October 25, 2013

An “absquiliferous” interview with Humphrey Davies, Arabic translator


In August of this year, the Library of Arabic Literature, a new initiative from NYU Press, published the first two volumes of Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāq’s Leg Over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree concerning The Fāriyāq, What Manner of Creature Might He Be. First published in 1855 in Paris, Leg Over Leg is one of the central texts of the Nahḍah, a period of “revival” or “awakening” in Arabic literary culture in the nineteenth century.

It is, loosely, the story of the life and adventures of the Fāriyāq, who stands in for the author. Al-Shidyāq, born in Lebanon in the early years of the nineteenth century, was a Zelig of the Arabic literary world, and his Leg Over Leg is a bawdy, hilarious, epically word-obsessed, and unclassifiable book, which has never been translated into English before.

Humphrey Davies is translating all four volumes of Leg Over Leg — the complete set will be out by next June. His translations from the past few years alone include Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (winner of the Best Translation of 2007 from the Society of Authors) and Friendly Fire, Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun (which won the 2006 Banipal Trust Prize for Arabic Literature in English Translation), Yalo (which won the 2010 Banipal Prize), and As Though She Were Sleeping, Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis, Mourid el Barghouti’s Born Here, Born There, and Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley and Thebes at War.  

Though it’s not clear when he sleeps, or whether in fact he is a real human, and not some kind of Super Translator Being, he agreed to answer some questions from Cairo.

Melville  House: First of all, I wanted to ask about your first encounter with Leg Over Leg—had you read it before the chance to do the Library of Arabic Literature project came up?

Humphrey Davies: There was an excerpt in a chrestomathy of Arabic literature that was used when I studied Arabic at Cambridge in the sixties. That was all I’d read of it before taking on the translation/edition but I remember being intrigued at the time—I think I picked up on some odd vibe given off by whoever was teaching us: here was a book that didn’t fit, that was difficult (supposedly, language-wise) without being an empty exercise in decadent formalism of the sort supposedly practiced by Arabic writers after they’d done their stuff in the golden age and before they were rescued by the Western novel.

MH: Most of the books you’ve translated are contemporary novels, like Khoury’s Gate of the Sun and al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building—what has it been like to go back to the 19th century and the period of the Nahḍah?

HD: Most, but not all. I translated and edited a 17th-century work by Yusuf al-Shirbini entitled Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded, another work that has been often bowdlerized and misrepresented in the modern age and is more often referred to than actually read.  There are parallels between the two: a tendency to treat grammar as a reflection of the larger world, so that it figures as an actor in debates and jokes, and an unforced bawdiness. In both, I enjoyed too a certain tightness and elegance of structure that contrasts with the open-endedness of the modern novel. In the end though, the similarities between older and modern writing are deeper than the differences: while the image of older Arabic literature in people’s minds may be that of something stiff and restricted in its concerns to areas that have little present-day relevance, in the end it is the product of minds that are as individual and voices that are as distinctive as those of the moderns.

MH: This translation includes not one but three of the things that are universally understood to be very hard to translate: rhyme, jokes, and proverbs (not to mention lisping). How did you deal with these challenges?

HD: Rhyme is the hardest. Arabic morphology is such that the language produces whole classes of words with the same internal structures and endings; in other words, words that rhyme. English morphology doesn’t. The ease with which rhymes can be made in Arabic allows for monorhymed poems that can be hundreds of lines long. This challenge I ducked, rhyming (in couplets) only the shorter poems and hoping that in the longer ones rhythm alone will convince the reader that /she is faced with something different from prose. To make it worse, al-Shidyaq loved rhymed prose, which is almost totally foreign to English and vastly increases the number of hours spent by the translator racking his brain over rhymes. In the end, hm, well, I think some of it works. Jokes are weird: there is a whole chapter in Leg Over Leg devoted to what appear to be well-known jokes of his day, most of which are to me incomprehensible, or at least quite unfunny; on the other hand, the author’s own jokes are immediately recognizable as such, and are often very funny. I don’t think though that the challenge with the difficult jokes is translational: the text is thus and so; whether people laugh probably depends more on world-view than wording. Proverbs? Well, they often rhyme (see above) and there’s always, thank heavens, in this series, the possibility of a footnote.

MH: There are many occurrences of sounds in the book: the “audience participation” in the form of boos and hisses in the account of the Fāriyāq’s childhood, al-Shidyāq’s description of the sound an organ makes in the “Troubles and a Tambour” chapter, a description which grows to encompass all kinds of sounds not usually associated with organs, including “pots boiling and chilly dogs whimpering,” and the onomatopoetic absurdist list in the section on rhetoric, where you’ve come up with words like “absquiliferous” and “squapalidaceous.” In many ways, this is a book that makes a lot of noise, or that draws on or references sound repeatedly— were those parts difficult to translate? Or, possibly, a great pleasure?

