July 22, 2013

“The discourse exists”: the launch of the Library of Arabic Literature


A stack of Book #1 in the series.

It’s been long-awaited, but the Library of Arabic Literature, an ambitious series of 35 books to be published over the next five years, has at last been launched. First announced in 2010, the LAL comes out of a partnership between  NYU Press and NYU Abu Dhabi, and it aims to do for classical and early modern Arabic literature what the Loeb Classical Library series did for Greek and Latin Literature: provide rigorously edited but accessible translations of the great works of a language, in a format that’s affordable, recognizable, and relatively light on critical apparatus.

The first book in the series, Classical Arabic Literature, an anthology edited by Geert Jan Van Gelder, has already received high praise from the TLS, Al-Ahram, and other media, and Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s two-volume semi-autobiographical account Leg over Leg (originally published in 1855), which Ursula Lindsey, in a recent article for Al Fanar on the state of translation into and out of Arabic, describes asanti-clerical, proto-feminist, sexually explicit and full of bizarre lexical lists,” will follow this August.

To kick it all off, M. Lynx Qualey of the blog Arabic Literature (in English) interviewed the General Editor of the series, Philip Kennedy, for the LAL site. Here are some highlights:

Marcia Lynx Qualey: Can you really create a corpus of classical Arabic literature as a five-year project?

Philip F. Kennedy: People think: “You must be crazy to think you’re going to do a comprehensive library of Arabic literature writ large, all the genres, all the way to the nahda. It would take two hundred years.” So, whatever! We just want to start. We decided we might as well start with things that haven’t been translated….

This is not a canon, it’s a corpus. We’re getting away from the idea of canon. People will say, “Are you creating a canon?” And the answer is, “No.” There’s no question. The idea of a canon is just old-fashioned. It’s a form of intellectual imperialism.

And at the end of five years, you’re going to have 35 books?

Thirty-five volumes. Actual books.

You put thirty-five books on a shelf, and I think they can start to be persuasive. I have this very physical sense of it — that there’s a kind of gravity of the physical books, as a growing corpus, which can affect people’s attitudes toward the project, can attract attention to the project, and then the whole thing can grow. I think it’s important for people to see these books around and about. It creates a sort of prise de conscience: the discourse exists.

So, how did this all begin? How did you get involved?

I’ve always felt, as long as I’ve studied Arabic, that there’s a situation where the texts available in translation are very messy. And I expect I noticed that as a student, but then you get used to it. From time to time you come back and you ask yourself: “Well, why is this available, and why is that not available?” And you’d find some old fascicles of the Journal of Asiatic Studies and you’d stumble across some installment of a translation and you’d say, “Oh, there’s that here.” I became aware really early that there is stuff, and it’s all over the place.

Some people say classical Arabic poetry is un-translatable?

Some people say that, but then you have to qualify that: because you either do it or you don’t. And we’ve decided you do it; you have to do it. But are you just producing a crib or are you producing an attempt at a poem? We could do both. There is a case to be made for doing both.

[When we had our workshop, there were] twelve people around the room. Robyn Creswell. Richard Sieburth, who’s a superb translator. Peter Cole…We took a random poem and went line by line, around the room. And the idea was to have an overarching sense of what you want to do with this poem — basically an idea of what this poem is conveying to you emotionally, and also a formal stylistic idea of what you want to convey — and then stick to that. And it worked. Because around the room, every poem was consistent within itself.

And I did the worst one, because my idea was just to do the prose crib, so I just went line by line, and produced a block. Other people did these really lean poems. It was like haiku, which means you weren’t translating every detail of the poem, but conveying some essence. Successfully.

The initial grant for the project will cover the 35 titles mentioned above—from works of philosophy, law, science and religion to poetry, fiction, and history—but Kennedy hopes to keep it going in the future. Since no project comparable in scope currently exists, the field is wide open: none of the major academic presses have anything like the LAL underway. The Loebs are up to the 520s and counting, so that might be a number to aim for…


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