Arabic literature found in translation
When was the last time that, without realising it, you quoted from a foreign work of literature?
Have you talked about being stuck in a circle of hell, got a Proustian rush from a certain spell, analysed Oedipal urges or been in a Kafkaesque nightmare?
The English-speaking world would be a different place without access to the world's great literature, but - One Thousand and One Nights aside - Arabic classics have been harder to find in translation.
Take Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. Experts call him the first Arab novelist and a modernist before modernism existed.
Born in Lebanon in 1804, he went on to advise sultans, run newspapers and a printing press, globe-hop his way across Europe, north Africa and the Middle East and invent a new type of literature.
While it's not hard to track down a Chekhov play or philosophy book by Plato, there has never been an English translation of any of al-Shidyaq's work - until now.
The award-winning translator Humphrey T Davies, who is responsible for the English-language version of Alaa Al Aswany's hit novel The Yacoubian Building, among many other works, is currently hard at work on a translation of al-Shidyaq's masterpiece, the 720-page tome Al-Saq 'ala al-Saq, or Leg Over Leg.
The book (whose original, much longer title is practically an essay in itself) is scheduled to be released late next year in two volumes, as part of NYU Press's new Library of Arabic Literature series.
Bookworms in the Emirates will have a chance to hear Davies speak about his experience grappling with Leg Over Leg tonight, when he gives a talk at the InterContinental Hotel to launch NYU Abu Dhabi's three-day World Literature and Translation Conference. (A talk called "Celebrating Emirati Literature" with Banipal magazine is taking place the following day.)
To give us a taste of what will be on the agenda, Davies spoke from his home in Cairo about how translating al-Shidyaq is both important and a little daunting.
Leg Over Leg doesn't just have a rhyme scheme and archaic lexicon; it also includes quotations from French novelists, allusions to classical Arabic science and layers of meaning. It makes Davies' job a tough one, but also, he says, makes it fun.
Al-Shidyaq was "one of those geniuses who pop up from time to time", he says. "He read voraciously. He knew numerous languages. Everything about him was unique."
Davies describes the book's protagonist as the author's alter ego and says that everything that happens is a starting point for a digression about the nature of society.
"It contains some of the first statements on freedom of expression and human rights," Davies says. "It's a very irreverent debunking of authority."
It also has a style that's sometimes downright eccentric. One chapter is entirely taken up with al-Shidyaq expressing relief that the previous chapter has ended, and announcing that he's going to have a rest before starting the next.
At the moment, Leg Over Leg is a book that many Arabic speakers will have heard of, but few have actually read outside of academia, but Davies is hoping that his translation will help change that, and that more translations of al-Shidyaq's work will follow.
Like all of the Library of Arabic Literature Series, Leg Over Leg will be printed with the Arabic and English texts on facing pages, so that it can be used by language students as well as scholars and people reading for fun.
Davies isn't new to introducing books to entire continents of readers. The first novel he translated, in 2003, was Thebes at War by the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz, but his most popular translation is undoubtedly The Yacoubian Building. When it was received rapturously in the UK and US, Davies says he realised that what he was doing was "not just some private obsession, but something that would really have an impact on the reading world".
Since then, translations of books by writers as diverse as the inaugural "Arabic Booker"-winner Bahaa Taher, the Lebanese intellectual Elias Khoury and the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti have followed.
Along with the growing stacks of new Arab fiction available in English, NYU Press's translation of the classics is a heartening sign for anyone interested in soaking up the wisdom of other cultures.
Davies, who has been working in translation for the best part of a decade, describes the present moment as "the best of times", pointing out that there are probably more Arabic books in translation in any bookstore than there have been at any time before.
He is also optimistic that this will persist.
"Arabic literature itself is strong," he contends, "and will continue to be strong. More excellent writers will come to the fore."
And that, he says, is what will keep us reading it.
Humphrey Davies will discuss the challenges and significance of translating into English Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq's Leg Over Leg tonight at 6.30-8.30pm, free admission, InterContinental Hotel, Abu Dhabi, as part of NYU Abu Dhabi's three-day World Literature and Translation Conference. Register online at nyuad.nyu.edu
Updated: December 12, 2011 04:00 AM