Summer Reads: ‘The Crime of Translation’

This summer, we will run select pieces from summer issues of ArabLit Quarterly. This piece, by scholar, poet, and translator Kevin Blankinship, originally appeared in the summer 2020 CRIME issue of the magazine, and expands on the translation challenge Kevin hosted that summer.

By Kevin Blankinship

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Panel from Instagram comic strip series Popeye and Curly, based (loosely) on al-Jahiz (Popeye) and Abu Nuwas (Curly) in Medieval Baghdad. By Emily Selove.

“Stop! so that my first glance at you can, with a second glance, repay what it owes for ruining my heart. That which causes damage, must also pay damages.” 

Using the language of crime and punishment—in this case, a monetary fine (gharaamah) as compensation for harm done—Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi, “the would-be prophet,” turns an erotic motif into praise for Sayf al-Dawlah, his favorite patron. Like Palamon and Arcite when they first set eyes on the Amazonian Princess Emily, al-Mutanabbi’s soul suffers with just one look, only this time not the look of a beautiful lover, but a mighty ruler. Notoriously difficult to unravel in Arabic, this line demonstrates the poet’s knack for inventive comparison, even at the expense of intermittent readerly confusion (al-Mutanabbi’s line claiming that Eve herself would be barren if not for Sayf al-Dawlah caused some heartburn for the critic al-Tha`alibi). 

But in a broader sense, crime as transgression takes in a spate of ideas, images, and conceits from Arabic literature. They roam the waterfront from the figure of the “blamer” (`aadhil) of pre-Islamic verse who scolds the poet in star-crossed love, to the mystical drunkard of Ibn al-Farid’s khamriyyah telling his sober faultfinders that they’re in fact the ones to blame. Abu l-`Ala’ al-Ma`arri injects a Solomonesque moment into The Epistle of the Horse and the Mule when he has a magistrate rule between two men over ownership of a female donkey, which one of the disputants fancifully insists was born to a mare. Speaking of magistrates, it is the judges themselves who get arraigned by Abu Zayd al-Saruji, the trickster protagonist of al-Hariri’s maqamat, as he outwits the court with rhetorical flair, betraying a roguish moral reversal that is justified—at least in Abu Zayd’s eyes—by hard times.   

Crime’s fecund rhetorical topsoil was on full display this spring with the Arabic Translation Challenge, which it has been my pleasure to host and curate. What began on Twitter as a diverting pastime has grown, unexpectedly, into a vibrant community of translators, commenters, and observers, some returning every week since March. On Tuesdays, we put up a challenge, including a brief introduction; an Arabic text of poetry or prose to translate, whether classical or modern; and a mention of any existing translations to help participants along. Then, we invite translations from you, dear reader, with a deadline of that Friday at noon EST.

Then on Saturday, we do a roundup of highlights from that week. This part has raised more than a pair of eyebrows as I’ve tried to explain it. “It could be fun, but in some ways it might not,” one colleague wrote hesitantly. “It sounds a little like judging a contest.” An understandable reaction given the nature of such things. After all, I have chosen to call it a “challenge.” What’s the point of choosing some translations for display, if not to show them a kind of favoritism? Yet the roundup is less beauty contest than art exhibit. The goal has been to showcase a range of styles without privileging any of them; to see the bewildering field of talent itself is the real prize. And of course, we want as many people as possible to play the game.

The first crime-themed verse, posted on 12 May, reflects my own years spent with Abu al-`Ala’ al-Ma`arri, a figure as difficult to pin down as he is to read. The passage of choice is his epitaph, supposedly self-written, which expresses an overall disdain for this world that, in al-Ma`arri’s case, takes the form of anti-natalism:

This is the crime my father did to me

which I myself committed against none

Of the more than fifty translations submitted for this line, several caught the echo of Greek tragedy, with its nemesis or divine punishment that determines the protagonist’s fall; in this case, however, the nemesis is life itself. In this gloomy vein, John Leake reproduced the chorus’s speech from Oedipus at Colonus, in the English of Sir Richard Jebb: 

Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came.

