Abdelfattah Kilito’s ‘Thou Shalt Not Translate Me,’ Translated

In March 2010, Moroccan writer and scholar Abdelfattah Kilito gave a talk at the Sharjah Art Foundation Symposium titled “Thou Shalt Not Translate.” Naser Albreeky has translated:

Presented by Moroccan Writer Abdlfattah Kilito
Translation by Naser Albreeky

              Figure: Kalila wa-Dimna. Syrian manuscript. Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, MS arabe 3465, folio 57.

Figure: Kalila wa-Dimna. Syrian manuscript. Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, MS arabe 3465, folio 57.

The title that I have suggested for my talk includes something of a jest. I invite you to take a stroll in which we come across several subjects, and asʾabū ʿuthmān ʾaljāhiz teaches us: “From digression, we’ll make an art of thinking.” It is known that living in the patronage of language, or a foreign culture, is characterized by enthusiasm and open-mindedness, depending upon the cases. It might also be characterized, which is often the case, by reservations, hesitancies, and controversies, as well as reckonings, which are not usually clear or recognized. Attraction and aversion, love and hatred, can exist within the same person. I have attempted to analyze an aspect of this matter in my book You Are Not Going To Speak My Language, and on the occasion, this book was translated into French and English. Among my assumptions is the idea that: we do not very much like it when foreigners speak our language, whatever that language may be. Or probably, more precisely, we do not like it when they speak it thoroughly. This assumption may shock and disturb, I realize that, but it is, as it appears to me, worth mentioning and examining closely. My personal experience, alongside the trends of my readings, prove it to some extent.

Let us contemplate for a moment, Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s protagonist, who is renowned for his investigations in the crime field.  Hercule Poirot, as you know, is of Belgian origin and lives in England. You also remember that he inspires ridicule due to the shape of his head, which looks like an egg, along with his thick mustache, frequent talk about grey brain cells, and obsession with rearranging things so that they fit in their proper place; also, because of his excessive and infinite narcissism.  Moreover, there is another feature that distinguishes him: he speaks English eloquently, with quality and perfection. However, he sometimes utters the English letters terribly and makes linguistic and grammatical mistakes. That is at least what happens in the novel titled Three Act Tragedy. Does that mean he did not learn English well and that he is, consequently, unable to speak it in a flawless way every time and in every occasion? In fact, he sometimes pretends to have not mastered English to obstruct the predictions of his listeners and so that they do not feel suspicious about him. He explains this at the end of the novel to someone, revealing, incidentally, the secret of his narcissism, which seems to also be artificial:

“It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people – instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, ‘A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.’ That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard.”

The equivocal position of foreign language is characterized by humor, jest, and wittiness in Agatha Christie’s novel. On a different note, the relationship with the foreign culture could be a source of severe hatred, especially if this culture is strong enough to the extent of being viewed as a threat. In these cases, there are those who make exertions to fend off the danger and lessen the invasion of this culture, and in certain cases, fight it furiously, and the current events present several models of retrogression and solitude. Remember, for instance, the judgments that are sometimes launched against the Western culture. In both recent and distant pasts, there are no lack of examples.

The Italian poet Petrarch’s antipathy to Arabs during the 14th century compelled him to talk about them violently. Let’s consider what Petrarch wrote to one of his friends, who, on the contrary, praised and admired the Arabs:

I am requesting you, in all that is attached to me, to not place any respect whatsoever to ‘your Arab,’ and that you always behave as if they were not present. I hate this dynasty; I hate all of them. I know that ‘Greece’ procreated men of knowledge and eloquence: philosophers, poets, orators, athletes. All of them have excelled there. And there as well was where the fathers of medicine were born, but the Arab physicians, I am sure you know their situation. When it comes to me, I know their poets, and it is hard to imagine something more fragile, disturbing, and obscene. It is likely impossible that anyone could make me believe something good could come from ‘Arabs.’ But you, despite the fact that you and your group are scholars, you – by an unknown source of tolerance – bestow praise upon them. Whew, after the ‘Arabs’ it shall be prohibited for anyone to write again.

Petrarch’s words must be taken in context, alongside whatever stakes they are associated with. However, let’s say with no insistency, that this letter, which violently attacks Arabs, seems to be indirectly and without Petrarch’s recognition, actually complimentary toward them. Petrarch is arguing what one might call a pressure group, or lobby of intellectuals who hold the Arabic culture with full sincerity to the extent of assuring its superiority over the Greek culture. This explains Petrarch’s ire and rage while speaking to his friend, saying “Your Arab!”

In another domain, You are not going to speak my language could mean: ‘You are not going to read my literature.’ I refuse to be read. I refuse to be translated. I do not desire others to find their way into my intellectual treasures, especially the texts I consider to hold great significance in our culture. I object to transferring these texts into other languages outside of the group to which I belong. Why hold this position on translation? Because I fear that translation would weaken the text, or by contrast, I fear that it would make it look more alluring and concrete. And the painful result in this case is that the original language would lose its substantial character and unique advantage. This sense of reservation might also be noticed when it comes to literary texts. Let’s think for a moment about Calila e Dimna, originally written in Sanskrit. It was translated many times, yet it had not been considered or anticipated, by any chance, that the book would be distributed or become famous in a foreign language. So as soon as the Indian philosopher Baydaba (known to some scholars as Vishnu Sharma) finished writing the book, he presented it to the king of Great India and asked him to ensure that Persians would not read it and benefit from its wisdom. Indeed, the Persians did find it, and the Arabs after them, but this book introduces itself as one that is forbidden, prohibited, and that foreigners are not allowed to approach, touch, or read. It is a taboo book. In this case, refusal to broadcast the private culture often goes hand by hand with objecting to convey the foreign culture: I will not read you, and you will not read me; I will not translate you, and you will not translate me.

