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The World in a Word: the Politics of (Un)Translation in Middle Eastern Studies

Panel XIII-11, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
A single word is perhaps the smallest studiable aspect of a text, yet how do we approach semantically rich, difficult to translate words, whose complexity emphasizes their simultaneous atomization and expansiveness? Not only do the meanings of words change across multiple axes of context, but texts and the singular words within them serve as sources from which scholars derive conceptual language, multiplying their impact and effect. In this vein, “The World in a Word: the Politics of (un)Translation in Middle Eastern Studies” presents a critical methodology for close readings and comparisons of diverse Islamicate sources, centered around the development of theoretical language and its relationship to translation. Each of the panel’s four papers models a deep exploration of a singular word, showcasing four applications of the same technique across radically differing sources. The first paper examines the concept of taqwā through a saying of ʿAli ibn Abī Ṭālib, arguing that, in the saying’s routine invocation in spaces of Islamic preaching in contemporary Egypt, taqwā activates and responds to a connection between individual interiority and external action established in the early Islamic period. The next paper investigates the concept of takwīn found in the medieval alchemical corpus of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, and shows how the corpus itself problematizes modern translations of takwīn as “artificial life” on the basis of its own theorizations of artifice. A third paper explores the concept of ʿishq by reading philosophical, medical, courtly, and mystical texts against Neẓāmī’s (d. 1209) Persian romantic epic Layli and Majnun and works written in response to it, arguing that Persian romantic epics offer a novel redeployment of the term as leading to corporeal transformation and ethical actions. Finally, the Arabic word baḥr is explored in the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s works to discuss how the term’s dual meanings are deployed for creative possibility, to seek stability, and for political commentary. ​​ Beyond the richness offered by each singular word, this panel presents an example of the possibilities available to scholarship in looking beyond Euro-American theory for conceptual language. Additionally, careful attention to individual words is shown to provide generative opportunities for comparison. The panel on whole provides an opportunity for scholars who focus on seemingly different and disparate areas, in the broadest sense of the term, to reflect on methodologies available to those trained in Middle Eastern studies through a range of poetic, anthropological, and scientific source materials.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Ms. Samantha Pellegrino
    Takwīn is a term central to the alchemical, philosophical, and occult-scientific corpus of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, as it represents the furthest end of the Jābirian science of balance: crafting new and unique lifeforms in an alchemical laboratory. The term is also central to how scholars read the Jābirian corpus: takwīn is customarily translated as “artificial generation”, and the idea of “artificial generation” has in turn structured understandings, valuations, and meanings of the Jābirian corpus on whole. Takwīn’s translation, however, begets a question: how does the Jābirian corpus itself theorize artificiality, and do the corpus’ own internal theorizations challenge the interpretive work implied in traditional translations of takwīn? I argue that the Jābirian use of takwīn belies a fundamental theorization of concepts of artificiality within the Jābirian corpus that differs from that used in modern scholarship on the same corpus, and that translating takwīn as ‘artificial life’ imposes an anachronistic theoretical framework upon Jābirian texts. To demonstrate this, I conduct a close reading of the word takwīn throughout Jābirian texts, supplementing this style of analysis with methods from the history of science, gender and sexuality studies, and Islamic studies. Briefly examining how translations of takwīn as “artificial generation” guide readers to particular expectations of Jābirian texts, I then direct my focus to the Jābirian K. al-tajmīʿ which describes the construction of machines for takwīn and operations that it terms tawallud, relating to ‘natural’ or ‘spontaneous’ generation. I give special attention to the issue of the machine’s analogy to a uterus and what implications that has for understanding takwīn conceptually as an ‘artificial’ endeavor. I discuss not only the ideas of generation and reproduction harnessed in discourse on the machine, but also the intertextual religious components operating in takwīn​. I additionally compare the theorization of takwīn described in the K. al-tajmīʿ with theories around fermentation and leavening described in the yet-untranslated Jābirian K. al-khamā’ir al-kabīr. Through a close analysis of takwīn, the Jābirian corpus offers its own sophisticated theories of artificiality that complicate a translation of takwīn as “artificial generation”. I offer new insights into how the Jābirian corpus theorizes artificiality, provide new readings on previously studied and presently unstudied Jābirian texts, and highlight problems of translation structuring fundamental understandings of the Jābirian corpus. This paper therefore displays the necessity of attentiveness to the politics of (un)translation and the possibilities present in drawing conceptual language from outside of Euro-American theory.
