Today, the fourth installment of journalist and translator AJ Naddaff’s series of talks with translators of premodern Arabic literature, which he tongue-in-cheek calls “Untranslatable”:
The bi-monthly series will appear here and at his substack, where you can subscribe.
By AJ Naddaff
This week’s interview is with Alexander Key, a scholar of classical Arabic literature with interests ranging across the intellectual history of Arabic- and Persian-speaking regions from the seventh century onwards.
As well as being an Associate professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Stanford, he is currently at work on an edition and translation of al-Jurjani’s Dala’il al-I’jaz, with the working title On Syntax: Indications of Inimitable Style, for the Library of Arabic Literature.
In our interview, which caught me off guard both because of its frankness and unexpected turn at the end, we talked about his work, the status of Arabic literature, what motivates him as a translator, and his forthcoming translation. For more on Professor Key’s off-CV academic activities, follow him on Twitter @AlexanderMKey or Tumblr.
AJ Naddaff: Your open-access book Language Between God and the Poets Ma’na in the Eleventh Century is written in memory of the late Wolfhart P. Heinrichs (1941–2014). Can you talk about who Heinrichs was, both his influence on your scholarship and on the field in general?
Alexander Key: As an advisor, Professor Heinrichs taught us as philologists to take these texts seriously, on their own terms, and to engage their ideas.
It’s not just that you make sense of texts, translate them, and lay them out and then you’re done. No! If you take them seriously, you engage with them. And you’re like, “Hey, this fits, this doesn’t fit, I agree with this or I don’t agree with it.” It means grappling with them on an intellectual level and arguing with them if necessary. That is the methodological legacy – of philological respect – that he gave me.
AJN: Have we got to the stage where a non-Arabic speaking Western audience is able to seriously engage with a pre-modern Arabic translation? Or are we still in the philological discipline of making sense of texts while simultaneously making those ideas available, like what your book presents?
AK: I do not think we are there, structurally. We are a lot closer, and well-patronized and supported projects like the Library of Arabic Literature are very important in getting us there. But it is going to take decades to really shift. I spend a lot of time thinking about this exact question, being in Comparative Literature, and sometimes you find yourself in this position, over and over again, of saying to people who don’t read the stuff you read: “We have really great stuff, you should read it!”
And then they can’t read it, or the translation is not easily accessible, and so you are stuck between blaming Europeanists for their ignorance while also excusing their ignorance, because they do not have access to a corpus of scholarship that makes sense from the outside.
The comparison is Classics: if you are interested in Aristotle or Plato, you can very easily both read Plato and Aristotle in translation, maybe you can even learn the Greek alphabet, and look across in a facing page text and then you can read all this scholarship ranging from Wikipedia to the classical references. One might really get somewhere in Classics with no teachers.
But you cannot do that with Arabic; we are miles away. This is a structural institutional history connected to networks of power. Said wrote Orientalism in 1978. That is the world we are living in. No question about it.
AJN: So, does your desire to translate stem from a correction project? That is, an impetus to shine light on important academic resources conceived by some pre-modern thinkers that emerged from the Arabo-Persian space and that are dismissed under the assumption that they are “less sophisticated in thought”? I’ve heard you say several times that there are Arabic critiques of classical poetry from the Middle Ages that are as advanced and complex as 20th-century critiques of English poetry. I’m thinking of Al-Jurjani’s work on metaphor.
AK: I guess the thing is that there are risks to being so instrumental about it, and these risks are not unconnected to the power structures that persist today. It is not particularly healthy for the white English kid who grew up into the north of England to set himself as the person who will rediscover the lost truths hidden in the desert. That is a narrative position with a lot of history. You can’t really do that. It is deeply problematic.
The problem is if we want to bring Arabic into a different conversation, the people in that conversation have to want to listen to it. And you can shout as much as you want, but they are doing their own stuff.
If you work on formal analysis in English poetry, you don’t need al-Jurjani to do your work. Yes, it would be interesting, and it might be useful, but it is not clear that you can’t do your work without it. The people you can’t do your work without are the people in the hypercanon of your field. David Damrosch has this great phrase, “hypercanon.” It is the stuff that you must talk about. In literature, you have to talk about Joyce and Proust. They are just there. They are the hypercanon; you can’t get around them whether you are working in California, Shanghai, or Cairo.
Arabic has never gotten into the hypercanon. And if Arabic is never going to get into the hypercanon, what are we doing?
I think, to return to Professor Heinrichs’ example, it comes back to: this stuff is so difficult. He would start a semester with this big syllabus and say we’re going to read ten things by Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi and we’d get like an eighth of the way through it, because the work is so difficult and so interesting.