We encounter this attitude, although to a lesser degree, in the argument about translating poetry. Nowadays, we are inclined to believe that the poem would necessarily lose something when translated. But we, as well, believe that it could gain something additional, in the sense that this procedure would ultimately be profitable to some extent. A solid illustration, a classical one per se, would be the German Friedrich Hölderlin’s translation of Sophocles. However, the Arabs’ position in the classical era was not this flexible. They used to say:“Poetry is not translatable, because it is Naim[1] before anything else, and Naim, which forms the essence of the poem, cannot be faithfully translated into a different language.” Look at ʾaljāhiẓ’s argument in kitaāb ʾalḥaywān: “It is worth noting here that they must have considered the impossibility of translating verse to be likely in whatever language out there, and for that reason, presumably, they did not translate Greek poetry.”

So now, how about translating Greek philosophy? Arabs thought that Greek philosophy was transferrable to all languages, with neither deficiency nor loss, or at the least, with no gross deprivation — I am still referring toʾaljāhiẓ. Therefore, when it comes to poetry, translation fails in rendering its essence and what shapes its substructure. But when it comes to Greek philosophy and Indian or Persian wisdom — in short, when it comes to prose — the translation preserves what is essential and original in it, and therefore the transfer process does not result in a complete failure. Translation might not necessarily diminish the overall value of the text in this process, but it is also thought not to be entirely impossible that the overall value could enhance and grow. If that was philosophy’s condition, if the essence remains intact when translated, the original language can seem to be of secondary importance. In other words, the original language in poetry is a requisite constituent and essential component. However, in philosophy, the original language is casually accidental and does not hold capital importance.

If that was right, and I do not think that it is, why care about original philosophical texts? Why preserve them if the essence is safeguarded and persists when transferred to a different language? In Persian literatures, there is a text that narrates the story of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the kingdom of Darius. He seized all the books he found and commanded his men to translate them into Greek. Afterwards, he burned the original texts and killed all who were accused of trying to save the books from the fire. Some of the accused escaped and returned after Alexander’s death to re-write what they have memorized (which might remind you of Truffaut’s movie Fahrenheit 451), except that the majority of the books, according to the novel, were lost. I read this tale in an exciting book written by Dimitri Gutas: Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbasid’ Society, and I think there is an Arabic translation for the book. The translation’s endeavor in this example is to compensate for the original text, to offset it, and ultimately delete it. References to the original text are absent, since it no longer exists. Within the same context, it might be useful to quote a short text about the Arabs’ dealings with the Greek culture, written by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, a primary figure among the Jena romantics, who lived between the 18th and 19th centuries. In this text, which requires careful and close reading, he asserts that the Arabs did not care about the original texts they translated:

Arabs are characterized by an excessively argumentative nature. They have, in comparison to other people, a greater ability to deny and destroy. What distinguishes their philosophy in its spirit is their sick fondness of denying and destroying the original texts as soon as they are translated.

So they translate and then destroy the original text, that is what he is saying. I am not qualified to judge this quote, which looks peculiar to me. I do not know which document or historical fact that Schlegel adopted and drew upon to assure in a crucial sense that Arabs eradicated the texts after transferring them. The Moroccan philosopher ʿabdulsalām bin ʿabdulʿalī commented on Schlegel’s claim in his book, In Translation, saying carefully:

We are not concerned here about the ideological content in Schlegel’s text, nor are we in need of examining the literal truthfulness of the text. Let’s just ask whether the results of his assertion speak of the reality of translation in our traditional culture.

Then ʿabdulʿalī asked about what Schlegel meant by “destroying the original texts” and added:

He meant that the classical Arabic culture, when transferring the text, acclimates and embraces the text into its domain. Arabs used to make the text comply with their culture and destroy the ‘otherness’ element in it, thus allowing the culture to swallow and integrate the text in the ego circle, no longer treating it as an Other. Therefore, it is not long until the culture passes off the text as an original after transcending it to a higher level in Arabic.

[1] Classical poetic meters in Arabic ʿaruḍ (Science of Poetry), contain 16 buḥur (Rhythms); a collection of repeated syllables in each verse. The laws were laid down by ʾalfarāhīdī (786 – 718 AC), an early Arab lexicographer and philologist, and the first attempts to change or revolt against the vertical form did not emerge until the early years of 20th century.

Naser Albreeky is a freelance writer and translator based in New York City

Categories: translation

3 replies

  1. This article on Brodsky/Baryshnikov makes a point that Brodsky is only a great poet in Russian. I was reminded of it while reading the above speech. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/01/14/a-ghost-story/


  1. Abdelfattah Kilito’s ‘Thou Shalt Not Translate Me,’ Translated – musnadjia423wordpress
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