'We can't make our work like a museum': Arabic and Russian literary translation needs to evolve beyond the classics

Russian Arabists push for more contemporary translations at the inaugural Arab Russian Cultural Dialogue in Moscow

The poet Abu Attayeb Al-Mutanabbi
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Russia and the Arab world share a deep affection for each other's literary culture, but experts say more needs to be done to sustain that relationship moving forward. This was the key talking point at the inaugural Arab Russian Cultural Dialogue, held on Monday in Moscow. Organised by the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, the seminar was attended by leading Arabists from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"The ties remain strong, but there is a need to work harder and translate more works, both Russian and Arabic," said Vassily Kuznetsov, director of the academy's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. "This is especially needed when it comes to contemporary. While I love Tolstoy and Chekhov, there is more to Russian literature. And it is the same with Arabic works, because there is also more to that great literary culture than great people like [10th-century classical Iraqi poet] Al Mutanabbi. We can't make our work be like museums."

From Tolstoy to Tantawi: the cultural relationship between the Arab world and Russia

Sheikh Zayed Book Award general secretary Dr Ali bin Tamim said one of the leaders of the Russian-Arab literary movement was Ignaty Krachkovsky. The Arabist and mathematician is credited for bringing Arabic literature to a 20th-century Russian reader through his acclaimed translations of the Quran and his 1951 Stalin Prize-winning work Among Arabic Manuscripts.

"He presented a series of books to Russian readers that looked at the writers that ranged from the Pre-Islamic period to the era of the Abbasids and Andalusia," bin Tamim said. "In 1910, he published a key article that compared the works of Al Mutanabbi with [10th-century Aleppo scholar] Al Ma'arri. We cannot begin to fathom how deep his knowledge and understanding of Arabic poetry was, and his works remain important in understanding Arab culture."

From left: UAE ambassador Maadhad Hareb Al Khaili, Russia's deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov and Sheikh Zayed Book Award general secretary Dr Ali bin Tamim at the Arab Russian Cultural Dialogue, held in Moscow, Russia on December 9, 2019. Picture by Zoran Mircetic

Bin Tamim highlighted the work of 19th-century Egyptian scholar Sheikh Mohamed Ayad Al Tantawy, particularly his seminal work Tuhfat al-adhkiya' bi-akhhar bilad al-Rusiya (which translates to The Precious Gift of the Sharp-Witted in the News about the Russian Land). The memoir is based on the first 10 years of his stay in Tsarist Russia from 1840 to 1850.

“It was from here that we saw Arabic culture begin to gain the attention of esteemed Russian literary figures such Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy,” he said. “It was actually Tolstoy who studied Arabic and defended its culture and there are many exchanges between him and Sheikh Al Tantawy that are startling.”

While both Russian and Arabic cultural traditions have their own principles, what unites them is a shared love for literature. "This is particularly true when it comes to the written word," Kuznetsov said. "We can see this in the way we value our respective poetic traditions, from the historic to the contemporary."

Looking ahead at more contemporary works

Despite these historic bonds, the panel acknowledged that the once healthy literary exchange has slowed down over the past two decades. Vitaly Naumkin, head of the Institute of Oriental Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences, said more Arabic works need to be translated into Russian. "There is an imbalance in that there are fewer translations in Arabic than those from Russian to Arabic. We need to have more people paying attention to this, and it may require financial support from the government or the private sector."

Naumkin said the works chosen for translation need to reflect modern Russia. Bin Tamim agreed that there is too much of a focus on classic works. With the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, he is looking at the possibility of co-operating with relevant Russian bodies to translate an anthology of modern Arabic and Emirati literature to a Russian audience and vice versa.

Russian Arabist Vassily Kuznetsov says more modern Russian literature needs to be translated in Arabic. Photo by Zoran Mircetic.

This would be an exciting development, Kuznetsov told The National, as there have been bold works coming out of Russia over the past decade. Some of the novelists he would love Arab readers to enjoy are Vladimir Sorokin and Zakhar Prilepin. Both are bestsellers in Russia: the former represents a new wave of Postmodern literature, while the latter represents a conservative voice in Russian literature.

"Also, I would like for you to read works from the Muslim region as there are also interesting works emerging from the Chechnya and the Tatar areas. There is so much possibility and I hope we can get this started."