.
Coming soon from Syracuse University Press.

The exchange is wonderfully charming, and ranges from Kilito’s youthful reading to his studies in France to Kilito’s relationship to Borges.

On his own reading:

RC: You haven’t mentioned any Arabic works, but I suppose you read some?   

AK: I read just about everything Egyptian and Lebanese writers published. I’m not bragging: there wasn’t much of it. I had a weakness for Taha Husayn. It was thanks to him I discovered that everything was up for grabs and subject to debate—even the great dead authors. Taha Husayn had no mercy, worshipped no one. Even myths weren’t safe. In one sense, it was disillusioning: after Husayn, there was nothing to admire, there were no more heroes. But at the same time I had the impression, while reading him, of becoming intelligent.  

I also liked Tawfiq al-Hakim, though for a different reason. His novel, A Bird of the East, made a deep impression on me. I needed to travel to Paris like him, go to the theaters, visit the museums, fall in love with a French woman. Only in this way, I thought, could I also become a writer.

And on the classics:

RC: Classical Arabic literature is as rich a literary corpus as those of classical Greece or China, yet it’s almost entirely unknown in this country (it might be slightly better known in France). As a lover of this literature, and an expert, what does it have to offer those who have never read it? What do you tell your students (there must be a few skeptics)?   

AK: As for the skeptics, I resist the temptation to tell them they don’t know what they’re missing. If people turn up their noses at classical literature, I suppose there are reasons—in the first place, because it’s so strange. Classical literature has its own codes, a particular set of norms. One has to make an effort to read it.

What can it offer us? In the most general terms, reading writers like Ibn al-Muqaffa‘, al-Jahiz, Tawhidi, and Ibn Tufayl, one imbibes a certain kind of wisdom. Through their open-mindedness, they give us a lesson in tolerance—a tolerance of others’ ideas. Unfortunately, these authors are not well studied, nor are they well translated. It all really comes back to the question of translation. This is also true of Arabic poetry—which is often thought to be unreadable except in Arabic, though few people would say so openly. Aside from specialists, no one in America or in Europe is likely to be able to name a single Arab poet. There are translations, though they’ve rarely had much success. Certainly nothing to compare with the success of Edward FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat (translated from the Persian). But I would point to the beautiful French translations of André Miquel, who has given us versions of Majnun (lover of Layla), Abu al-Atahiya, Abu Firas, and Ibn Zaydun. The maqamat of Hamadhani and Hariri still await their FitzGerald—or, even better, their Antoine Galland, who translated The Thousand and One Nights at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Since then, the book has never been out of style, and its influence is felt everywhere, even among those who’ve never read it. This was the real miracle.

Read the full exchange:

On Aesop

Also, speaking of Moroccan literature:

Prix Littéraire de la Mamounia : “Le Job” de Réda Dalil consacré


  1. The best Arabic poetry translation that springs to mind was the 1976 Birds through a Ceiling of Alabaster: Three Abbasid Poets (Penguin Classics).

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