A long-time resident of Cairo, Humphrey Davies is an award-winning translator of Arabic literature from the Ottoman period to the present who has translated the likes of Yusuf al-Shirbini, Elias Khoury and Bahaa Taher. For the Library of Arabic Literature series, he has bravely taken on the task of editing and translating al-Shidyāq’s mammoth Al-Sāq ʿalā al-sāq, which is being published in four volumes, two of which are already out and claiming praise.
In his interview with M. Lynx Qualey, the author likens translating Leg Over Leg to climbing Mount Everest, and discusses the challenges and significance of reproducing the “transgressive” rhymes and “incantatory” synonym lists that pepper the text.
There is a certain amount of professional jealousy regarding your being the one who “got” to translate Al-Sāq ʿalā al-sāq. Was it LAL, then, that approached you with the project?
Jealousy? Really? I never knew! But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense and I want you to pass on, Marcia, to whomever it is, that I understand and sympathize, and I mean totally. It’s like, suppose you were a mountaineer in 1953 sitting at home and saying to yourself, “Gee, I’d like to climb Mount Everest!” and then you open the newspaper and there’s Edmund Hillary standing on the summit! Quel chagrin!
But they don’t have to feel too bad: lots of new routes up Everest were discovered after Hillary, and I regard my translation of Leg over Leg as an exploration and a mapping expedition across a very wide continent (think Lewis and Clark, and the tens of thousands of sturdy men, sun-bonneted women, and freckle-faced children who followed after).
I got to do the translation because I was invited by Philip Kennedy to attend the launch meeting in Abu Dhabi in 2010 where everyone was told they were expected to propose a translation. I proposed Leg over Leg, initial interest was shown, and I was invited to submit a written proposal. The written proposal was accepted, and the rest is history. It’s like Woody Allen said (or is that an urban myth?): “Half of life is being there.”
When you came back to the text, 40-some years after you’d first read an excerpt at Cambridge, how did it strike you? As having lived up to the “vibe” you expected it to have? How was it different, in its entirety, from what you’d expected?
The 45-year-old memory of a vibe is a gossamer thing but the book certainly lived up to my hopes. It is unique both in formal terms and in what it sets out to do—in its idea of what a book can be—and it sizzles with intellectual verve and engagement. What differed most perhaps from my uninformed (or rather proxy-formed) preconception was the fact that, lover of word-play though he was, the author writes when it suits him with a straight-forwardness and lucidity that would be the envy of many a modern writer (as Pierre Cachia puts it). The formalism isn’t “empty,” the preoccupation with language isn’t “decadent,” the games have a purpose, and the ideas are often unexpected (given our preconceptions). It is well known, for example, (among the very small number of people who know anything, in this context) that he defended the rights of women to sexual gratification and promoted the idea that they were as intelligent, if not more so, as men, but did you know that he also questioned, in terms that sometimes seem astonishingly modern, male hegemony over language, our rights to freedom of thought, expression, and association, the equality of all races and colors, and human rights (he even uses that term) in general and that he may have been the first to do so in the modern Arab world? He even worried about the impact of population growth on the environment.
You told Melville House Press, in an interview for their blog, that you enjoyed “a certain tightness and elegance of structure that contrasts with the open-endedness of the modern novel.” Some readers, I think, would see Shidyaq’s work as much more sprawling and looser than the modern novel. Could you describe its tightness, particularly structurally, with a view to the whole?
Four books of equal length, each divided into twenty chapters; the first chapter of each book a scene-setting monologue in the authorial voice; each thirteenth chapter a maqāmah that develops in philosophical terms themes that have arisen earlier; sections that discuss socio-literary issues alternate with those that recount the adventures of that socio-literary adventurer, the Fāriyāq; the whole thing bound, like flour by eggs, with extended metaphors (in the first half, for instance, that of the man of religion as a salesman and of the doctrines of his church as the wares he peddles). Note too, the dominance of the game (e.g., the conceit worked till the tropes squeak, the sentence that continues over forty pages and never loses syntactical integrity despite being stuffed with a thousand-word list and seventy-seven asides, the puns, the recycling of philosophical terminology for disreputable ends)—games, it being remembered, depending on patterns and rules.
In his translators’ rules, regarding poetry, David Colmer wrote “The ugliness of a bad rhyme has more impact than the beauty of a good rhyme.” Generally, in Arabic poetry, rhyme seems to change the tone of a poem when it moves from Arabic to English, shifting to light and sing-song; unserious. For that reason, Tahera Qutbuddin eschewed rhyme in A Treasury of Virtues. Whereas the rhymed prose here—rather than light—seems transgressive, teasing, sharp. Did you, at any point, consider translating without the rhymed prose? How did you hit on the wonderfully playful italics?
I don’t accept the initial generalization—that carrying rhyme over from Arabic into English must necessarily result in trivialization—and I’m glad to see that you don’t either. Still, it is hard: Arabic is a language that lends itself, thanks to its morphology, to rhyming; English doesn’t. The time and effort taken to rhyme the rhymed prose was considerable; typically I would make an unrhymed translation first, move on, and then come back to the rhymed passages later since I hate to be held up too long in my shark-like forward progress and anyway need to be in a certain state (before breakfast is best) to get those sudden flashes of inspiration.
