‘Confines of the Shadow’: ‘A Passion for the Other, But Not for the Exotic’

Alessandro Spina’s Confines of the Shadow is a series of novels that both the Washington Post and ArabLit suggested you start reading on the beach this summer (it’s not too late):

Translator Andre Naffis-Sahely has explained, in a dispatch for Words Without Borderswhy Scott Moncrieff’s Remembrance of Things Past leaves its mark on his translation of these novels, and, in The IndependentBoyd Tonkin also writes about the “heroic” act of translating this series. Here on ArabLit, Naffis-Sahely talks about how he first met the books, as well as Spina’s stylistic and linguistic influences.

How did you and this text first meet? Was it love at first sight?

ansAndré Naffis-Sahely: I first encountered Alessandro Spina while researching Knud Holmboe (1902-1931), a fascinating Danish explorer, journalist and convert to Islam who wrote a stunning book entitled The Burning Desert, which chronicles his journey from Morocco to Egypt in 1930. Holmboe was the first man to drive across North Africa west to east and much of The Burning Desert is devoted to Italy’s colonial crimes during their subjugation of the Libyan interior: which included pouring wet cement down village wells in order to drive nomadic tribes closer to the coast, where the Italians’ rule was undisputed. Holmboe’s book became a bestseller but he was murdered under mysterious circumstances the following year on his way to Mecca. Alessandro Spina wrote an excellent preface to the Italian edition of The Burning Desert. I had no idea what was in store for me.

When did you decide you wanted to translate it? Then what did you do to cement your relationship?

André: I decided to translate him after reading the first few pages of The Confines of the Shadow, so almost immediately. After Ghassan Fergiani enthusiastically agreed to take the project on, I also read Spina’s Diary and his various essay collections. Before translating the work itself, I wanted to have a vague sense of who the author was, but this was no easy task. The Italian edition of the book doesn’t even feature an author photograph, despite the fact it won the country’s biggest literary prize. Once I built a profile, which evolved into the piece published by The Nation and Banipal, I began translating the work.

Did you have a sense of the sort of English you wanted to use? Did it flow out of the rhythm of the Italian or did you feel you had to re-invent it? 

André: As I wrote in my “From the Translator” dispatch for Words Without Borders, I began by looking into Khuzam’s genealogy of influences: he adored Balzac and Stendhal and thought of Svevo and Conrad as kindred spirits. Since Khuzam was a gifted essayist, I was also helped along by his penultimate collection of essays, L’ospitalità intellettuale/Intellectual Hospitality (Morcelliana, 2012) – a title inspired by Louis Massignon’s statement that “one shouldn’t annex the other, but rather become his guest” – which treats the reader to wonderfully eclectic pieces on Synesius of Cyrene, Al-Ghazali, Fontaine, Flaubert and Mann, among many others. In a way, Khuzam’s choice of subjects told me everything I needed to know: a taste for the classical, but not for the arch, a passion for the other, but not for the exotic, a penchant for fables, but not for overt sentimentality, etc. Above all, however, I learned that Khuzam had spent a great deal of his time re-reading Proust, in particular Le temps retrouvé/Time Regained.

As such, while some of the English turns I employed flow from the rhythm of Khuzam’s highly-wrought Italian, I also attempted to let Scott Moncrieff’s Remembrance of Things Past leave its mark on my translation.”

What do we know of Spina/Khouzam’s influences? I imagine that I can hear Giuseppe Di Lampedusa and grand operas and the maqama tradition. 

André: He respected Lampedusa, but he’d actually already begun working on The Confines of the Shadow by the time The Leopard was published in 1958. In fact the earliest published story of that cycle dates back to 1955. They’re companion books written by relatively similar authors, but there’s no direct connection that I can see. Perhaps The Leopard‘s success encouraged Spina, but since he never actively sought fame (and was independently wealthy) then I doubt there’s much there. As for the maqama tradition, there’s nothing specific I’ve found on that, although I imagine the Arab oral tradition played a part in his upbringing.

Was some of his influence also journalistic? You mention Francis McCullagh’s Italy’s War for a Desert in your afterword. Do we have any sense of his research process? He relied on the sources he cited in the original edition (which you, rightly I think, excised)?

André: I’m glad you think excising them worked, and I’d just like to mention that I’ll be presenting those cuts in an appendix at the back of Volume 3. I want them to be a part of the work, to aid future scholars of Spina’s work if for nothing else, but I don’t want them to be in the way of the actual story. In terms of Spina’s research process, I can’t comment on that save that he was incredibly erudite. No, I wouldn’t say his influence is also journalistic. I think he would have wholeheartedly agreed with Pound’s “literature is news that stays news”.

When you write, in The Nation, that he was fluent in Arabic (and English, French, and Italian), do you mean spoken, written, both? Do we have any idea what he would have read in Arabic? Would he have read Ibn Khaldun in Arabic? 

André: According to Dr. Saba, whom I’ve spoken to over the phone, Spina was fluent in Arabic, but didn’t really write in the language. I think one can tell by reading The Confines of the Shadow that Spina was in touch with his Arabic side, but I think it’s perfectly balanced with his European side. Neither side seems too prevalent, except of course for the fact he chose to write in Italian, but then that’s the language that was forced on him, just like in Abdellatif Laabi’s case. I know that Spina wanted his book to be translated into Arabic, which Ghassan Fergiani has promised to do. In fact, Spina thought it would be the most important translation. I don’t disagree. He didn’t read Ibn Khaldun in Arabic, but in English, specifically the Princeton Edition. He says that in his Diary. I don’t know why, but perhaps it was easier to procure? That may sound strange, but the book-buying situation in Libya during those years (as I’ve heard of it via various sources) leads me to suppose this may be true.

Where are you at now in translating the rest of the three-volume set this will, insha’allah, comprise?

André: I aim to start on Volume 2 in January 2016 and hopefully complete Volume 3 nine months later.

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