Why translate Zakaria Tamer’s stories into Sardinian when you could translate them into Italian?
By Alessandro Columbu
On October 2, Segamentu de Ancas, the Sardinian translation of Zakaria Tamer’s Taksir Rukab (Riyad el-Rayyes Books, Beirut, 2002) appeared in Sardinia’s bookshops. It was brought out by an independent publishing house based in Casteddu, Condaghes, which has pioneered the publication of novels, short stories, and poetry in Sardinian. These include works written in Sardinian as well as a number of translations of major masterpieces of European literature such as Joyce’s Dubliners and Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha. October 2 was a historic day for this house and indeed for the Sardinian language, as Segamentu de Ancas is the first Arabic book to have been translated into Sardinian.
Many, especially back home and in Italy, have asked me why I translated the sixty-three stories of Tamer’s Taksir Rukab into Sardinian. I could’ve done the same into Italian, the only language that enjoys official status in Sardinia, and perhaps hoped to see it published by a major Italian house. The public’s interest in Syria has risen and, for an academic-wannabe, the publication of a translation can be a massive boost to one’s career. Also, and most importantly, although not my mother tongue, Italian is the language in which I received my primary and higher education. When writing and addressing more sophisticated subjects, I definitely feel a lot more comfortable using Italian, because I possess a more robust command of its high vocabulary. Sardinian, on the other hand, is a poorly standardized language, which enjoys only a façade/gesture-politics status as one of the official languages in Sardinia’s local statute of autonomy. In practice, from the point of view of sociolinguistics, Sardinian is still unofficially treated as a dialect of Italian.
The reasons why I decided to do this are numerous. In 2011, upon my return from Syria with a bag full of books by Tamer and others, I began translating some of the stories for fun, to keep up my Arabic, and to “test” my mother tongue and its potential. Can Arabic be translated into an uncodified language like ours? Can the Syrian, Arab, and Islamic cultural universe be transposed convincingly into a language that its native speakers usually perceive as somehow crippled, lacking the necessary characteristics to speak modernity?
The question is not a simple or rhetorical one. Translation is an incredibly difficult, sometimes thankless task to carry out with the help of a dictionary, let alone without one. The answer, obviously, is yes, and soon I found myself with a substantial corpus of stories that I decided to include in my MA dissertation on Zakaria Tamer that I discussed at the University of Bologna in 2012, earning the ‘dignità di stampa’ (the equivalent of an official endorsement for publication) from the examining committee, which in hindsight represented a crucial backing for my initiative.
In addition, one of the major drivers that encouraged me to embark in this ambitious enterprise was, paradoxically, the lukewarm reception that my idea received in its very early stages from Sardinian Arabists: “You should do it in Italian,” said a professor of Arabic, and a native speaker of Sardinian, whose advice and guidance I sought. “It will be easier and the language will be clearer.” This outlook has always felt so ludicrous to me. This fossilized, self-belittling mentality, and the unsophisticated stereotypes that Sardinian academia finds itself embroiled in, were only a further incentive for me to continue on my path with greater enthusiasm and motivation.
Obviously, not everybody in Sardinia has the same stance, and I found hearty support from activists, writers, and artists who share with me the passion for this language. After my graduation, and aware of the enormous expressive potential of this language, in my free time I continued translating the stories of Taksir Rukab, which I completed last year. Once the manuscript was complete, I proposed the text for publication to Condaghes, who replied with great enthusiasm.
Sardinian, like most ‘minority’ and endangered languages, is employed nowadays almost exclusively in familial and informal contexts. This in turn has brought about a ghettoization of our language and its exclusion from the realms of thought, knowledge, and culture. In the current Sardinian zeitgeist, our language represents a hindrance rather than a tool to open ourselves to our neighbors in the Mediterranean and to the entire planet.
Education is provided only in Italian, and only a handful of courageous nationalist groups have unwaveringly demanded the implementation of our language’s official status as stated in the local constitution in the fields of education, mass media, translation, and for the drawing of all official acts issued by the local government. And although the forty-year mobilization of an army of activists and intellectuals has achieved a great deal for its revitalization, codification, standardization and modernization, the Sardinian language is currently lacking an elite to support and actively show the way towards emancipation. Since the days of my dissertation in Bologna, I imagined this translation as my humble but daring contribution to the process of liberation of the Sardinian language from the quagmire of clichés that relegate it to a remote corner of cultural production, imprisoning it is in a mentality according to which so-called ‘local’ languages can only express concepts that are strictly related to the culture and the tradition from which they stem.
Motivating this arduous initiative, then, was also the desire to lay the foundations of an imaginary bridge between Syria and Sardinia, the Arabic and the Sardinian languages. Ever since my year in Syria in 2010, I’d wanted to bring Tamer’s stories home and to show Syria from a different and unusual angle, from the point of view of an original short-story writer whose episodes offer suggestive insights into the human condition employing unmistakably Syrian characters as the pretext to express a progressive political stance. I hope this publication will bring about greater enthusiasm for the Sardinian linguistic heritage, as well as for Syria as a door to access the broader Arab-Islamic world and translate it with all its complexities and nuances. I think that literature can be a great way to travel with the mind, to explore Syria through a genuine narrative devoid of stereotypes. This goes for many other Syrian writers too, not only Zakaria Tamer.
Alessandro Columbu is a PhD candidate and Arabic teacher in the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies of the University of Edinburgh. Originally from Sardinia, he obtained his BA Foreign Languages and literature and MA in Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa from the University of Bologna, Italy. He learnt Arabic in Damascus and has studied at a number of academic institutions across Europe and the Arab Middle East including the University of Barcelona, the School of Oriental and African Studies of London and the French Institute of the Near East of Beirut and Amman. His translation from Arabic into the Sardinian language of Zakaria Tamer’s Taksir Rukab (Riad al-Rayyes, 2002) was published in October this year by Condaghes, an independent publishing house based in Casteddu/Cagliari.