Unpoliced Literary Exchange: Adaptation and Translation in 19th and Early 20th Century Egypt

If you were not in Cairo on February 17, or for some other reason missed Samah Selim’s must-hear talk — on the nature of translation, adaptation, genre-invention, and a few other things — then, lucky you, the video has been uploaded to YouTube:

samahSelim, who currently teaches at Rutgers University, spoke broadly about the politics and poetics of translation and adaptation into Arabic at the beginning of the 20th century — although more broadly putting what we now think of as “translation” and “adaptation” into a larger context, and shifting how we think about early Arabic novels.

Selim noted that her work mostly focuses on the novel in Egypt, “where most translations of European novels were being produced.” Although, as she explains later, the line between what was translation, what adaptation, and what original work was very mobile.

As Selim said, the question of adaptation was and remains a thorny one, as Arabs are still “obsessed with the question of whether we have become merely copies of some European original.” She pointed particularly to recent controversy over whether parts of Ahmed Mourad’s Blue Elephant had borrowed from the New Zealand film The Tattooist, which was itself an adaptation of previous works.

Meanwhile, imitation and adaptation were the norm before recent romantic and nationalist periods.

“My claim,” Selim said, “is that translation and adaptation are the most basic, if largely invisible, mechanisms in the production of new genres, devices, and motifs across literary cultures, including modern ones,” particularly if one considers popular literature.

Translation has been problematized, she said, only in “the modern colonial context, because it sets up a regime of power where a unique and original European text can only be either slavishly copied by the subaltern, on the one hand, or stolen and mutilated, on the other. This is the lens through which many of our critics today understand the process of translation and adaptation.”

On the one side, Selim posits an “authorized” version of texts, which is tied up with power, and at the other a free zone, which, she says, “deserves to be studied with a less prejudiced eye.”

Translation of European novel in 19th and early 20th century Egypt was certainly a free zone. These translations, unlike scientific ones, were not funded and organized by the state, but were instead “clandestine, meandering, and quite mischiveous.”

The novel was really “a fantastic novelty, belonging to no one and everyone, and as such it spreads like wildfire across the major cities of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire.”

As in her previous studies, Selim mentioned the fantastic popularity of the Arsene Lupin and Sherlock Holmes novels. These are often seen either as a historical footnote — of little importance to the development of the “authentic” Arabic novel, or as an unfortunate detour, “where translation embodies the stigmata of the colonial encounter.”

But, Selim said, she would argue that these translations “drew on and transformed much older forms of local popular knowledge” and were also modern and creative — not archaic forms of copying.

Selim said she was particularly interested in the period from 1835-1925, and noted that it was 1838 when Arab readers saw the publication of the first, anonymous, Arabic version of Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

During this time, the majority of translated fiction was published as some sort of adaptation — whether it was or not. Hundreds of works, Selim said, were published between this anonymous 1838 translation of and the 1914 publication of Zeinab, billed by many as the “first authentic” Arabic novel.

A few numbers from her talk: Between the years 1858-1973, Matti Moosa counted 30 new journals in Egypt and Syria dedicated to translated fiction. Ziad Fahmy noted that, in the first decade of the 20th century, 278 new periodicals emerged in Egypt alone, and an additional 441 in the 1910s. Many of these included some variety of fiction translations.

This stands as a counterpoint to the ludicrous oft-repeated statistic that “Spaniards translate more in a year than Arabs have in the last thousand years,” and also a testament to the interest in translated fiction, which often appeared not in books with ISBN numbers, but in journals.

Another number: “All 10,000 copies of Michel Zevaco’s Les pardaillan sold out in a mere three months,” Selim said. “Ten thousand copies — those are circulation figures we don’t even dream of today.”

This, she said, was a testament to readers’ appetite for exotic stories, and the tastes of translators and audiences both leaned toward popular 19th century modes of the novel, particularly the feuilleton and detective novel.

The line between original, translation, and adapted works at this time “was a very thin one,” and translations were so popular, Selim said, that some Arab authors published their own original work as translations. Original works, she said, might masquerade as translations for prestige, profit, or for the greater license.

These weren’t just a foreign colonial form somehow “imposed” on a blank reading public. Selim traces the popularity of the French mystery genre in 19th and early 20th century Egypt to a local narrative culture dating to the medieval tradition of qissa and sira — as well as he trope of the corrupt and dangerous modern city, popular in the news media.

Massively popular nineteenth century Lebanese novelist Jurji Zaydan suggested, Selim said, that these foreign stories were “genetically related to the medieval Arab story tradition” — that is, the stories of the Thousand and One Nights or the semi-oral siras. And this is surely true, as 19th century novels drew heavily on Nights motifs, and the Nights themselves had been freely adapted into Western languages and had, for Western audiences, an “exotic” appeal similar to reading Sherlock Holmes in Cairo.

We already know that Mohammad Haykal’s 1914 novel Zaynab is not the “first authentic Arabic novel.” Selim does a beautiful job of questioning what we mean by “authentic” in this context — one with implications for Anglophone and other literary and genre writing. A longer work by Selim on the topic is much-needed.

For more, watch the whole video:

If you’re missed other recent talks at Cairo’s Center for Translation Studies, award-winning novelist Reem Bassiouney speaks about “Dialogue in Arabic Novels: The Challenge for Author and Translator”:

Prof. Margaret Litvin talks about “Frosty Utopia: Russian Connections in Arabic Literature from Mikhail Nu’aymah to Sonallah Ibrahim”: