Saturday, June 7, 2014

Book Review: Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language

For a book on translation out of Arabic, the irony of Abdelfattah Kilito's Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language is that the English translation distracts and detracts from the work.

I'm not crazy about the work itself: The discussion of Jahiz is useful if unoriginal and uninspired. Much of the framework appears to draw heavily upon an odd couple of the author's making: Schoeler and Derrida. The book simply doesn't add any line of inquiry or analysis that is new to anyone already well-read in the history and theory of Arabic translation. Even as he reports on Jahiz's criticism of the translation of philosophy as inherently poor because the translator can never understand the idea as well as the philosopher, the voice of Kilito the narrator reads as an inexpert guide through the material though Kilito the author and critic surely is not.

From his wonder at the writings of Hrsowitha to the concept directed to uneducated European audiences for his work, self-regard is the unifying element to these chapters in Arabic literature in translation. It is this perspective that accounts for the thoughtless and pervasive littering of the book with intentionalist fallacies of every scale. Kilito, in his authorial voice, is convinced of the importance of his own intentions; and so the intentions of other authors are also up for discussion and validation.

The sense that one gets of this being a book in which the author is addressing himself, writing himself, and spinning out his own internal monologue is reinforced throughout. For example, the discussion of al-Hariri's maqamat is lacking where it tries to ground itself historically. The discussion of Ibn Battuta hints at a variety of issues that might have been very interesting had they been drawn out and developed. The final two chapters, which present themselves as the heart of the matter, give the impression of being a pale imprint of the ideas being presented: they are probably very interesting, but Kilito does not deign to take us all the way through them, instead leaving us with lengths of description and the hint an argument made largely by juxtaposition. Again, the central importance of the author is reified. Surely he knows what he is talking about. Why don't we?

An evocative passage at the beginning of the final chapter ought to have been the starting point, not the ending one.

For a work that announces itself as an heir to Said's criticism ("I have learned from bitter experience that the other does not care about me unless I reached out to him" (7)), Kilito easily adopts a variety of Orientalist fallacies. Rather than giving voice to all that we have learned in the intervening century since Ernest Renan about the performance of poetry in dramatic settings and even authors we might call playwrights, such as Ibn Rushd's near-if-younger contemporary, Ibn Daniyal, Kilito instead reads completely with Renan. It is as if he recognizes what he is doing — with an explicit nod to Borges he writes: "I feel embarrassed as I write these lines, for despite myself I speak of Ibn Rushd with a certain amount of condescension. I am embarrassed because I know what he did not!" (44-5) — but despite this self-consciousness, he seems powerless to do otherwise.

And then there is the matter of the translation: The translator is irritatingly interventionist, adding a litany of footnotes defining basic terms and offering recourse to introductory readings. Some of this may have been moderated by a different typographical decision; in other words, endnotes would have been less distracting in this instance than footnotes, available to the uninitiated but unobtrusive. The overall effect is to remind the reader that this is a translated book, to remind her that it is transmitted through many hands. In reading, I wanted to shout: This is not your book! Restrain yourself! An apparatus or a bibliographic essay or a critical article should have been a separate undertaking. I suppose it serves me right: I could have read it in the original Arabic and I should have. Or, perhaps a book that adopts slices of a Derridian monolingualism, resists the idea of translation and speculates about the extent to which authors appreciated that their works might be translated should never have appeared in translation, and serves us all right for asking it to try.

More gravely, a book that largely deals with medieval Arabic translation, even in a postcolonial mode, needed to have been edited and translated by a medievalist. If the translator is overbearing in adding footnotes to explain basic concepts and introduce basic bibliography, he is also frustratingly incomplete; where he cites Roger Allen, he glaringly neglects to cite James Monroe, perhaps because he did not recognize a key idea from one of Monroe's early books which Kilito cites quite completely but (in good medieval mode) without attribution, a reference that a specialist in the field would have recognized. The makers of this book appear to have conceived of the translator's role as coterminal with that of the editor of the text and the creator of the critical apparatus, and in those duties, Wail Hassan has fallen down.

Even though it is an essayistic work of criticism, both author and translator are far too present.

Ultimately, book is a nice if unnecessary reminder of that passage from Jahiz, but otherwise is one of those texts that tragically makes its point by being the exception and the counterpoint to all of its own rules.

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