  • Stephanie Kraver
    This paper will discuss Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s employment of baḥr in his oeuvre between the 1982 War and the First Palestinian Intifada. While Darwish’s use of the term may simultaneously connote the “sea” and “a meter of poetry,” this study will examine how baḥr is deployed for creative possibility, to seek stability, and for political critique amid mourning and dispossession. That is, it explores how the word conjures the vastness of the sea, the potentiality of the poem, along with balance and predictability in contexts surrounding upheaval and lament. In Madīḥ al-ẓill al-ʿālī (In Praise of High Shadow), which was composed amid Israel’s bombardment during the 1982 siege of Beirut, lyric verse and al-baḥr serve as a means of preservation amid daily devastation and spatial and temporal loss. As Darwish writes in this poem, “baḥrun for the banner of the dove, our shelter, our individual weapon.” For the Palestinian author living in exile, a meter of poetry operates as a form of protection and stability through its consistent cadence and rhythmic form in the wake of ongoing unrest. A decade later, Darwish’s Aḥada ʿashara kawkaban (Eleven Planets) advances melancholic musings through verse, ruminating upon the nostalgia and grief associated with the history of the Islamic golden age in the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages (711-1492 CE). He summons the devastation following the Muslims’ fall from power and their eventual expulsion after the ascendency of Christian forces in 1492. Specifically, in his poem, “Khuṭbatu ‘al-hindī al-aḥmar’ – mā qabl al-akhīra – amām al-rajūli al-abyaḍ” (“‘The Red Indian’s’ Penultimate Speech to the White Man”), Darwish calls upon Christopher Columbus’ initial arrival to North America. The poet suggests that the conqueror will not only commit violent acts through physical force, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, but also through the recording of history and the manipulation of “al-baḥri” (“the sea” or “meter”). By probing examples such as these, and the variable ways in which baḥr ramifies in the poem, I will investigate how the term becomes a generative reference and node in Darwish’s lyrical and elegiac works, which may provide insights for translation studies and the capacious quality of words. Accordingly, rather than arguing for untranslatability, I will discover the connection between moments animated by sorrow and the use of baḥr for artistic potential, constancy, as well as political censure in conditions of protracted violence and precarity.
  • A single word can carry historical significance while also forming the ground of debate about the present and future. In this presentation, I ask after the means by which an important Islamic concept, taqwā (often translated as piety, or fear or consciousness of God), invokes texts in the past while simultaneously pointing towards particular ethical, embodied presents and futures. I examine taqwā in a classical Islamic saying routinely cited in spaces of preaching in contemporary Egypt and that is attributed to ʿAli ibn Abi Ṭālib, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, the first Shiʿa imam and the fourth Sunni caliph. I argue that through this saying the concept of taqwā, by directing and shaping forms of ethical corporeality, activates a connection between individual interiority and external action established in the earliest days of Islam. Historiographically, the saying is of dubious origin, adding a layer of complexity to the connection that I explore in the paper. Through attention to instances of the saying attributed to ʿAli across time, taqwā emerges as involving the mutually reinforcing cultivation of an inner state that leads to action in the world both reflective of that state and further refining it. Such an understanding is taken up in contemporary Egyptian spaces of Islamic preaching through the deployment of the saying as a tool to combat contemporary societal woes. Yet, in a contemporary context the particular arrangement of interiority and exteriority takes on new, corporeal, dimensions. This argument draws on citations of the saying appearing in written and oral preaching at al-Azhar in Egypt from 2021-2023 as well as in interviews with Azhar-affiliated Egyptians in 2022-2023. Further, it involves analysis of the medieval and modern texts in which the saying appears, specifically in its earliest known appearance in the work of the somewhat obscure 14th century Sufi Muhammad Ibn Yūsūf al-Ṣāliḥī al-Ṣhāmī and in its explosion in written sources in the mid-20th century. Finally, I consult those sources in which the saying does not appear but which form the backdrop of contemporary assumptions about the saying. Collectively, this analysis lends insight into the interface of inherited historical understandings of concepts and how they are (re)deployed today for contemporary aims.
  • This paper examines the function of Persian romantic epics as a dominant literary vehicle for writing about love in the medieval Islamic world. I compare a selection of Persian romantic epics against historical discourses on ʿishq (a term often translated as radical love or érōs). I argue that Neẓāmī’s (d. 1209) Persian romantic epic Layli and Majnun offers a novel formulation of ʿishq that foregrounds corporeal transformation, which is taken up in works written in response (javāb) to it such as Amīr Khusrow's Layli and Majnun, and later allegorical texts such as Emād al-Dīn ʿAlī Kermānī’s (f. 14th century) Maḥabbat-nāma-ye ṣāḥib-dilān (Love Story of the Lords of Hearts). In these works, the focus on corporeal transformation gives way to a channeling ofʿishq’s embodied work towards ethical actions. I begin with a section on historical-literary formulations of ʿishq in philosophical, medical, courtly, and mystical discourses. In these discourses, ʿishq is primarily thought to render a lover passive either through medical illness, courtly suffering at the behest of the beloved, or mystical annihilation. Turning to literary analysis, I interrogate the use of epistolary form in Neẓāmī’s work and the javāb tradition as a technique that opens a space for disputation between different protagonists who have distinctive opinions on love. The incorporation of the literary device of the letter gives voice to the beloved in ways that confront prior understandings of ʿishq as an overwhelming force that renders a lover passive, and of the lover-beloved relationship. I explore Layli’s perspective in Neẓāmī and Amīr Khusrow’s texts who, through letters, critiques Majnun’s dominant perspective and articulates an alternative position on the active role of a lover within the constraints of social life. I then compare this vision of a lover’s behavior with Kermānī’s allegorical staging of disputations between the soul and the body to show how the use of epistolary form in the javāb tradition creates pauses that allow for the reader to consider and reconsider the relationship between love, embodiment, and sociality. In Kermānī’s text, the body articulates a position that resembles Layli’s in prior romantic epics and further underscores how ʿishq can lead to activity rather than passivity. Overall, these perspectives show how Islamic romantic epics play with literary form so as to offer a different kind of dialogic space that implodes this accretion of meanings of ʿishq through a novel foregrounding of action.