February Translation Challenge Results: ‘Cruel and Barbarous, Blood-curdling and Gut-wrenching’

February’s translation challenge was built around ʿAbd Allāh an-Nadīm’s powerful 1882 text on taxation, which originally appeared as part of the article “aḍ-Ḍarāʾib wa-ṭuruq taḥṣīlihā” (“Tax and Tax-Collection”) published in aṭ-Ṭāʾif, no. 41.

By Adam Talib

I want to thank everyone for participating in February’s Translation Challenge and for engaging with a text that may not conform to some people’s expectations of what counts as Arabic literature. The question of what counts as Arabic literature is something that has received a certain amount of attention in scholarship, but, in my opinion, it needs more critical and diverse engagement. This is especially important now as Islamic Studies positions itself as the newly dominant representative of the Arabic-language intellectual tradition in North American universities. Academic trends often travel from North America out through anglophone intellectual networks, but North America is a weird place and its preferred paradigms are not, let’s say, unambiguously good.

Islamic Studies is a branch of intellectual history so it’s less about rituals or beliefs than the name suggests. In practice, it is a group of scholars, mostly men, reading texts from the past written by mostly elite men. In that sense, it’s not very different from the study of Classical Arabic literature. It’s definitely an improvement in that it doesn’t divide the world’s societies into imaginary monolingual silos, but Arabic is still predominant in that intellectual tradition both historically and in the study of it today. What is perhaps most interesting about the shift that has taken place is that the texts that we study and teach have tended to stay the same. It has, perhaps, created more room for the study of Arabic texts by Christian and Jewish writers, but usually only in cases where those authors are writing as representatives of Christian or Jewish communities. At least so far, the shift toward Islamic Studies has not brought more Malay or Hausa texts to prominence. For the most part, Islamic Studies is a re-branding that speaks to the changing political priorities of the US ruling class.

Both Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic literature work to make texts timeless, not by stripping them of their historical context, but by drawing them into a larger narrative of canonical Islamic history. Texts like an-Nadīm’s, which are clearly tied to events that jarred imperial economies, politics, and psyches, have academic value because of their historical salience. They are read in the context of a historical event that is presented as part of a larger narrative: this could be biographical but it is usually historiographical (on a national, regional, imperial, or global scale). Translation can advance this project. In Khaled El Aref’s translation of the text, the translator chose to use the term “kurbash”, which is an anglicisation of the Arabic word kurbāj (from Turkish kırbaç). This word, in both its English and Arabic varieties, has an important history as a symbol of despotism, oppression, imperialism, foreign rule, etc. Other submitted translations used words like “whip” and “lash”, which signal many of the same symbols, but more generically and, in a way, more globally. Here we can perhaps identify trends in translation style that may be characterized as “nationalist”, “internationalist”, “anti-Ottoman”, etc. depending on the argument being made. Similar choices were made by translators when encountering the term ḥākim. In an-Nadīm’s text, a distinction is made between taxes owed to the government and those owed to the ruler directly (shakhṣ al-ḥākim). This is difficult to render concisely in translation, but translators came up with many solutions:

“[…] what he owed to the government—and to the governor’s own pocket […]”

“[…] his dues to the government, along with his dues to the governor […]”

“[…] was due to the government, and to the ruler personally […]”

“two tributes: one for the government, and yet another for the landowner […]”

Literary translators cannot also be experts in the history of taxation so we often have to consult with academic experts when we work on texts like this. You know it already, but I’ll reiterate: collaboration is fundamental. Translators also have to decide how much historical background the reader may need to appreciate what is going on in the text, but the political situation in early 1880s Egypt is far too complicated to be distilled in a couple of parenthetical insertions. Once again we have to think carefully about potential audiences and the question of how a translation will be read, that is according to what paradigm.

