Like many students of South Asian literature, I was delighted when the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) was launched this January. The MCLI –– whose general editor is Sheldon Pollock –– is a collection of South Asian literary works in over twelve different languages. Although some of the volumes in the MCLI will be Sanskrit works, the library’s vital contribution will be rendering available texts that belong to vernacular South Asian literary traditions such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, Sindhi and Punjabi. The importance of making vernacular works of South Asian literature more accessible is paramount. As Rohan Murty, the founder of the MCLI, points out, many students in India today are more familiar with Robert Frost and Shakespeare than they are with Indian classics.
In a certain sense, the MCLI is complemented by Sudipta Kaviraj’s new book, The Invention of Private Life: Literature and Ideas, which also draws our attention to the importance of South Asian vernacular literature, specifically Bengali literature. In this book, Kaviraj offers a set of critical reflections at the intersection of literature and political theory. In the introduction, Kaviraj describes how he once thought that his scholarly penchant for both literature and political theory was “simply an accident of taste”, and that these two academic interests were unrelated to each other (Ibid: 2). But, as is evidenced in these diverse essays, Kaviraj has since then begun to see literary works as sites of formations and articulations of nationalist ideas as well as other political and social forces. Throughout this book, Kaviraj uses the theories of Bakhtin, Taylor and Danto, among others, to examine and analyze the different Indian literary works that he discusses. Yet, despite approaching many of these pieces of literature with questions of political and social theory, Kaviraj’s “sense of textual pleasure” for these works clearly comes across in his essays (Ibid: 8).
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”→
An uncomfortably intimate close-up of a young man’s face opens one of the most recent “bullet films” by Syrian film collective Abounaddara entitled “Don’t Forget the Plums.” The penetrating eyes of the unnamed speaker confront the viewer as he gives cautionary advice about how to deal with the media: “When you’re live on air, the presenter will ask you questions about what interests her…don’t let yourself get dragged in.”
The camera remains fixed upon his face with the only partially visible backdrop an off-white wall. As the unnamed speaker continues, his voice becomes more energetic and his face more urgently expressive. “What about the fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the “Islamic State”? What is the regime doing? Is the regime doing this or that?” he asks, mimicking and mocking a journalist’s predictable questions. “But we don’t give a shit,” he declares, looking straight into the camera and straight at the viewer. “There are people on the ground dying.”
I’ve spent the past few years organizing materials that were left behind by my late grandfather, Ahmed Zaky Abushâdy (1892-1955), the well-known Egyptian Romantic poet—and physician, inventor, and bee scientist. Early on in my research, I became aware of two distinct narratives in the biographical literature: Abushâdy the Romantic Poet and Abushâdy the Bee Scientist. The former narrative is enshrined in the field of Modern Arabic Literature, while the latter weaves between the history and science of beekeeping in 20th century England and Egypt. Each tells a story that portrays important aspects of Abushâdy’s life and work. But as I continue to examine the materials in the archive, it strikes me that the logic that gives rise to separate, non-intersecting narratives runs counter to the spirit of my grandfather, who dedicated his life to working across disciplines and bringing together a wide array of traditions and cultures.
One remedy may be to develop a new narrative that emphasizes the hybridization that shot through all of Abushâdy’s activities. As a scientist, he understood the concept of hybrid vigor in both theoretical and practical terms, bringing it to fruition by breeding honeybees on a grand scale. He also applied the concept as a poet, for instance, by welcoming the influences of European Modernism, particularly English poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Keats. Likewise, he developed his own brand of proto-multiculturalism in his academic writing on politics and social issues.
First believed to have been performed in 415 BC, Euripides’ play The Trojan Women tells of the violence committed by the Greeks during their siege of Troy, a city not too far from the borders of contemporary Syria. Scholars believe Euripides wrote the play as a critical response to the Athenian slaughter of the people of Melos during the Peloponnesian War. The tragedy draws from an ancient history to speak powerfully against contemporary war crimes and human trafficking—and classicists have taken great interest in the ways in which the play has been reinterpreted over the past century. Performed in Arabic entirely by Syrian women currently living in refugee camps in Amman, Syria: The Trojan Women provides a platform for Syrian refugees to share their experiences of war through a dramatic reinterpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy.
When the performers were recently denied entry visas to the United States, Columbia University organized a promotional event on campus that was attended by many like myself who are currently teaching and studying ancient Greek texts. Over Skype, the Syrian performers spoke about their experiences working on the play in response to questions from their U.S. audience. The highly performative aspects of “engaging across a divide”–particularly on the U.S. side of the screen–dissipated the moment one of the Syrian women took the microphone, moved her face close to the computer camera and surprised her audience by asking in perfect English, “Are you bored?” In response to our silence, she raised her voice and enunciated with a wide smile, “Boooooored?” At that moment, her question disturbed and problematized our passive, distant, and comfortable consumption of war narratives on a screen. The discomfort she provoked flips the spectator’s gaze inward, drawing attention to our role not only as audience members but as crucial participants in the tragedy behind the tragedy. For a project that aims to give a human face to the suffering that is a consequence of war, achieving this is a success in itself. Continue reading “Bored” with the Theater of War?→
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 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.
Visitors have fallen in love with Istanbul for generations. In the early 20th century, photographers, both Ottoman and European, captured its blue seas, red roofs, and beige buildings. Despite its beauty, the city’s riot of color obscures a troubling past of missing signs, sounds, and scripts.
Listen closely. The sounds of Turkish give voice to its history. Its raised and rhymed vowels connect the syllables of each word in a harmonious flow, but that flow has been artificially enhanced. During the creation of the modern Turkish state, authorities purged the frictive sounds like “gh” and “kh” found in Arabic and Persian. For instance, in Ottoman words like “yogurt” (Turkish: yoğurt) were pronounced “yo-ghurt” (with the “gh” sound of the English interjection “ugh!”), but in modern Turkish the “gh” was silenced, becoming “yo-urt”. (There’s a reason they still spell it “yoghurt” in Britain.)