Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: The Bilingual Course, Backwards

ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a discussion with Margaret Litvin,  Associate Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Boston University and author of Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost. Here, Litvin discusses her translation-first bilingual course “Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature”:

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s keenly interested in the space of the bilingual hybrid as a teaching and learning space, not only for the language learner but as a way of understanding literature differently. But starting from the language learner’s vantage: What does a bilingual space bring (potentially) that a crash course does not?

Qasr al-Nil bridge.

Margaret Litvin: This is a third-year “bridge” course taken by Arabic minors, Middle East & North Africa Studies majors, and a few native or heritage speakers of Arabic who are science majors and need it for general education credit. Having the discussion in English on Tuesdays and in Arabic on Thursdays is the aspect of the course that I’m most committed to. Not the particular works on this sample syllabus, which I’m going to revise to build in more thematic coherence. (I last taught it several years ago.)

It’s a small seminar. The bilingual format lets students play to their strengths, work on their weaknesses, see each other in more than one light, and start to knit together their liberal-arts-student and language-learner selves. It helps the course serve most students’ stated goals (improving their Arabic language skills) as well as mine (teaching them how to read literature and develop the desire to do so).

Why not just teach it in Arabic?

ML: Some people are incredible language learners and some are insightful about life and literature; the two sometimes coincide, but sometimes not. In the many intensive language learning programs where I’ve been a student (in Arabic, but also in French and now German), there’s a kind of jock mentality that sets in, where people are judged intellectually and almost ranked by how fluent in the language they are. I’ve seen many times that some people who are “no good at languages” turn out to be ferociously smart in other ways: good historians, for instance. Having the course entirely in Arabic would lock them in a box of inarticulate frustration and deprive us of their insights.

Reading the work both in English translation and in Arabic, and discussing it in both languages, also performs a kind of healing work for the heritage student, whether he or she went through US schools or an Arab education system. It lets heritage students put their previous Arabic education in context, assess what it’s good for and where the gaps are. Often these students are younger than the Arabic learners, first- or second-year students fulfilling a humanities requirement. The bilingual format gives them a place in the class without making them the experts. They can’t coast on language background alone; they have a format to learn from and respect their fellow students; they have to think about how to discuss a literary text and how to write a humanities paper.

You — interestingly — teach “backwards,” beginning with the target-language translation, in which the student is fluent and comfortable, and then moving (backwards) into the Arabic original. What made you decide to try it that way? How does teaching these texts “backwards” differ from teaching them forwards (original–>translation) and how do the discussions & emphases change?

ML: I don’t know anyone else who teaches translation-first, but I’m really proud of it. First because – we’ll bracket the native speakers for a minute – the overwhelming majority of my students will graduate without achieving fluency in Arabic. Most will die without achieving it. So what?? Are you going to spend the rest of your life suffering about that? I teach from a position of “strategic non-fluency.” What can you do with what you’ve got? How can you best deploy whatever insight into the language you do have? Can you cast an eye across the margin at the parallel text on the facing page? Can you read a few key pages to get a flavor of the original? Can you start to see the Arabic expression ghosting the English? I’ve talked about this before. People fetishize fluency, but it is not the biggest step in language learning. The biggest step is going from understanding nothing to understanding something.

You write, “This will allow you to go beyond simply puzzling out the literal meaning in preparing for the Thursday class meetings.  Do use a dictionary (Hans Wehr or al-Maany), but don’t just try to create your own English ‘translation’ of the text in your head.” That is a critical leap to make — but how to incentivize immersion into the texture of the Arabic vs. just doing the notes?

ML: I spent so many hours in intermediate Arabic courses translating Arabic texts, either explicitly for an assignment or implicitly in my head. It really improved my English! Hans Wehr (available online for free) is a fantastic English thesaurus. But what I ended up really reading wasn’t the text itself, but rather a broken translation of it I had constructed in my mind. Don’t you think I would have been better served starting with a translation by someone like Humphrey Davies, and producing my own understanding of the text from there?

Going English-first lets you really focus on what the Arabic text says, because you already know roughly what it means. Rather than toiling to replace the Arabic words with a thicket of English glosses, you start to notice the Arabic words and sentence structures. Oh, he said bawwāba in Arabic, and not bāb? Oh, this “you” is in the plural in Arabic? Oh, the Arabic withholds this word till the very end of the sentence? But wait, I would have translated this differently. Our students have been trained in critical thinking, which means second-guessing everyone – even as they walk with them and learn from their experience. We can harness that. At an intermediate language level, second-guessing an expert translator is way more productive and fun than trying to be the translator.

Do you ever read multiple translations? I think there are some alternates of Yusuf Idris’s stories, for instance.