HD: Definitely a pleasure. As you note, such lists tend to spiral out into more and more absurd, even surrealist, and also bizarre-sounding, terms, though it’s perhaps important to note that in all cases the words in question are to be found in The Encompassing Ocean, the dictionary that the author asserts was the sole reference work available to him when writing Leg Over Leg. Thus, their deployment in these lists becomes an exploration of the further reaches of traditional Arabic lexicography, leading one to ask (as one supposes the author himself did), “Can the lexicographer himself have been keeping a straight face?” Of the strange (to Arab as to non-Arab ears) word jaḥlanjaḥ, for example—the word translated as “absquiliferous”— the author of The Encompassing Ocean says: “It occurs in a verse by Abu al-Hamayshaʿ . . . The recorders of poetry mention it but do not explain it. They say, ‘Abu al-Hamayshaʿ was an Arab of Madyan. We could scarcely understand a word he said’.” Most of  the words in that list, though, do in fact mean something in both the original and the translation, etymologically viewed at least. For example, “audio-zygo-amatory” definitely means something, though I’ve forgotten what.

MH: Another question for you about the lists: it seemed to me that al-Shidyāq combines a love of the encyclopedic and the exhaustive with an equal interest in subversiveness or taboo-breaking, such as in the pages-long list of names for genitalia. It’s as if he’s placing all these taboo words and ideas in a form that’s usually reserved for somber, scholarly collections of information, a deliberately incongruous pairing. What did you make of the lists?

HD: There are about 160 lists listed in the author’s own list of lists at the end of the book, and that list in fact fails to list many of the lists that occur in the book. In a word, the author was obsessed with lists and they fulfill many functions, including the taboo-breaking one that you mention. Some however seem to exist simply because the author couldn’t resist the charm of the words he had culled from the dictionary, and who can blame him? Who can resist a list of “wonders” that includes items such as the jassāsah, meaning “a beast to be found on islands that seeks out news and passes it on to the Antichrist” or a word such as jaythalūṭ, defined as “an insult invented by women, of unclear meaning”?

At another level, the rhythm created within many of the lists and the fact that the words often rhyme produces an incantatory effect (which, unfortunately, it is not always possible to reproduce in the English) while their alienness (most of the words in them would be unknown to the average Arab reader) creates a distancing effect that amounts, in one critic’s view, to a “sense of terror.” Definitely, the lists are fascinating and strange.

MH: Could you talk a bit about the Fāriyāqiyyah, who doesn’t turn up until Volume 3, but is tantalizingly referred to the introduction as being either the Fāriyāq’s wife or his alter ego? How does she fit into al-Shidyāq’s larger aims with the book? Has this element of Leg Over Leg been controversial?

HD: The Fāriyāqiyyah comes over to me primarily as a wife, one whom the Fāriyāq constantly worries about disappointing sexually, one over whose fidelity he goes into torments of jealousy, and one who tortures him with hints of attractions to other men. I don’t think, in fact, that critics have realized the extent to which the second half of Leg over Leg is a portrait of a marriage and how bedeviled that marriage was by the author’s sexual insecurities.

MH: One of the more surprising elements for me was the degree of metafictional play in Leg Over Leg: the narrator is always drawing our attention to the fact that this is a new chapter, or talking about how difficult it was to write the last chapter, or warning us not to skip around and miss anything. Was this something new in Arabic fiction or does it draw on earlier narrative forms?

HD: I think this was something new. Scholars have pointed to Sterne, whom it is known al-Shidyāq read, as an influence here, and there are other elements that support this, such as chapters consisting of only a few lines, or even only a few words, and the Beatles-like pointing hand that he uses twice. But it wasn’t imitation, it was appropriation. One of the things that makes Leg over Leg so exciting to read is the feeling that nothing is prescribed, there are no rules, it’s an adventure in the creation of a new kind of book.

MH: A livelihood question: in the Al-Ahram interview with you last year, you mentioned that you may be the only Arabic translator making a living exclusively from literary translation at the moment. Do the finances of this work out because you translate so much, or because you have regular clients who pay you well enough to make it a livable wage?

HD: A bit of both. but the main reason I can make a living from translating is that I live in Cairo, where the costs are still (just about) low enough to support a modest life style on the modest amounts I receive.

MH: What are you doing after Leg Over Leg? Are you taking a long vacation?

HD: I wish! In fact, it’s on to another modern novel, a rather long one in fact, but in terms of length it pales in comparison to Leg over Leg. Heigh-ho, got to put the caviar on the table.



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.