In this second of a two-part interview about The Book of Monasteries, AJ Naddaff speaks with Hilary Kilpatrick about her approach to translation, the text’s importance, the present day state of some of the monasteries highlighted, and Ghassan Kanafani’s “Men in the Sun”.
AJN: What was your translation process for this text?
HK: I was really very nervous about translating the poetry. But going through the editing process of LAL, in the end, I suppose it turned out to be all right. It was really problematic: How do you translate Arabic poetry? I didn’t really think of trying to do anything in English meter, but I would have perhaps liked to be a bit more experimental in the way I translated. There’s been a lot of work on translation theory, and I don’t really find that I use that very much. It’s more trying to visualize what the person is saying or imagine what the person is saying and putting it across in English, which sounds very impressionistic.
AJN: A question on behalf of all the Arabic lexicography nerds: what dictionary do you find helpful in translation?
HK: I have a dictionary which people don’t talk about so much, but it’s extremely useful. Al-mu’jam al-wasit, which is produced by the Egyptian Language Academy. It’s in two volumes. And what I also use a lot of, which I happen to have next me, is this, Roget’s International Thesaurus, which is absolutely invaluable.
AJN: I really enjoyed this line in the introduction: you write, “In an age before photography and in a culture where figurative art was not widely practiced, such paintings in words served as a record of places, much like eighteenth-century genre painting in Europe.” Tell us more about this idea.
HK: Not all poetry is like that, but there’s a large section of work which is called wasf or description. Wasf is in fact equivalent to photography. Other poetry might be aimed at praising a ruler. We also have genres like poetry of wisdom. In various situations to be able to quote apt poetic verses was something people liked to be able to do. You also have one or two anecdotes about people who nowadays would probably be in a psychiatric hospital but in those days would walk around in the streets in a very eccentric fashion and then someone would make up poetry about them and the street urchins would repeat it. There were all kinds of uses of poetry as a form of communication. It is hard to boil it down to one form.
AJN: What sort of audience do you envision for your translation, or in what courses might it be taught?
HK: I’ve been invited to lecture on this text by somebody who works in Edinburgh University in the theological faculty on Muslim-Christian relations. That is one obvious area. I would think people who are interested in the culture of the Abbasid period, and people who are interested in Arabic literature more generally. And maybe people who just like an interesting read because that’s what it is. Particularly because it’s divided into sections, it doesn’t have to be read all in one go. It can be read as entertainment.
AJN: I think its crucial to highlight that this text is the last extant version of a book of monasteries. Could you talk about its historical significance and uniqueness? Without exceptionalizing too much, it really, for me, seems like a unique production.
HK: Well, I think it’s a unique production too actually, but that’s always a bit difficult to say. After living so long with a text, you begin to idealize it. What we do know is that there are other books of monasteries which have not survived but they seem to be more just about monasteries. What really seems to have been different about this book, and which seems to be suggested by one of the major, medieval biographers, is that he didn’t just stick with the poetry. He went on and he used the poetry as a way in to all kinds of other information. And so, I mean, in that sense, I think it really is, as far as we can tell, a unique book.
AJN: What are you working on now that the translation is done? Can you indulge us with your current project or projects?
Well, what I like to do is to do things that other people haven’t done very much before and try and then say, well, what has been said until now is wrong or inadequate and I’ve got a better idea. Not that I’ve got the better idea. This is the case with Ottoman Arabic literature. When I was a student, one of my professors would say that Ottoman Arabic poetry never dealt with the serious business of life. In the meantime, there has been a great deal of work done on the social history of the Ottoman period so we know a lot more about the people who produced poetry. You can see there is a great deal of poetry dealing with very serious subjects. For instance, I’ve just finished a paper which I hope will go in a book about the Catholics and Orthodox in the split in the Patriarchate of Antioch in 1724 about a Greek Catholic poet named Niqulaus al-Sa’igh who attacks the Orthodox. If you don’t consider poems about church schisms as serious business of life, then what is? There are some great Shia poets too. I’ve had contact with a couple of young scholars in Harvard and Yale who are enthusiastic about Arabic literature in the Ottoman period and doing original work on it and it’s exciting.
AJN: For those who are interested in retracing this pilgrimage—Are any of the monasteries still around today?
HK: There are definitely in Iraq some of the monasteries, or in Southeast Anatolia. There is a monastery on Mount Sinai which is still there. In pre-modern times, Mongol invasions had devastating effects on some of these monasteries, and the same is true today with Mosul now which was very badly devastated and damaged by ISIS. LAL asked me to provide these geographic coordinates for a map, and there is one monastery that is submerged in a reservoir. It would be interesting to do a survey about which monasteries that he mentioned exist and which ones don’t – and not just Al-Shābushtī but others who made books on monasteries.
AJN: As a final, personal question, I’ve read your translation of the Palestinian revolutionary writer Ghassan Kanafani’s iconic Men in the Sun in two different contexts, both in history courses, not literature courses. The first was in a class on Arab nationalism and colonialism and the second was in a class on political economy and crisis in the Middle East. If you could just share with me a bit about the process of translating that text since Kanafani is a huge, almost larger than life figure for supporters of the Palestinian cause.
HK: I first bought a copy in Beirut about 1968. But I didn’t actually read it immediately. I read it later and I thought immediately, this book has to be translated into English. But think back to the early seventies, there had been the June War. There was very little sympathy or understanding for the Palestinians. I forget the year that Golda Meir said there are no Palestinians. I had spent a year in Lebanon, 67, 68, teaching English in the mountains. And some of my colleagues were Palestinians. So I was really angry at the way most people in Britain understood the Palestinian or the Israeli-Palestinian situation. And then when I read it, I thought, “this is good literature but it also really is a very good way to put across their personal experience.” I was lucky because I started working for the BBC service after the 1973 war, and of course after the war ended a lot of people were still working there with not much to do, I had a lot of free time. A lot of my colleagues spent time in the basement at the bar, and I thought, “that’s not very useful.” I had a typewriter and a lot of Arab colleagues around to ask. His style is very direct, and I just imagined the situations and then put them into English against the background in those situations. It was a very primitive way of translating, I must say, but I think for that book it worked well.
AJ: And what was the reception of the book once translated?
HK: I didn’t get to know much about how the reception was in Britain and I’ve met people in the States who teach it in their classes. But the ultimate sign to me that it was a successful project is that one of my sons was in Ramallah and he says he saw a pirated edition there. It’s not nice for the publishers. But I just feel well that there’s a readership.
Hilary Kilpatrick received her DPhil from Oxford. She has taught at universities in the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland and is now an independent scholar based in Lausanne, Switzerland. She has published a study of al-Iṣbahānī’s Book of Songs and many articles on modern, classical, and Ottoman Arabic literature.
A. J. Naddaff is a writer and Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University.