ML: Yes, we compare translations wherever we can find multiples. It helps compensate for the one downside of reading English-first: that the translation can become the authoritative text. Of course, another compensation strategy is just to highlight particular textual effects in the Arabic. Sometimes I quickly ask, “How would you translate this, what are the trade-offs?” Making the Arabic readings much shorter helps create that “zooming in” effect.

Your syllabus emphasizes classic works (Tayeb Salih, Mahmoud Darwish, Yusuf Idris, Yahia Taher Abdallah, Sadallah Wannous) vs. contemporary young writers. Is this purposeful — giving them a background in the twentieth-c classics as both a linguistic and literary grounding, before they move to other texts & textual effects?

ML: You are so kind to find a method in my madness! Really I was just looking for a good interlocking variety of backgrounds, styles, themes, books that spoke to each other for paper-writing purposes, whose linguistic effects ranged from moderately difficult to seriously difficult – and for texts available in excellent translations. Plus things they are unlikely to have read in their other courses (that’s why Men in the Sun is out). I think this syllabus was first outlined in 2008! I will have to rethink now that so many more great translations have been published. So the syllabus we’re discussing here is provisional – I’d love to discuss some revisions later.

 Why animal fables + what is literature good for? (I assume the selection of Zakariya Tamer story opens a discussion about Syria?)

ML: It’s funny, but Zakaria Tamer lets me open a small window onto classical literature, the tradition of fables and frame tales. We read a Kalila and Dimna story about an autocratic lion against an updated, even more cynical story by Tamer. Both have a very simple level of discourse, fitting for the opening of the course. But the word for “lion” in Arabic is “Asad,” which quickly opens a discussion about translation, which subtexts it can convey, which ones it can’t, and how translators compensate. Good for an opening day.

 Why Nizar Qabbani? Because his poems are relatively narrative and straightforward?

From a Qabbani poem turned into wall art.

ML: Yes, but also: beautiful, widely beloved, and likely to be quoted by many Arabic speakers my students will meet. My fellow professors and I tend to focus on multazim or avant-garde literature, but it would be sad to totally neglect the simple pleasures that make the language fun to learn in the first place. Also if we’re going to study literature of rebellion, we should know what kind of thing it’s rebelling against.

One time in my other course, on the 1001 Nights, we read a piece of Arabic rhymed prose. One student who was an undergrad senior Arabic minor actually said: “Wow, I’ve never read anything in Arabic before that was written to be beautiful.” It broke my heart. Since then I’ve had this conversation with several colleagues in modern Arabic lit. We think we’re being progressive when we teach the literature of prison, torture, alienation, exile, and repression – some very programmatically ugly books, like Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell – and we just assume that the adab tradition of ornamental language play is in the background somewhere for students to compare it to. It’s not! And how are they supposed to learn about conventional sentimentality? When Qabbani says the 1967 defeat turned him “from a poet who wrote of love and longing/ to a poet who writes with a knife,” what was the love-and-longing tradition even about?

With the Mahmoud Darwish, you had not only the English and the Arabic, but video of the poetry being read aloud. Is that one reason to choose the Darwish, for their performance?

ML: Yes, perhaps. Again it’s about simplicity, quotability, and how often they’ll see it recited, re-performed, remixed, set to music, and so on. Many American students don’t have such a category as “popular poetry” or “national poet” in their minds at all. We have to go to the African-American cultural tradition to find some equivalents.

And then the Mohamed Choukri: Do you talk about the controversies around aspects of the translation and the issues it raises (Bowles working from a spoken Spanish/darija hybrid version vocalized by Choukri, and the ways in which that changed the text)? I recently saw Kamran Rastegar show a few pages of Bowles’ manuscript of the translation, and looking at that vs. the final English vs. Bowles’ notes vs. the Arabic edition was fascinating. 

ML: ¡Claro! This is one of those cases, like Galland’s Mille et Une Nuits, where the prospect and fact of translation actively help to produce the so-called original. I included the book mainly because my university’s study abroad program is in Rabat, so students would have heard about Choukri and maybe seen Ali Zaoua. But again, there is so much good and well-translated Moroccan lit out there now that I will probably replace it on the syllabus.

Of course, one of the hidden goals of any Modern Arabic Literature course is to rattle all the terms, without dissolving them: what is literature? what is modern? what is Arabic? Choukri is good for that. But so is everything else: citation of classical adab within modern works, novels that embed newspaper texts or tweets, translingual literature, fuṣḥa-3ammiyya language games….

I think I’ve asked Laila Familiar this question, but: What is the abridged novel Sayyidi wa-Habibi good for? What do you like about it, in the classroom?

ML: What I like least is the novel itself. Sayyidi wa Habibi is depressing, a little dull, not Hoda Barakat’s best. What I like most is the feeling of achievement it gives my third-year students. Especially when they reach the surprise ending. It’s a real novel that, with Laila’s brilliant scaffolding, they can really read by themselves! As a break from our English-first approach throughout the course, it has been very empowering. I’m looking forward to using her abridgement of Saaq al-Bamboo in the future.