And distilling the sense of crime done to all living by life itself is Stuart Brown’s devastating English version:

Every father kills his son

Mine did so to me, but I to none.

Sticking with the theme of crime, though going in a different direction, the next challenge put up one of the best-known gems in all of Arabic literature: the first and penultimate lines of a qasidah khamriyyah by Abu Nuwas, “Who Has Dangling Locks” (d. 813/15 CE), remembered by posterity as a world class philanderer, mocker of religion, free spirit, and above all, the baron of classical Arabic bacchism:

Often bowdlerized, the poem that these lines come from pits a radiant wine against the Mu`tazilite theologian Ibrahim al-Nazzam. One of Mu‘tazilism’s tenets is that God does not forgive grave sins (kaba’ir), only “small” misdemeanors (sagha’ir). If this is what you believe, says Abu Nuwas to the would-be philosopher, “You have learned some things, but much more escapes you!” More than that, he concludes, taking away my pleasure—i.e. stopping me from drinking wine—is itself a crime, since it also robs me of God’s forgiveness!

Attesting to the celebrity of these lines are the multiple English translations that exist, including this one by Philip Kennedy:

Do not scold me, for it tempts me all the more

Cure me rather with the cause of my ill…

Tell him who would claim philosophy 

as part of his knowledge:

You have learned some things,

but much more escapes you!

More than one person picked up a Hibernian vibe from these lines; or as Haroon Shirwani put it, “I think Abu Nuwas and the Dubliners would have got on really well!” In what was a first for the Arabic Translation Challenge, and perhaps for Abu Nuwas in any language, @soorsie on Twitter translated into Scots:

Hud yer wheesht!

Maks me want t’ dee it mair 

Mend me wi my hert-hankin …

An he fa thinks he kens? 

Hingin an awfa wee gansey 

Aff o a gey shoogly peg. 


And condensing the mix of sacred-and-profane that defines Abu Nuwas, @PressTaras translated into Latin with elegant shades of the Vulgate (noli me tangere, “touch me not”; et ne nos inducas in tentationem, “and lead us not into temptation”; cura te ipsum, “heal thyself!”) as well as Martin Luther (Esto peccator et pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo, “be a sinner and sin boldly, but more boldly believe and rejoice in Christ”):

Noli me obiurgare!

Nam me inducas in tentationem

peccare fortiter …

Mutazile ‘cura te ipsum!’

Ab uno disce omnes!

Sed una didcisti, ab te omnia fugit.

But in deference to those for whom such license is a full rewriting instead of a translation, let’s remember that translation itself has often been called a crime. Most famously, incensed Italians who felt that French versions of Dante departed from that work’s beauty coined the catchy phrase traduttore, traditore, “translator, traitor.” Since then, academic debates have jettisoned the idea of faithfulness to a source text that this phrase takes for granted. But academic debates sometimes—often?—forget how readers beyond the ivory tower think about translation. After all, reading a text presumes a message to be decoded, however vague or deceitful; and the fact of a message presumes a messenger, or in Stanley Fish’s words, “an intentional being, a being situated in some enterprise in relation to which he has a purpose or a point of view,” even if that being is fictional or hypothetical. That such beings exist in reality, or even just in the minds of readers, is a possibility that cannot be waved away if one would appreciate the instinct to call some translations less effective than others.    

Clearly, the notion of crime, even within the translation process itself, is deep-seated. Perhaps deep enough to be part of human nature. Who among us has never felt the gnat’s bite of a need to break the rules? But whichever came first, chicken or egg, no one would doubt the fundamentally human urge to misbehave, not least through the irresistible crime of translation.

Kevin Blankinship is a professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University. He is also a contributing editor at New Lines Magazine and his work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of BooksForeign Policy, and more. He tweets as @AmericanMaghreb.