Today, the second installment of journalist and translator AJ Naddaff’s series of talks with translators of premodern Arabic literature, which he tongue-in-cheek calls “Untranslateable”:
The bi-monthly series will appear here and at his substack, where you can subscribe.
By AJ Naddaff
Today’s interview is a recent conversation I held with Maurice Pomerantz, a scholar of pre-modern Arabic literature and Associate Professor of Literature and Arab Crossroads at NYU Abu Dhabi, who also serves as an Associate Editor of the Library of Arabic Literature.
Building off the conversation from my last interview with Michael Cooperson, we focused on the maqāmāt, looking at the author believed to be the genre’s originator: Badīʿ al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī.
The maqāmāt of Hamadhānī are among the most celebrated works of Middle Eastern literature, and Maurice has a forthcoming book project on these, co-authored with Bilal Orfali, which presents translations as well as standard editions. The best Arabic edition to date was prepared by the renowned Nahda scholar Muḥammad ʿAbdu in the 19th century, who censored the texts to meet the expectations of his conservative audience, and moreover relied on later, error-ridden Ottoman manuscripts.
Therefore, the book not only provides an update of a seriously flawed edition, but also shines a light on questions of how they were composed, performed, recorded, lost, found, collected and transmitted.
As always, my questions focus largely on translation. And, at the end, I provide a list of things I’ve been reading or watching/listening to this week as well as a note about an upcoming online book talk between Bilal Orfali and the Lebanese novelist Rachid el Daif.
AJN: When was the first time you encountered Hamadhānī? Why were you drawn to him and how has that fondness grown with time?
MP: I come to this in an oblique way. I think I always knew of him in some ways. Like many scholars of Arabic literature, Hamadhānī is someone you can’t avoid. He is the center. He is part of the canon, if you will.
It’s a text I was immediately drawn to, although I didn’t have, at the time, the temerity to work on something so central. In many ways, the training that I had prior to working on Hamadhānī—my first project is on the letters of al-Ṣāḥib b. ʿAbbād which involved reading a lot of Abū Hayyān al-Tawhīdī, so really immersing myself in the Arabic court culture of the 10th century—gave me a certain kind of eyes for looking at Hamadhānī that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I think one of the backdrops of understanding Hamadhānī ’s fiction is that it reflects the performative pressures in the world of people who I would otherwise read.
AJN: What is so interesting to you about Hamadhānī?
MP: Hamadhānī is so interesting because what he does is he almost abstracts from that world the very pressures of being a performer within it. The performative milieu is there, it’s always there, but it’s abstract. The way to get back at how is this realia and what does this mean is to do the kind of historical, linguistic work, return and examine what the tricks are, and then move into seeing this as experiential. Hamadhānī is trying to communicate the very fate of a performer in this context. He addresses questions like: What does it mean to produce this ornate language, what is ornate language in the first place, and what is a trick? And on top of that, what is it to understand?
This is the very hermeneutic game of Hamadhānī which he is so brilliant at abstracting from his world. If you didn’t know what was going on, it’d be much weirder. You’d think ‘oh it’s just some fun little language game,’ which is the way I think a lot of people have approached it.
In that sense, I think I am only now getting to meet Hamadhānī . And I hope to meet him more in the future. He is a text that has been so canonical and familiar that in fact there is a lot of it that is in some ways strange. If our book does something, I hope that we estrange certain parts of what we know about Hamadhānī.
AJN: Let’s talk about your book, which provides an edition and translation of the Maqāmāt of al-Hamadhānī (d. 1008). What is the reason for it coming into existence? What do you hope your new book does?
MP: Part of the reason for the book coming into existence springs from sensibility that there had been something that had gone a little too far and a little too fast in the scholarship. People rushed very quickly into interpretation and textual analysis before basic questions were solved about what the words on the page were, yet alone what they meant. So that, I think, is a good lesson for the field.
I do not mean to knock someone like Muhammad ‘Abdu. And I think a lot of the interpreters’ work on Hamadhānī was very good and innovative and it still holds. But at the same time, some things need to move forward and the only way to do that is to revisit central issues of the kind that I think we get at, such as where to begin in terms of an edition. I think it would be great if someone else could build upon our own initial work.
For this, they do not need our voices to explain the texts to them. We are not in the business of setting ourselves up as the kind of experts who elucidate the meaning of the text for a modern audience. Maybe as translators and editors, yes it is. Even there, though, we approach it with a certain degree of trepidation. Again, Hamadhānī is an extremely talented and erudite person, so that is challenging. Still, this work must be done. And I’m happy to be a part of it.
