Yasmine Seale came late to writing in English. Yet when she arrived, she brought with her a deep familiarity of the language. This gift, of being both outsider and insider, has been to her great advantage. Her first book-length translation, a charming rendition of Aladdin, was released just weeks ago by W W Norton. She is now at work on a fresh translation of One Thousand and One Nights, also popularly known as the Arabian Nights.
It's all relative
Seale, the grand-niece of beloved Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, comes from a family of acclaimed authors who have written in English, Arabic and French. She grew up hearing poetry in the three languages, but describes a rigorous French education that forced her to leave her household languages outside the school door.
During those years, she was able to “successfully impersonate a certain ideal of Frenchness”, but she found it hard to feel at home with the language, which she calls “too fortress-like, too committed to its own orthodoxies”. In 2008, she chose to leave it behind and go to Oxford University to study Arabic. “I spent a lot of time feeling out of place – I’d never written in English, and it’s an odd place in general – but looking back, that move was a way of bridging the disparate parts of my life,” she reminisces.
This period of disorientation, she says, was the best thing that could have happened to her. “Learning to write in English, and more recently translating into it, has been a kind of liberation.”
A 'very happy, unrepeatable accident'
Happily-ever-after did not come in academia, though. Seale was doing a PhD that focused on Turkish when One Thousand and One Nights scholar Paulo Horta came to London. He was looking for someone who could translate from both French and Arabic. She was looking for a way out of academia. It was a "very happy, unrepeatable accident," she says.
Horta, author of Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights, asked Seale to re-translate Aladdin and other stories that rode along on the heels of the Arabian Nights. These "orphan" stories are found in translation, but not in the Arabic manuscripts.
Part of leaving academia for translation, Seale says, was realising she'd "rather be many-voiced than authoritative". And there is hardly a more many-voiced project than the Arabian Nights. Many of its stories travelled from China and India before being written down in Arabic in the 14th or 15th century. In the late 17th century, French archaeologist Antoine Galland came across the stories and, in the early-1700s, adapted them into French. They were a publishing sensation, and there was an appetite for more.
The story of Aladdin
Although there are similar Arabic manuscripts he could have dug up, Galland found his problem solved more neatly when he encountered Syrian writer Hanna Diyab. It was Diyab who gifted Galland Aladdin.
But which of them is the author of the story? Neither Galland's nor Diyab's name appears on the cover of Seale's new translation, which has a lively introduction by Horta. "It's tempting to see the relationship between Galland and Diyab as that of the ethnographer and the 'native informant', and to conclude that a commitment to decolonising the Arabian Nights would mean putting Diyab's name on the cover," Seale says. "But it's more complicated, I think. Diyab's contribution – an oral performance recorded in a few lines in Galland's diary – is ultimately unknowable."
Diyab wrote about his encounter with Galland in his memoir, but he did not record his version of Aladdin. All we have is Galland's text, "which in many ways is a classic piece of early 18th century French literature, with its charm and its bigotries, and it doesn't seem right to attribute all that to Diyab, either." Part of Seale's and Horta's contribution is to give us this additional historical context. After all, Aladdin is not just the story of a boy with a lamp. It's also a tale of Diyab and Galland – "a Syrian and a French man meeting in the winter of 1709, with bread riots happening outside."
Seale is now at work on a fresh translation of an Arabic edition of the Arabian Nights. Previous translations have produced versions in one of two registers, she says: "the archaising 'ancient storyteller' voice, which is meant to sound timeless, but is really a Victorian contrivance, or more recently, into a kind of flat, frictionless voice, which tends to smooth out stylistic texture." The sounds and rhythms of the Arabian Nights can, she thinks, be more effectively and excitingly recreated in English. "Come back to me in two years, and maybe I'll have to admit defeat like the others," she says, "but it has to be tried".
Part of what Seale brings to the world of Arabic translation is a fresh and playful inventiveness. She and award-winning translator Robin Moger recently co-hosted a London workshop showcasing their experimental co-translations of Ibn Arabi (1165-1240 CE). Translation of Arabic into English has long been the province of scholars, with a focus on accuracy and philology. Seale brings, instead, the sensibilities of a poet. She doesn't draw any firm lines between creation and translation, which "can be as wooden or as inventive as any other piece of writing". The advantage of translation, she says, is being "a way of writing without, or with less, embarrassment." The Arabian Nights is a major project for a young translator. But Seale has not been afraid of big works. She recently published an experimental translation of Iraqi writer Badr Shakir al-Sayyab's classic poem Rain Song, which has previously been brought into English by other scholars and writers. Seale describes her translation as "quite a free or modernist version, but it is also trying to do that basic rhythmic work that I think is essential to the original, and I hadn't found in other translations."
Great Uncle Nizar Qabbani
Neither has she neglected the poetry of her famous great uncle. “I don’t think of Nizar as being fenced off from other writers,” she says. “When I translate one of his poems, I’m thinking of formal questions – how to use rhyme without being twee, how to be lyrical without being sugary. The family connection makes no difference, as far as I can see.”
Either way, Seale makes a very different sort of translator from the Oxford academic of a generation ago. “It’s not enough to be an expert in the foreign language – these tend to be the worst translators,” she says. “They understand the historical evolution of Arabic, say, but often won’t engage with the ways English, too, is changing; has never stopped changing. If I translate an old Arabic poem in 2018, that poem becomes part of the poetry written in English in 2018.”
It is often said that Arabic translates more smoothly into French than into English. Seale agrees, to an extent. “But I think it’s more to do with historical circumstance than the qualities of the language itself.” She finds English is a great medium; translators simply need to push it harder. She values English’s “impressionability” – “the pliancy of it excites me,” she says. “French snaps where English stretches.”
Seale is now at work, among other things, on a new edition of the Arabian Nights. It makes for an adventurous beginning, which hopefully will launch an Aladdinesque career between Arabic, French and English.