Monday, February 21, 2011

I really should have taken notes on this.

I attended an event tonight at the university where I work, sponsored by our in-house publishing company. Poet Samuel Hazo read, or rather performed, several pieces from his upcoming book Like a Man Gone Mad and translator Nirvana Tanoukhi gave a brief lecture on translation, "authenticity," and pedagogy.

Although Hazo was an excellent speaker - conveying his poems from memory with all the conviction of an actor's monologue - I wasn't all that impressed with him in the end. For all the creator's personal charisma, the actual language of his verse simply didn't appeal to me as something I would want to read on my own. To be fair, Hazo stated that poetry must be read as though it were being spoken. But what also irked me was his paean to women as the "strong sex" who do not seek for fame or having their name on airports or their faces on stamps. What women care about the most is uplifting the lives of their loved ones. Sarah Bush Lincoln, for example, ever heard of her? She was Abraham Lincoln's stepmother. Both of Lincoln's biological parents were illiterate but Sarah taught young Abraham to read. Without her, he would most certainly never have been President but who remembers Sarah?

Now wait just a minute, I thought, you're assigning a universal, essentialist characteristic to half the human race. But do you truly believe that women generally don't desire to have our names immortalized and our accomplishments recognized? Is this the way you think women really are or is this simply what has been expected of us by a society that has also refused to acknowledge the efforts we do make? As John Stuart Mill articulated a century ago in The Subjection of Women, society has traditionally demanded female self-sacrifice at the expense of individual fulfillment. Now I know you think you're praising us but you sound like one of those nostalgic white Romantics rhapsodizing on the virtues of the "noble savage" or Dean Koontz writing disabled characters as perpetually smiling innocents. It just doesn't work that way. *eyeroll*

It was during Nirvana Tanoukhi's talk that I regretted my laziness in not bringing a pad and pen. As a translator, scholar, editor, and expert on contemporary African and Arabic literature, Tanoukhi is most interested in questions of audience and the globalization of literature. She opened with an anecdote about a translator who received a Syrian manuscript from a publishing house that had expressed an interest in it. She reviewed it and was angered. It was magical realist schlock catering to Western expectations of what "Third World" literature is supposed to look like! This was not real Arabic literature! Don't publish it, she advised the company.

Turns out, the author was a very important literary sage whom such notables as Edward Saïd had been trying to introduce to international readers for years. This may have been his only chance to break into the English-speaking market. Oops.

The problem here, said Tanoukhi, was that this translator approached the novel with her own expectations in mind of what real Arabic literature was supposed to look like. Real Arabic literature, so the thought process goes, will teach non-Arab readers about Arab culture, which is the big justification of translated fiction in general: that it "opens new windows," "expands horizons," etc. But what about reading for the beauty of the language and the creativity and originality? Does any potential didactic value come first before art and entertainment? Tanoukhi also brought up another controversial practice among contemporary Arab writers: the tendency to explain aspects of their narratives that would be common cultural knowledge to a native audience. In other words, they are "pre-translating" their own works. But, Tanoukhi asked, is it really so wrong for authors to anticipate their own migration and the perceptions of the foreign reader? What does this problematic word authentic mean exactly?

She also said a few words about the idea of setting in Arab and African literature, all of which completely slips my mind. Sorry.

I did, however, purchase a copy of Passage to Dusk by Rashid al-Daif. It is a 2001 Lebanese novella translated by Tanoukhi, which she described as "experimental." According to the publisher's copy, the narrative is in the "surrealist mode" and "Issues of gender and identity are acutely portrayed against Lebanon's shifting national landscape." Very intriguing! Apparently Arabic can be tricky to render in English, since "Arabic" covers a much broader linguistic range than "English" or "French" does. There is a literary Arabic and an everyday Arabic, and it would seem that the issue is a unification of the two. Recalling our criticism of The Cairo Trilogy as stiff, awkward, and formal, I asked Tanoukhi about Naguib Mahfouz and was told that he was a master at portraying real Egyptian language. So it would appear we got shafted in the translator department.

Update: One of my co-workers who also attended the event wrote me back with her thoughts on this post. She had this to say:
Also, her point about “setting”. As I understood it, she argued that “setting” is a distinguishing characteristic of fiction, in contrast to poetry. Setting is the fiction writer’s main device for establishing whether the work is “culturally significant” or has “universal meaning”. I think she sees that the best literature would offer both. I think that works of “cultural significance” she sees as more limited.


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