AJN: I’ve read several of your articles on Hamadhānī where you translate some of the Maqāmāt. It is great how you can keep the rhyme in these translations. The few that I read worked well. How do you do that?
MP: I think it is still very much a work in process. At times, I think rhyme works. And at other times, I think rhymes don’t work at all.
James Montgomery said you can do translation of two types. You can do translation as substitution—whereas you try to create a text that almost substitutes for the text you’re translate in a new cultural environment. Or you can do translation as equivalence.
AJN: Is this like domestication approach?
MP: To some degree. Let’s say you are producing a poem in English that adheres to tawil meter. That is a straight up substitution. Of course, the problem is that readers in English have no idea what tawil is. They can have access to the foreignness of the text, but it is still awkward for them or worse, it is irrelevant.
The other thing you can do, and a good example of that is the Michael Cooperson example, which is the equivalence model, where you try and find things within the target culture that are equivalent to the Maqāmāt . And you don’t do it in one way. It could be anything from crossword puzzles to cowboys. There is a danger there too. That the specificities of the original text is lost.
The substitution model has been the norm in our field. For scholars, it’s often easier to hide behind the substitution or even a densely annotated text.
Equivalence is bolder but also riskier. The translation may end up effacing the particularities of the text in the first place. If it is all these different things, then what is it? Where did it come from?
Substitution and equivalence raise problems of cultural mobility, how do you hollow out something enough so that it can travel without removing the good stuff? You can imagine it almost as crafting something that can travel. What is that vehicle going to be?
In some ways, you already have it because the maqāma was a tested vehicle of travel. So in some ways, whatever you do should honor that past. So that is a feature of the maqama that should remain because it is fundamental to what the form is about.
AJN: What does that actually look like stylistically? How can we translate tone?
MP: Perhaps one other requirement is that it almost demands a kind of reverence. But it also requires a kind of jocularity, which of course is something of a scholar of adab (literature) would say. That has been a challenge, for sure.
Tone is so difficult. Translations of the maqāma often come off as more irreverent in English than in the Arabic. Hamadhānī’s rhymes are ornate and beautiful, but also occasionally charming and funny. So how do you thread that needle and say, on the one hand, the text is jocular, and on the other, how do you not reduce it to a completely humorous text.
Pre-modern Arabic texts don’t conform to modern genre conventions. If you want to convey jocularity, maybe that is only appropriate sometimes because you know well that the maqāma plays alternations between earnestness and jest. It does not have a mood. The maqāma plays with emotion; it does not sustain one emotion.
Like Arabic music — the courtly music — a lot of it is about modulation from one mode to another. Being able as an adib (litterateur) to move from the solemn funeral to a funny scene.
AJN: It reminded of what James Montgomery said in his translation in Antara as well about the tone, trying to capture the tone that shifts so often.
MP: Voice is a really difficult thing. In the end, we struggle at coming up with this.
If Antara is this warrior whose words have power and is describing death and love in this very visceral way, well Hamadhānī is an intelligence that is just one or two steps ahead of you, all the time. Getting that kind of playfulness but also kind of cunning at times behind this is hard at times without reducing it to something else.
Chaucer poses some of the same sort of problems for modern readers. I am not sure whether some of the tales are meant to be funny, somber or both. Even the Miller’s tale, conceals much wisdom and structuring that would have no place in a simple bawdy tale. What are we to make of this?
I think often translators have gone to humor and rhyme pretty quickly, because of unexpected delight being such a key feature that draws them in. And yet it is not just delight working on the reader. There are many other things going on as well for the reader or the auditor of Hamadhānī. It was almost a tour de force of what adab (literature) was and therefore translating that range is the challenge.
AJN: When I read Hamadhānī, I think of Lewis Hyde’s book Trickster Makes this World. This distinctly Arabic rogue actor is not dissimilar from the trickster character first found in the polytheistic environment of Ancient Greek and effervescent in world literature today. We shouldn’t feel for him: he steals and lies to get his way amidst a terrain of blurred moral philosophy. But I find myself feeling enormous sympathy for him. Do you feel this as well? Why do you think that is? Do you also have this reading experience?
MP: This reminds me of a passage of Lewis Hyde where he says, “I am a Saturn dreaming of Mercury.” In a way, these trickster characters are so appealing because we enjoy watching them, but they’re not like us. Or more precisely: they are the part of us that we don’t like to admit is us. The cunning. The lying.
