On Bloomsday: Reading ‘Ulysses’ in Arabic

As Omar Qaqish wrote in a 2014 paper, James Joyce’s literary works have been translated prolifically into Arabic:

ulysses3There are a number of published translations of Joyce’s short stories and novels, as well as criticism of Joyce’s work, but these books don’t represent the breadth of interest in Joyce’s work. As Amir Zaky’s 2012 survey of translations of Dubliners into Arabic noted, “By a fleeting search on the web, one can find some of the 15 stories in the collection translated by a number of amateurs and professionals.”

Indeed, Zaky said, “Arab translators have made great efforts to bring Joyce’s work into the Arabic.”

Those translations have been widely influential. According to Rasheed El-Enany’s Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning, Egypt’s Nobel literature laureate said of his characters’ internal monologes: “All that happens is that I sometimes encounter a Joycean moment in my hero’s life, so I render it in Joyce’s manner with some modification.”

Although translations of other works by Joyce began appearing in the 1940s, the first complete translation of Ulysses, by Taha Mahmoud Taha, wasn’t published until 1982. He wrote in the James Joyce Quarterly in 1974 that “James Joyce is still considered a ‘difficult’ and ‘obscure’ author in the Arab world.”

Iraqi poet Salah Niazi, who has also translated Macbeth and Hamlet, was one of those critical of Taha’s translation, although those criticisms didn’t figure in an interview with Channel 4 about why he started his own translation of Ulysses in 1984. Niazi published a first volume of his translation in 2001, a second in 2010 and a third in 2014.

Five Bloomsdays ago, Niazi spoke with Channel 4 about about this translation:

“I was protecting my health from the news of wars in Iraq. I couldn’t bear to watch day and night on television. Many a friend, Iraqi friends in Europe whom I knew, had heart attacks.

“So to protect my health, I said let me go and do something very difficult and forget about all the wars and killings. (…) I decided to go for Ulysses.”

 You can hear Niazi read from his translation over at the Channel 4 website.

More recently, Tunisian novelist Hassouna Mosbahi has translated Joyce’s posthumously published Giacomojoyce and Selected Poems, which is available as an e-book.