Who’s Afraid of Dead Arab Authors?

In a recent commentary for Al Arabyالترجمة باعتبارها استشراقاًJordanian poet and novelist Amjad Nasser writes about translation:

The piece begins with an anecdote, a time when Nasser was asked to suggest a novel to translate, and he suggested the acclaimed novel by Jordanian novelist Ghalib Halasa, Sultana (1987).

As Ali Issa wrote on Jadaliyya, to accompany his translated excerpt of the novel, Halasa authored seven novels, “two short story collections, and several works of journalism, literary criticism, translation and political analysis. He was born in a Jordanian village near Madaba in 1932 and died in Damascus in 1989. He lived in Baghdad, Cairo, Beirut and Damascus and his work is a powerful example of border-crossing engagement and brilliance.” Yet, as Issa adds, “His work has only very rarely been translated.

Sultana was Halasa’s second-to-last novel, and Nasser suggests it is the author’s most “Jordanian” work.

The translator-in-question turned down the project, Nasser said, because its author was deceased. “I don’t understand. Don’t we translate many dead people into Arabic? Do we stop translating Joyce, Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Yukio Mishima, for instance, because they are dead?”

The reasons may be commercial, Nasser said. The publisher is investing in the author’s presence — their flesh and bone — so that, when the book is published, the author can attend signing events and conferences. But, he argues, they don’t ask authors from Japan or Latin America to be alive. Rather, their works can be alive for them.

The ghost of Orientalism lives on, he argues, and when Arabic novels are reviewed in translation, they are looking for sociological and anthropological material, and not the novel’s technical and stylistic innovations.

Nasser calls on the Arabic novel — and author — to focus not on the taboos but on storycraft, and certainly on Anglophone and Francophone critic and publisher to do the same.

An excerpt from Sultana:

Yousef, Sultana’s Father, came to the village with his wife and opened up a small store. The store was still small the day Yousef died.

I remember him being tall and very thin. Everything about him was tall and thin. His face with its long wrinkles, his long nose, delicate and always moist. And his jealous eyes, red like a pair of small burning coals were always teary. When you talked to him he listened and his eyelids fluttered continuously, so tears would trickle on the sides of his nose. He would keep listening as he wiped his tears and snotty nose. When he spoke his voice came out nasally, from the throat, like a chicken whining.

His wife was of average height, with a powerful, muscular body. She had a wide mouth, a big red nose and a round face. She was very strong. As strong as her husband was weak. What was annoying about her was her voice, especially when she got into a fight. It was sharp and forceful. That’s what pushed people away: her love of fighting and her loud voice. This led people to avoid the family. The women of the village would say: this floozy sucked all the life out of her husband. That’s probably why there were all these rumors about her in the village; that she was a randy, insatiable woman. The women would warn their men: stay away from her or she’ll suck the life out of you and you’ll be just like Yousef al-Hayik.

Keep reading on Jadaliyya.

1 Comment

  1. The intriguing question of orientalism–and the temptation of sorting out its good and bad varieties. Competent Western translators are sources of knowing the “East,” and they can be counted as good orientalists, but in a global culture where East and West are getting much closer, perhaps it’s about time to revisit notions of east & west, orientalism, and occidentalism. (I met Ghalib Helssa in Baghdad in 1977-78 when I worked with him and other Al-Aqlam staff on a special issue of that journal on Zionism. Knowledgeable, caring, and funny, but we never crossed paths after that.)

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