Being a lazy person, I would have loved not to have to produce thousands of lines of rhymed prose but there was no avoiding it: how otherwise would one have dealt with the passages in which he discusses it, and how to square one’s conscience with the suppression of such a prominent feature of his style? And sometimes, even in English, it does work, producing, as you say, a crispness and a playfulness that are quite charming, not to mention transgressive. I think I started using italics simply to keep track of the rhymed periods, and I was, and still am, of two minds about it. Some have told me that it gives too much prominence to the rhymed words. Anyway, I’m glad you like it.
To what extent did you “fact-check” the book, either looking into how it aligned with history or other of the book’s claims? Do you think the novel would be potentially interesting to historians?
I try in an appendix that will appear in Volume Four to baste, as it were, the author’s studiously vague account of dates and circumstances surrounding the doings of the Fāriyāq onto the solid calico of history, which is a difficult task, given how little research has been done. My efforts were not primary research, which I don’t consider to be a translator’s job but relied on the work of Geoffrey Roper and on Ahmad al-Maṭwī’s study. In any case, the idea wasn’t to “fact check”; I just was curious to know how fact and fiction interrelated from a literary perspective. Other than that, there were thousands of references to poets, books, historical events, and all the manifold, elaborate, and elegant baggage of classical Arabic culture.
Why, for example, is Abū l-Aswad al-Duʾalī’s daughter described as being one of the reasons for the invention of the science of Arabic grammar? What is the significance of telling a woman “your nose-rope’s on top of your hump”? The author expects the reader to know stuff like that (or at least he pretends that he expects the reader to know) as well as, needless to say, who Abū l-Aswad al-Duʾalī was. I don’t (expect the reader to know), so spent many hours writing endnotes.
Synonyms! They play a key role in the book. Did you try to match them, connotation for connotation, one after another? Or did you try to work with the lot of them, creating a similar cavalcade of like-words in English? Where did you look for them in English?
This is the most difficult aspect of the book. I started off dealing with them more or less on the “connotation for connotation”—or perhaps “denotation for denotation”—basis but soon found that this could bring strange results. What to do when the number of Arabic words for, say, female genitalia far exceeds that of English, and with the fact that even if one comes up with an equal number of synonyms in each language in any given semantic area, they are unlikely to map onto one another exactly? What to do when seventeen Arabic words in a list are all given an identical definition in the Arabic dictionaries?
I was partially saved from these dilemmas when I realized that the most important thing about these lists is not the meaning of the words; rather it is the incantatory effect produced by their sound and the sense of “terror”—to use one critic’s term—induced by their sheer number and their frequently unfathomable obscurity. This, of course, poses further problems (how many sonorous, unfathomably obscure words for female genitalia do you know?) Maybe the ideal solution would be to find a closely similar list in the translation of Rabelais, another list freak, made in the seventeenth century by the lowland Scot Sir Thomas Urquhart (sample, from another semantic area: “the girning of boars, chirming of linnets, whicking of pigs, grumbling of cushet-doves, cricking of ferrets, mioling of tigers, wailing of turtles….”) and paste it in there, lock, stock, and barrel. In the event though, I couldn’t find lists that really fit.
In any case, over the four volumes I offer a smorgasbord of different approaches to the problem, including, on one occasion, simply transliterating the words and suggesting the reader read them out loud while thinking the words “strong and vigorous” (try it: ʿutʿut, kunbuth, kunduth, mikalth, milyath, maghith . . . and a hundred more). As I said before, the translation is offered in an exploratory spirit, and more on the thinking behind these different approaches is outlined in the Translator’s Afterword in Volume Four. It will be interesting to see other people’s solutions.
How is the reading public al-Shidyaq had in mind different from the reading public that you have in mind for this book? I imagine that this potentially has a much broader interest than some of the other LAL titles—that it could be of interest to anyone who loves books and words. Did you have any audience in mind?
I always and only have in mind one audience: myself. I translate in order to understand.
Was how you worked on this translation different from how you’ve worked on other projects?
I always consult as much as possible, first with the author (only when alive, of course) and then with anyone else I think can help, but the collaboration built into the structure of this project is unusually strong. The idea of a buddy editor is brilliant and in this case I am exceptionally lucky to have Michael Cooperson to read through my near-final drafts and catch everything from typos to bloopers and to make suggestions, not to mention LAL’s exceptionally dedicated copyeditors, XML editors, and proofreaders. Crucially, though, before it reaches that point, I discuss the knottier problems, and especially those concerning the further reaches of Arabic grammar, with a colleague here in Cairo, Ahmed Seddiq. His contributions have been immensely helpful.
Further on that, how long did this take you? Did the tone of it come to you at once, or did you have to play around with it?
I blithely imagined before I started that the translation/edition (and don’t forget, this is a parallel Arabic/English edition with the translator responsible for the editing of the text) would take me a year. In fact, it has taken more than two. As to tone, in my experience a strong writer establishes his from the first sentence, so you either get it right away or you don’t.
Any other LAL projects on the horizon?
I have ideas but would not want at this stage to jinx, hex, hoodoo, voodoo, Jonah, or whammy any possible outcomes, results, consequences, eventualities, conclusions, culminations, denouements, or climaxes, as al-Shidyāq might have said.