I think on some level it is worthwhile just to do it in and of itself. The same is true for translation. That is how I see the LAL translation. It is just worth trying to produce something that might stand the test of time in the way that other translations have. Not that texts won’t need to get re-translated again of course, many times.
To sum up, you must have an account of what it is you are doing that makes sense and gives it value without the instrumentalism of “oh I have to convert all the Europeanists.”
AJN: So, it’s not a corrective movement?
AK: It is a constantly corrective move that is constantly paranoid about its own correctiveness – and its positionality. The idea of a correction is a repressed truth, just like positionality and power structures are repressed truths.
AJN: There’s a strong argument for including context and orienting the reader in translation. To what extent is this necessary?
AK: If it is art, then both domesticating and not domesticating are legitimate choices. If you are translating al-Mutanabbi, you want to write poetry that both works now and feels like it comes from al-Mutanabbi. That feels both English and not English.
I think James Montgomery and [Richard] Sieburth kind of got there with the ‘Antarah translation. It feels like it’s old Arabic poetry, but it works in English.
It is okay to completely domesticate, and yet audiences for poetry are okay with difference. What is contemporary poetry, such as avant-garde poetry, doing anyway? It plays on that tension of lyric expectations, challenging them, pulling them apart and giving us bits of lyric back and then pulling them away.
So an unfamiliarity angle, which again plays on the positionality of the reader and the translator, the whole concept of the foreign and the emotions, that is all a productive conversation.
The thing that I would say is, if you are on the art side (for al-Jurjani the art-theory distinction would be adab versus ‘ilm [roughly: literary arts v. sciences]) – if you are translating adab, I think you are in that world where all the choices are legitimate and they are all on the table. The only thing I would leave out is the super clunky literal translation that doesn’t attempt any aesthetic impact. But to be honest, even that has use. Because sometimes those super clunky non-aesthetic translations are good primers. So that is the adab side.
Meanwhile, if you’re on the ‘ilm side – the theory side – and al-Jurjani was very clear he was doing ‘ilm, it is rational, it is useful, it is important, it makes sense. It is equivalent to how we think of science today. If you are translating ‘ilm, I think you must be 110 percent domesticated.
AJN: Tell us more about translating al-Jurjani. You are currently working on an under-contract edition and translation of al-Jurjani’s Dala’il al-I’jaz.
AK: I’m trying to translate al-Jurjani so that he sounds like a literary critic writing in English, writing in his native language. I don’t want the reader of al-Jurjani’s experience with metaphor to think this guy is foreign – because al-Jurjani didn’t think he was foreign. He was like, “look, the metaphor works like this in Arabic and like this in Persian; those are the two languages I know.” It works in all languages! Lafz and ma’na are global universal concepts. It is a global structuralist assumption. He didn’t think he was foreign. He was writing ‘ilm. There is ‘ulum al-‘arabiyah and ‘ulum al-Islamiyah, but the concept of ‘ilm is, by definition, universal. When you are writing ‘ilm, you are writing for all of humanity, no question about it.
This is not the same with adab as a genre. But ‘ilm as a genre is a universal theoretical voice, and I have to translate it 100% in domesticated English even if I lose some of the flowery language and nice metaphors.
One of my reviewers of the LAL project said, “you lost all these metaphors in his flowery introductory prose.” To which the answer is like, “yes, because I wanted it to read like English.”
AJN: In your book, you persist with a single translation for ma‘na as “mental content” and haqiqah as “accurate” or a variation thereof the whole time. While, as you say, these stable translations sometimes result in clumsy sentences, it makes the reader realize that these are not concepts we have in a modern Anglo-Saxon or European philosophical tradition, let alone in the English language. Is this the same logic that you’re applying in your translation of Al-Jurjani?
AK: Interestingly, no. It is kind of the opposite. What I say at the conclusion of that book is that I have tried to establish how we need to think about what ma’na was doing, but this is not how we should necessarily write it in English moving forward.
AJN: It was a thought experiment, right?
AK: Exactly. It was a thought experiment designed to prove that ma’na was a stable, useful term in the conceptual vocabulary that those scholars had, and this is how they used it. This is how we – at a remove of a millennium – have to think with them in their conceptual vocabulary, and this is what ma’na was: it was this stable, ontologically-linked concept. It was this pigeon-hole, these boxes.
Now, once you’ve understood that, then you translate that however it comes out in English. So for the al-Jurjani translation one might perhaps say, “the idea, concept, this is how we think of this;” whatever works in the English syntax.
AJN: Would someone who is not in this field and does not know ma‘na and haqiqah have to read your book before trying to read this forthcoming translation of al-Jurjani?
AK: The methodological argument that I am making is: if you have to translate al-Jurjani, then you have to write or maybe think of a book-length study for all of the core conceptual items that he has that you don’t have in English or whatever language you’re translating into.