Drama is a genre that rarely appears on the Arabic literature & Arabic literature in translation syllabi I’ve been seeing. What do you think drama can bring in? Would you ever do a staged reading of Wannous?

Course poster, featuring a performance of Wannous’s “Al-Fil, Ya Malik al-Zaman.”

ML: I love translating Arabic drama, and for teaching it’s a natural. Dialogue is easier to read than description, because there are no extraneous adjectives; the characters are working hard (like students in a class discussion) to be articulate and impress each other; and you can hear the outlines of colloquial Arabic dialogue ghosting the fuṣḥā. You can analyze the different characters and their motivations in very straightforward yet sophisticated ways. And yes, whether we do a play by Tawfiq al-Hakim or Saadallah Wannous or whoever, we always stage one scene at our hafla, the end-of-semester Arabic party. It gives the students a motive to work on their pronunciation, it builds class spirit, and even as we’re giggling through the rehearsals we also see deeper into the text.

That sounds tremendously fun. As a side note, I understand from Marilyn Hacker that there’s a Wannous collection coming out in English translation from Yale Uni Press in 2019.

ML: Hurray! I believe it’s a really solid collection: some of Wannous’s plays, critical writings and a reverie from Memory and Death. I’m so glad Yale solicited that. Wannous is well served by a mainstream series, beyond the Arabic ghetto. I’m glad the post-2011 Wannous moment is continuing. Better yet, Robert Myers and Nada Saab are translating Arabic drama by other writers too (see, e.g., The Dictator); they have another collection in the pipeline. Meanwhile other Arabic plays are being translated and even staged in the US. I’ve even heard of major commercial publishers looking to put out translations of Arabic drama. Maybe we can have that conversation separately sometime.

Are there other ways you’ve considered structuring the course? Texts you’d like to add (and the reasons for adding them)? Genres you’d add? What about music, and having the students sing along? What about humor?  

ML: You know, it’s only 14 weeks! That’s about 40 hours of class time. We need some of it to develop arguments for student papers, Skype with an author or translator, rehearse our theatre performance, close-read how Tayeb Saleh’s narrator describes his grandfather’s front door, and the like. But they get to do humor, music, and young adult literature in my department’s other courses such as Arabic Translation, Arabic Hip-Hop and Editorial Cartoons, and Advanced Shami.

Or would you ever consider teaching middle grade (MG) or young adult (YA) novels? They also provide a sense of accomplishment and can also be beautiful and fun. Or, to immerse your students in what’s talked about, there are Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s popular science fiction novels that are technically all-ages but were primarily devoured by teens.

ML: I love that you keep pushing at the boundaries between high and low. Unfortunately, for some of my students, this one course will be their only exposure to Arabic literary works written by and for adults. Books they will read with a college professor or not at all.

Well, we’ll continue to disagree about that, but what’s coming up next?

ML: For Spring 2019 I’m considering a version of this course with the same structure but a theme of rila and study-abroad literature: poetry, memoir, and novels about the experience of traveling to study in the Arab East (in pre-modern lit), and then modern student stories about France and England, the US, and the Soviet Union. Many of our students have studied abroad or are preparing to embark – they could use some frameworks for comparison.

Rihla lit! I recommend Sonia Nimr’s Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands which is a sort of feminist-Palestinian Ibn Battouta written in a very straightforward, all-ages way. Rihla is a fantastic idea, and it opens the possibility of so many different eras and such a continuous (although varied) tradition.

ML: Thanks! I don’t know Sonia Nimr yet but she also sounds like a good fit for my 1001 Nights in the World Literary Imagination course, read alongside something like Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories? For a study-abroad literature course, I’d love to hear what other rihla suggestions your amazing reader community comes up with.

Margaret Litvin teaches Arabic literature, world literature, Middle East Studies, and literary translation at Boston University. Her research has examined Arabic appropriations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; contemporary Arab theatre for mixed (Arabic- and non-Arabic-speaking) audiences; and the literary legacies of Arab-Russian and Arab-Soviet cultural ties. Her translation credits include the anthology Four Arab Hamlet Plays (CUNY’s Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, 2016) and Sonallah Ibrahim’s 2011 novel al-Jalid (Ice; forthcoming).




    • Thanks Andy! Can’t even take credit for soliciting, as I think Margaret volunteered, but I can certainly agree.


  1. Thank you for the teaching and learning insights. I LOVE the idea of alternating English-Arabic discussions and the reasons for it. Being land-locked in the Midwest, I am always looking for ways to improve my Arabic fluency – especially the vocabulary of nuance. I would love to take this course, maybe online someday? Then, the fluency would be in the writing.

    Liked by 2 people

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