Here is where you and I might begin to part ways. I’m going to suggest that texts like this—because of their style, diction, and imagery—are read as literature in English translation and that that may be a departure from the experience of reading the original. I don’t think this is a problem and I’m not proposing a solution. But it is different, in my opinion, from the literary analysis of political rhetoric that has people thinking about the structure and themes of famous addresses like Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have been to the mountaintop” speech delivered during the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike on the day before he was killed.

Any reader is free to read any text, translated or not, according to whatever paradigm serves their purpose, but few readers actually avail themselves of this freedom. This is largely due to the way that people are taught to read and engage with texts. Readers who are used to genre rigidity, and above all, genre hierarchy will often look to translators, authors, publishers, etc. for signals about how to interact with a work. As translators, we often abuse this privilege unwittingly. We tend, for example, to bring Arabic into the highest register of English that’s stylistically permissible. This is, in large part, because the kind of Arabic texts that make it into English are often written in a high register of Arabic, but it’s also in a small way because we’re aware—in this particular language dyad—that we’re begging the English reader’s indulgence. It can also be fun, as a translator, to use Arabic style as an excuse to access a variety of English that has otherwise been rejected by late-capitalist aesthetics. That being said, anyone who’s read Ocean Vuong or the latest Sally Rooney novel can sense that the once fashionable austerity of literary English is under threat. It’s not hard to see how much fun the translators had with an-Nadīm’s text:

Brian Powell:

“The methods of tax collection were cruel and barbarous, blood-curdling and gut-wrenching in their horror.”

Sarah Wadsworth:

“So cruel they would make your blood run cold, so barbaric they would send a shiver down your spine; these were the ways of the tax collector.”

Translation has long been an opportunity for literary experimentation in English and we’re still waiting to see if the recent and welcome “professionalization” of English literary translation will have an impact on that older dynamic. Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger are keeping the tradition alive nevertheless.

I’ve gone on for too long already, but I’ll draw your attention to a place in the English translations where you can see the expository and narrative genres colliding. Fa-kunta tarā… The tense of a translation is one of those places where I’m often tempted to experiment, but I regularly find myself pushing up against the immovable obstacle of English literary rigidity.

“When the governor or his deputy descended… the villagers would be summoned”

“When the taxman or his agent arrived… you would see them asking the inhabitants”

“When the tax director or the tax commissioner stopped by… he’d summon the town-dwellers”

“One would witness the arrival of the tax collector… Then, one by one, the people of the village would file before them”

Arabic rhetoric is full of embedded narrative episodes—which are usually introduced with a 2nd-person apostrophe (speaking to an unseen “you”)—and the specific time and place (the chronotope) of these episodes can cause English translators a lot of grief. All the translators cited above chose to use the English habitual aspect (would + indicative verb) to signal a narrative that takes place consistently, if sporadically, in different villages in more or less the same way each time. This adds to the tone of despair that the author is trying to convey. Three of the translators made this stock victim of tyranny a man, while one translator used the neutral “they”. I agree that the English habitual is the most idiomatic way of translating this section of an-Nadīm’s text, but I’m not certain it is the most effective. That depends on what effect we want to achieve. Would it be appropriate to make this episode more concrete by using a different tense? e.g.:

When the administrator or his deputy came to a village, they would summon the residents one by one… People who could afford to pay what they owed to the government, in addition to what they owed the ruler himself, would escape painful punishment, but would be insulted all the same.

When the administrator or his deputy came to a village, they summoned the residents one by one… People who could afford to pay what they owed to the government, in addition to what they owed the ruler himself, escaped painful punishment, but were insulted all the same.

The difference is small, but I think significant and it has more to do with register than meaning. You could say the same thing about historiography, literature, and Islamic Studies.


Adam Talib is a co-editor of the journal Middle Eastern Literatures and the author of How Do You Say “Epigram” in Arabic? Literary History at the Limits of Comparison. He’s also the translator of four novels from Arabic into English, the most recent of which is his award-winning co-translation (with Katharine Halls) of Raja Alem’s award-winning novel, The Dove’s Necklace.