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Beyond National Literatures: Translation, Exchange, and the Creation of the Modern Middle East

Session III-19, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Discussions about translation have generally been understood as the domain of the philologist, or as contributing to the translation into English of “national literatures” in the service of world literature. In the Middle East and its adjoining regions, their diasporas, and their academic study, translation reflects the circulation of texts, authors, history, motifs and tropes, and linguistic skills across and between audiences of different languages. The relationships of texts with their cultural producers and their language mediators are politically intimate. Our panel seeks to challenge the consignation of discussing translation to philology and national literature. Translation is an inherently multilingual project and relies on the circulation of texts and knowledge. Rooted in a variety of disciplines and literary traditions, we provide a comparative approach to translation. Bringing together scholars of cultural history and sociology, comparative literature, religious studies, and linguistics, we inquire into the simultaneous movement and control of ideas within and across language in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Our cases move between Arabic and its registers, Ottoman Turkish, Persian, Hebrew, French, and English. Collectively, we ask how the history and craft of translation has formed ideas of place, identity, belonging, and the academic study of the Middle East and Islam. Who gets to be part of this discussion, and in which language(s) are the terms defined? These questions are supported by a case study that examines the relationship between multilingual and intra-lingual (dialect) translation in narratives of “national” literary history, and a case study that illustrates the critical correspondence between an author and a translator when the translation is flawed, revealing consequences for intellectual property as well as academia. Moreover, our collective questions are supported by a case study that scrutinizes the concept of a cultural collection since new material was written and other material was translated but both were published together as part of the same intellectual canon, and a case study that illuminates authors’ translation of place and history within poetry of nations at war in order to imagine different futures for national memories. By not just translating texts but also reflecting critically on translation, each paper in this panel suggests a broader cultural method to describe the Middle East, and also, more importantly, each paper asserts different, yet, mutually constitutive discourses of the Middle East and Islamicate world.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Abdullah Cevdet’s publishing project spans between 1904 and 1932, if we limit ourselves to his journal and publishing house İctihād. His publishing project, however, seems to reach beyond that. Abdullah Cevdet serializes part of his own translation of Gustave Le Bon’s Les Lois psychologiques de l’évolution des peoples in his journal in 1905 and publishes it himself in 1907 as part of his book series Kütübḫāne-i İctihād (Library of İctihād). In 1905 in the journal İctihād, he already announces the future publication of Le Bon’s Psychologie Des Foules in translation, which appears only in 1909, published by a different printer and as part of a different book series. At the time of this publication, its translators Köprülüzade Mehmed Fuad and Sadreddin Celal are only 19 years old. Not only does Abdullah Cevdet appear here as a mastermind facilitating the publication of a work without calling attention to himself, but he also seems to encourage, if not commission, young generations to produce translations. My first inquiry appears here: Is there any value in imagining Psychologie Des Foules as part of Kütübḫāne-i İctihād? Another curiosity relates to the elasticity of the term “kütübḫāne”. As seen in a seal on the title page of a book printed in Egypt, Abdullah Cevdet also runs a bookstore in Cairo, selling publications that are printed by others: also called “Kütübḫāne-i İctihād”. What further complicates this specific aspect is that there exists another bookstore in Istanbul with the same name, owned by another publisher-printer: Ahmed Ramiz. And a final complication is their shared pool of authors and the thematic overlaps in their publications. This is why I broadly ask what the uses and the limitations of the concept of “kütübḫāne” are. At this point, a valuable primary source, a publisher’s catalogue printed by Abdullah Cevdet himself, is worth discussing to further elaborate on “kütübḫāne”: Fihrist. Printed in 1908, this catalogue draws categorizational distinctions among Abdullah Cevdet’s publications and reveals how they were imagined by him. I apply sociological approaches to translation, positioning translators as “agents” and presenting translation as a form of active “planning” that creates “repertoires” for a receiving cultural system to inform the treatment of Abdullah Cevdet’s publishing project in this paper. A supporting toolkit is borrowed from the field of bibliography that treats books as physical objects and explores their mobility.
