“I Just Can’t Wait to be King”

I recently came across an Arabic rendition of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” from Disney’s 1994 blockbuster, The Lion King. It’s a fantastic translation, drawing on a variety of registers of Egyptian colloquial and modern standard Arabic to express much of the humor and dynamism of the English original. Consider Zazu, the king’s red-beaked advisor pictured above. The translation draws from a wide array of Arabic registers to convey his quickly changing disposition, at turns imperious, imploring, and impotent. For instance, as he is chasing after the troublesome cubs (at 0:56), he switches from his shrill vernacular to a more formal register, announcing, “I reckon the time has come, and I’ll tell you frankly…” But before he can finish the sentence, he smacks into the ample rump of an unsuspecting rhino (one of many times in which the poor bird–and the kingly authority he represents–is sat upon or trampled underfoot). As a flattened Zazu slides off the rhino’s backside, Simba picks up with the word “frankly,” which is used in both formal and colloquial Arabic, to label Zazu a muristan – a nutjob, as one translation has it.

As I watched, I realized I was being (re)introduced me to a cast of familiar characters. They were singing a tune I know, rehashing a narrative I remember enjoying, and rehearsing a set of classic Disney conflicts about loyalty, authority, and adulthood. Yet they were doing it all in Arabic, a language I’ve learned, however imperfectly, as an adult. As with any successful translation, it is neither an exact copy nor a wholly new work, but an intermediary text which contains recognizable elements of the original while standing on its own aesthetic merit. As a student of early modern Arabic literature, however, I rarely have a chance to engage with English texts translated into Arabic, especially those from my own childhood in the United States. Watching a clip from The Lion King in Arabic not only raised questions about what constitutes a successful translation, but left me with an uncanny  feeling of having encountered an element of my self through the eyes — or in the voice — of the Other. Continue reading “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”

Mogadishu in Arabia

One way to Caracas“People don’t know what it means to become an Arab at six years old,” writes Somali author Mohammad Ali Diriye on the back cover of his short story collection, Ila Karakas bila ‘awdah (One way to Caracas). Born in Somalia, Diriye went into exile at a young age, and studied in Saudi Arabia and Sudan — formative experiences in his literary career that have deeply influenced his contributions to contemporary Arabic fiction. Like other emerging Somali diaspora authors, Diriye deals with the familiar themes of war and exile, but from a new perspective. Unlike Arabic writers in Beirut or Baghdad, he uses the Arabic language to describe another civil war, on the other shore of the Red Sea. In his writing about about exile, which he describes as “the narrative of an Arab pirate,” the Arab world is no longer the point of departure but the destination.

In La‘nat al-janub (“The Curse of the South”), a short story I recently translated into English, a man leaves his homeland — Somalia is not explicitly named — and starts a new life in Saudi Arabia. The man tries to forget everything in relation with the land of his ancestors, but at the end of the day, his efforts prove futile: remnants of Somalia persist in his mind, against his will. Despite the fact that Diriye doesn’t directly mention Somalia or the civil war in the story, they still linger all over the text. Indeed, their very omission evokes a traumatic lapse in memory.

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Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet and Political Activist

Abdilatif Abdalla (author’s photograph)

Abdilatif Abdalla, who will be visiting MESAAS and the Institute of African Studies at Columbia on November 12th and 13th, is one of the most renowned living Swahili poets. Mixing poetry and politics has been a feature of Swahili society for a long time, and classic historical Swahili poets, like Fumo Liyongo and Muyaka bin Haji, were engaged in local politics as well as in writing. Like these Swahili intellectuals before him, Abdalla has been living among his people – or separated from them, through long years of prison and exile – as the gifted and critical voice in society that Swahili poets are seen as: particularly knowledgeable people with a duty to speak up on behalf of their community.

As a poet, Abdalla became well-known only after his term in prison (1969-1972), to which he was sentenced as the author of ‘Kenya: Twendapi?’ (Kenya: where are we going?). He earned his first literary recognition with a didactic poem on the Qur’anic story of Adam and Eve, but it was the publication of Sauti ya Dhiki (Voice of Agony) in 1973, a collection of poems he had written secretly on toilet paper while in prison, that made him famous. Using traditional genres of Swahili verse, Sauti ya Dhiki covered a broad range of critical topics with remarkable depth and originality: the perils of colonialism, racism, material greed, and social injustice. But also the loneliness felt in prison, the persistence of his political struggle, and a plea against abortion from the perspective of an unborn child. Readers were awed by the force and scope of his verbal artistry. Continue reading Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet and Political Activist

The Distance: Translating between Texts and Territories

Ivo Meldolesi, Vecchiette abruzzesi parlano per la prima volta al telefono, ca. 1950 (“Gazzetta del Popolo” - Archivio Fotografico, cart. 76, busta 5212).
Ivo Meldolesi, Old lady from Abruzzo speaking on the phone for the first time, ca. 1950 (“Gazzetta del Popolo” – Archivio Fotografico, cart. 76, busta 5212).

The recent essays on canon formation and literary aesthetics raise a vital question about the tension between faithful and successful translations. I see these essays as a twofold project: not only are they concerned with practices of translation and processes of canon formation on the “target” side, but they also have to account for the same processes in the context of the original production. It is within this field of opposite forces that the work of translation takes place, constantly pulling the text in opposite directions, sometimes demanding painful choices.

We can see the practice of translation as an attempt to draw closer different or competing literary aesthetics. From the translator’s point of view, these often work against one other: what seems “good” in Arabic might not be perceived as such in English, and vice-versa. Thinking about the original and the target literary landscape as competing forces is one possible angle from which to approach the questions of canon formation and of its translatability.

Continue reading The Distance: Translating between Texts and Territories