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’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.
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.
All too often, we think of Arabic writing in West Africa—when we think of it at all—as a way to access a history beyond or outside the colonial moment. Yet this document, the front page of the weekly journal of the French colonial government in Senegal, shows that the French authorities depended on Arabic to speak to their subjects, even as they gradually tried to transform Senegambian social and political organization for their own economic gain. Far from being beyond the colonial moment, here Arabic appears integral to it.
The use of Arabic in Saint-Louis, the capital of French colonial Senegal, is not so startling in and of itself. The Arabophone geographers, most notably al-Bakri, report that Islam and its accompanying Arabic script appeared on the banks of the Senegal River, in Tekrur, as early as the eleventh century. The use of Arabic in the Western Sahel appears to have started to grow during the fourteenth century, under the influence of the trade empire of Mali, whose famed Mansa Musa lured scholars from Egypt and as far as Andalusia. Arabic written production in the Sahel reached its peak in the pre-modern period during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the area was under the suzerainty of the Songhai empire. It was in the nineteenth century, however, that Arabic writing became an important technology of government when the ulema’,or Islamic scholars, began to lay claim to temporal power, thus producing “textual polity,” to use the phrase of Brinkley Messick.
What is the opposite of a canon? Perhaps an archive, which contains an overwhelming array of texts that very few people intend to read. I sometimes feel like Raph and I are working our way through an immaterial archive that stretches across the globe. This “archive” contains digital copies of short stories culled from published collections, underground literary journals, blog entries, Facebook posts, and unpublished manuscripts. It also presumably includes letters stowed away in old backpacks and journals forgotten in desk drawers. An infinite array of things just waiting to be catalogued and, perhaps, one day, interpreted.
The challenge of transforming such an archive into a collection is partially the brute effort of finding the materials, compounded by the difficulty of working with texts that are rarely annotated. For instance, we have found digital copies of stories typed by hand by literary enthusiasts into labyrinthine websites like Sudanese Online. The multiple copies create multiple versions which, without a robust editorial effort, jostle one another for authority, not unlike the way in which Sudanese folk tales proliferate in near infinite variation. Although unlike scholars who work on manuscripts, Raph and I are not in the business of sussing out the authentic version of a given text, such variations and inconsistencies take us back to the question of how a literary canon is formed.
One of the unexpected benefits of preparing an anthology is the chance to read through enough mediocre literature to begin to ask yourself what “mediocre” actually means. This summer, as Raph Cormack and I co-edit a book of Sudanese short stories in English translation, we are finding out that our attempts to distinguish the great stories from the mediocre raises interesting questions about competing literary aesthetics. Figuring out which stories to include and how to justify our selections to the publisher has been a hands-on lesson in how a literary canon, even a marginal canon such as Sudanese Arabic literature in English translation, is formed.
In our work, the basic tension is that some stories generally regarded among Sudanese readers as “good” do not translate into “good” literature by Anglo-American standards. It’s not that Anglo-American standards are superior to the Sudanese, largely because that way of speaking presumes we have some outside standard by which these two literary aesthetics could be properly compared. We don’t. But we do know that some of what is written, printed, appraised and ultimately bought and sold in the Arabic speaking parts of Sudan is quite different than what is appealing to English readers. As translators, we must either conceal or explain that difference to our imagined English readers. These essays are a first attempt to do the latter: to explain those aspects of my encounter with Sudanese Arabic literature that I cannot properly translate. In large part, I’ll be looking at different aspects of the marvelously complex relationship between the two literary critical traditions, call them for the sake of convenience Sudanese and English, brought together by global trade relations, colonial dominance, educational and cultural exchanges, and the emergence of specific technologies and revolutions in literary form that they entail.
Dr. Livingstone, may not be such the hero we once presumed.
New digital imaging technology and a team of scholars have recovered David Livingstone’s faded journal entries from the period when the colonial era explorer had lost contact with his European benefactors 140 years ago.
While on an expedition to find the source of the Nile River, Livingstone encountered illness and other types of hardships. He had lost contact with his European suppliers and required the benevolence of traders and locals to survive. His experiences would be later immortalized by Henry Morton Stanley’s dispatches to the New York Herald. The journal materials cover his most challenging crisis, the one that helped encourage the Crown’s crackdown on the slave trade in East Africa and thus, cementing Britain’s dominance in the region.
In 1949, Ali Bakathir published The Tragedy of Oedipus. His Oedipus was not the one that we are familiar with. This Oedipus knows from the beginning of the play that he is Laius’ murderer and that the Oracle says he is the cause of the pollution that has lead to Thebes’ plague. As a mid-twentieth century Oedipus, he believes that the corrupt priesthood only wants to fill their pockets and do not care one iota for the people who are suffering. This is until Tiresias, who has been expelled from the priestly order for suggesting that maybe it would be nice to give some money to the poor, talks to him. Tiresias convinces him that the cabal of Theban priests are all false prophets and that the one true God is the God of Islam. Oedipus is convinced, and together Tiresias and Oedipus defeat the corrupt religious authorities and save Thebes by bringing the message of Islam.
This kind of ‘Arabicization’ of a ‘Western classic’ like Oedipus Rex may sound rather bizarre, or unlikely. However, alterations of this kind to texts considered part of the Western classical canon are central to the twentieth century Arabic tradition of engagement with seminal works of theatre. From the lowbrow to the sophisticated, every Western theatrical import was given a distinctly Arabic character. To give another example, one of the most respected poets of the age, Ahmed Shawqi, created a version of Antony and Cleopatra, called The Death of Cleopatra (Masra’ Kliobatra), in which the character of Cleopatra is turned into a patriotic, virtuous Egyptian who dies for the sake of her country.