  • While most of the scholarly focus on the Nahda (Arabic cultural revival) is anchored in the Eastern Mediterranean cities of Cairo and Beirut, Arabic cultural production also occurred outside—yet connected to—these hubs, such as in the Iraqi cities. I place the Nahda within late-19th and early-20th century Ottoman networks, wherein the circulation of ideas, print, and people was already established to facilitate imperial political, cultural, and intellectual currents. Moreover, I assert, that there is a centrality to the borderlands. Rather than being ‘peripheral’ to the production of Ottoman and/or Arabic culture, the intellectuals of Iraq at the Ottoman frontier, exemplify Nahda trends, and it is due to their conscious linguistic versatility. This paper examines two overlapping, seemingly-contradictory Nahda trends. The first is the reinforcement of the fasih (‘pure’ literary) Arabic past by writing the ever-growing history of Arabic literature and language. The second is the tension between ‘vernacularization’ in Arabic, where colloquial dialects are used for new literary purposes, and ‘governmentalization’ of Arabic, where the local dialects receive standardization. While both buttress Arabic, both require translation and intra-lingual mediation. First, I analyze two different approaches to the canonization of Arabic literary history and fusha (literary language) by comparing the works of two Baghdadi poet-intellectuals Fahmi al-Mudarris and Ma‘ruf al-Rusafi. Both men were fluent writers of Arabic and Ottoman Turkish. Both had lived in Istanbul and Baghdad. Each delivered a series of lectures on the history of Arabic literature and language, but al-Mudarris’ Tarih-i edebiyat-i arabiye (The History of Arabic Literature) was in Ottoman Turkish and al-Rusafi’s Durus fi tarikh adab al-lugha al-‘arabiyya (Studies in the History of the Arabic Literary Language) was in Arabic. I examine their Arabic literary histories together to highlight the effects of translation across Arabic and Ottoman Turkish in their narrations, and I inquire into the physical translation between imperial capital and Iraq. Second, I turn to the act of recording the Arabic vernacular. The Baghdadi journal Lughat al-‘Arab (“The Arabic Language”) published and edited by Father Anastas Mari al-Karmili printed a series on the colloquial language spoken in Baghdad. Razuq ‘Isa excavates time, space, myth, religion, imperium, and colonial influence to identify the forms and the richness of Baghdadi Arabics, and how they are spoken and should be written. Together, these two cases reveal multilingualism, translation, and diglossia present within the Nahda cultural production in late-Ottoman Iraq.
  • The study of literature from the Islamic world in the Western academy has been deeply – indeed, definitionally – influenced by the work of Reynold Alleyne Nicholson, the prolific 20th-century British Orientalist scholar and translator whose English renderings of foundational texts, especially from the Sufi tradition, continue to be read and assigned in the classroom today. Most of Nicholson’s translations (of Rumi or Ibn ‘Arabi, for instance) were of literature written centuries ago; but in 1920 Nicholson published The Secrets of the Self, a translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s (d. 1938) Persian masnavi Asrār-i Khudī, which itself had been published only 5 years earlier. Nicholson’s translation cemented Iqbal’s reputation in the Anglophone world as a pre-eminent poet, philosopher, and Islamic reformer. Iqbal, having studied with Nicholson at Cambridge, appreciated the work, but disagreed with Nicholson on dozens of points of translation in the masnavi from Persian to English, which have been preserved for us in their correspondence. This paper considers some of these points of disagreement as a rare window into a moment in the early decades of translating Islamic texts into English when the author of the “source” language was able to critique the “target” product. Iqbal’s Asrār-i Khudī is a translation project in the sense that it presents a re-interpretation of the literary tradition in whose language (Persian) and form (masnavi) it presents itself; and its translation as an English text occasions a list of perceived errata that illuminate the different levels on which the author and translator understood the poem to be operating. What is Islamic literature for Nicholson and for Iqbal, and how did they see translation as effective (or not) in a historical moment of perceived crisis for the project of Islamic reform? Offering close readings of the translation contentions between the Persian and English of The Secrets of the Self, this paper demonstrates the ramifications that translation choices, even at the level of a single word, can have on debates concerning tradition, modernity, theology, and literary inheritance.
  • In their respective poems, “Karnei Ḥittin” and “Imraʾā jamīla fī Sadūm,” Israeli author Dahlia Ravikovitch and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish both invoke Arab nationalism and memory in their Hebrew and Arabic works. Specifically, the writers spotlight Hittin, or the site of a famous hillside battle near the Sea of Galilee, where the lauded Arab figure Salaḥ al-dīn thwarted the invading Crusader forces in 1187. In the wake of the Arabs’ devastating defeat after the 1967 War, the authors’ reference to the twelfth century victory accents how they both limn a shared and mutually identifiable motif — capable of being translated between Arabic and Hebrew poetics. However, while Ravikovitch summons this lineage to undermine Zionist historiography and the Jews’ ascendency and influence in the region, Darwish instances Hittin to emphasize the Jews’ and Palestinians’ common heritage during their joint resistance against the Crusaders. Through an analysis of comparative Palestinian and Israeli poetics, this paper will explore how the authors conjure similar tropes to reveal the ways in which contemporary divisions reflect colonial ideologies and campaigns, rather than a primordial conflict. Thus, as both Darwish and Ravikovitch demonstrate, these rifts do not portend an everlasting, timeless phenomenon, but they must be contextualized in the modern period. Like the Crusaders, the Israelis may experience a fleeting period of ascendency, the ability to wield power over the indigenous population in the same region that the Crusaders once conquered and ruled centuries ago. However, as Ravikovitch eerily intimates, the past is bound to repeat itself, and if the Israelis fail to regard the lessons from this history, they too, will confront the same calamitous fate as the Christian armies. While Darwish’s evocation of Hittin only plays a minor role in the Arabic poem, he nevertheless underscores how both communities can recognize Salaḥ al-dīn as a heroic figure, in order to consider their collective memory and potentialities for a shared future. As scholar Amir Eshel espouses in Poetic Thinking Today, literary verses have “the capacity as imaginative artifacts to bring new, at times profound, insight into the worlds we inhabit and shape.” Even though the political situation following the 1967 War was increasingly fraught and imbalanced in Israel/Palestine, this paper showcases how Hittin becomes a site of translation — enabling the authors to envisage an alternative to the conditions of violence that punctuate the present — and contemplate a more hopeful outlook in the years to come.