I just finished teaching the Odyssey and the arch trickster, Odysseus, is a similar kind of bifurcated character. What Odysseus teaches us is the uncomfortable truth: lying is common and necessary. And that, in some ways, it is okay to lie. It’s horrible in a sense. But that lying is a part of culture, indeed it’s the root of the very tales we tell.
There is a lovely book that I also teach that comments on Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes this Worldby Arthur Frank called Letting Stories Breathe. In that book Frank, concludes that the real tricksters of Lewis Hyde’s work are the stories.
What Frank’s work demonstrates is that we don’t just read stories, we live with stories. They have a life with us and apart from us. And thus they do not have one interpretation. The whole point is that you give them space to live. And I think the best stories, and often I would put the Maqāmāt in that category, since they are doing something like this, there are multiple ways of reading them. And any good reading will have to account for the multiplicity, giving the tale room to live.
If you take the Maqāma of Mosul (al-Mawṣiliyya) for example, this story is too complex. You could read it as comic, as tragic, as a combination of the two. And yet any of those is somewhat of a misreading. Underneath it is a sensibility that is hard to capture. To really embrace that ultimately, the adib (litterateur) is having one on with you. You are a plaything in his hand. And in that sense, the maqāma communicates it to you. Just the same way that a trickster story, when you read out Odysseus, you know it’s Odysseus, and you know he’s a trickster, and yet he is still tricking others and he is still saying that he is actually not Odysseus.
That joy and pleasure of someone having it on with you is the very pleasure of literature. You know it and yet you still fall for it. You know this is Odysseus, you know that all Cretans are liars. And it is the same with Abu Fatḥ. That is the very pose of a story as well, I think.
This is not sympathy or empathy. I think it is the situation of the reader or the auditor of a good story. You know something is coming and they set you up for that. That is what I really love.
When I talked about abstraction, this is it. That is what is abstracted into being in the maqāma and really sums up something I otherwise find difficult to talk about.
AJN: I want to wrap up by asking you a question that you might get a lot and that I am sure you must wrestle with. So, why do you study and teach the Maqāmāt? People say, I hear it a lot, that we should study turath (literary heritage) to the extent that it benefits us today. T.S. Eliot has said something like that studies of the past are studies of the present. Others say we have passed this period — it’s a millennium old. The same logic can be said about any pre-modern text, and there are so many other hot takes in between. How do you answer?
MP: I tend not to be so concerned with whether or not this is the right thing to do. For me, it starts with this literature exists. It found great audiences in the past. I have learned a lot from it. I find fascination in it and hope that others will too.
Is it the most important thing that we should do? Absolutely not. But can I find ways to talk about this that will be interesting to others? I hope so. I think really the test is to see if others will be interested. The vehicle of the maqāma has had quite a ride when you look at it. This literature has its own stories to tell.
We maybe err — and our book is an example of this— in standing back and leaving a lot unsaid. We did this out of reverence, and just an old fashion sensibility of what scholarship should be. There are moments of engagement, for sure, be they sort of peripheral to this academic project.
But one of the key things that we do in other kinds of writings, translation being one of them, is making these books available again in other forms, making sure that young people have a chance to read something from the past. And we’re hoping to make these more engaging.
AJN: Do you have any examples from your time in United Arab Emirates (UAE) discussing Arabic literature to a local audience? What sort of take away do you have on the status of turath (literary heritage) in the Emirates?
MP: So many students feel a lack or shame, that they do not know their “tradition” and considering what that word means will be helpful to them. In courses, my students are often surprised about the degree to which the “great tradition” is a result of many accidents, mishaps, and mistakes. The vision of a noble austere past that we imagine, is very much that, a modern dream. It’s constraining and limiting in so many ways.
The very thing that we call tradition was more mobile and less constrained than we imagine. That’s in part what allowed it to move across time and space. I take heart in the fact that imagining a past of discontinuities and ruptures shouldn’t be so difficult for us. Past generations too had to often maneuver as well to understand their relationship to what had come before them.
Thinking this way frees us up and allows us to think and rethink our own relationship to the past and to construct a new way of relating to our present world.
AJ Naddaff is a multimedia journalist and translator pursuing a MA degree at the American University of Beirut on Arabic literature & Near Eastern Studies.
Previously in this series: Rebuilding that Old Tower of Babel, A Talk with Michael Cooperson