For example, there is no ma’na in English, so the only way to get at it is a book-length study. And the same is true for haqiqah. And maybe the same is true for ‘ilm and adab.
To get a handle on concepts that you don’t have, you can’t just say it’s a range of things in English. You have to get a handle on the concept as it’s working in the work of the people who used it. Then, on the basis of a series of philological studies of words, then you can turn it into English, so you can provide it to the reader who will not need to go and read all the preparatory work.
In a sense, what I am saying is that now there is hope that this translation of al-Jurjani could be accessible to anyone who doesn’t know anything about classical Arabic, and they don’t need to go back and read my book on ma’na and they can read al-Jurjani and be like “okay this is what he thought a metaphor was.”
I am pretty confident with ma’na and haqiqah, these are concepts about content and accuracy, the same is true with adab as “literature,” and ‘ilm in some places as “science” and “disciplines of knowledge” in others.
But I haven’t hit, to be honest, kinayah. Do we translate kinayah as metonymy? Because it is but it isn’t. Lara Harb and I have talked about it.
AJN: Right, I had a conversation about kinayah with a Syrian friend the other day because he told me something was kinayah and it totally was not metonymy. I was confused.
AK: The key thing for your friend is that metonymy in Anglo-Saxon literary criticism is this huge twin for metaphor. Kinayahin Arabic is just a small figure.
It is basically the same mechanism: part for whole. It is basically the same figure. But metonymy in English is this massive thing that people have written with a capital M and blown up to this big metaphor, which no one does with kinayah in Arabic.
Arabic scholars do this with majaz of course. Majaz gets blown up to this metadiscourse across centuries and genres but kinayah doesn’t.
AJN: How did you pitch your book project to LAL? How far have you gotten on your most recent translation project? What is it about this project that is more challenging?
AK: I have been talking to James Montgomery and Chip Rossetti for a while. I was excited to do al-Jurjani, and they were interested in me carrying out this project. It was a really rigorous application process. One of the reviewers ripped apart my poetry translation – found some real mistakes I’d made — but also didn’t like the fact that I was trying to make the poetry sound like poetry in English.
I have found that writing the response to the reviews was really useful. A lot of that material, which is a private thing with the press, is going to end up in the introduction or some articles. It was a super productive conversation where I basically said, “Yes I am completely changing this poetry, I want to just preserve the thing al-Jurjani was citing the poetry for.” He pulls each shahid (a quotation of poetry) for a particular reason, that reason I have to replicate, but that’s it. The images and everything are going to change.
My justification for that is in my al-Jurjani translation article where I say, “This is how al-Jurjani thought about poetry translation.” Of course he knew the poem was going to be completely different in a new language. But that’s a translation. It is not a failure, it’s a success – this is what he and many of his contemporaries thought.
It is only—and Michael Cooperson and I were talking about this at ACLA a couple years ago—it is only European history and romantic nationalism, and national literatures, and borders and the post-Westphalian state that creates the assumption that there is failure in translation. That when you have to take something from one country to another, you lose some essence.
But this is a completely European imagination of translation. For al-Jurjani, you switch from Arabic to Persian. Or for al-Farabi you switch from Greek into Arabic. It just works. They did not have this bordered national imagination thing going on.
AJN: Right, they didn’t have Robert Frost saying to them that translating poetry is impossible.
AK: The thing is that they are both right. You can also listen to Seamus Heaney, and he’s right, you do lose all this stuff, but al-Jurjani is also right: it’s not a failure. The difference is really in the cultural rhetoric around translation.
AJ: Why al-Jurjani and not Amal Dunqul? What excites you more about pre-modern than modern?
AK: Is it because I grew up in the ruins of the British Empire, so I am attracted to an imperial intellectual project at its height? Al-Jurjani was writing universal theory with no sense that anything was going to get in the way. Writing Arabic in Gorgan in the 11th century was writing at a kind of hyper canonical imperial cultural, intellectual moment.
This is the kind of intellectual and cultural confidence that Britain didn’t have when I was growing up, and still doesn’t, and look at the Brexit vote. Maybe that kind of imperial dream is what drove me there, based on the books that were lying around the house from previous generations that I read when I was little. I wouldn’t rule it out.
I would also say that I am not done yet. I am still reasonably young! In fact, I am writing a piece now for the Cambridge History of Rhetoric that runs all the way up to the 1800s. And my graduate students have been working on the contemporary. And I am still teaching contemporary literature, especially contemporary poetry.
But then again, when I look at myself in the mirror, I think my choices might reflect subconscious imperial yearnings from a late 20th century English kid.
AJN: That was the most unexpected, but honest answer I could possibly fathom. Thank you so much for your time, Professor Key.
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: