Sunday, November 23, 2014

Translation Diary #17: On Terrorism Medieval and Modern

Source text: "Desde la otra orilla del Éufrates, que nunca volverá a cruzar, Abd al-Rahman presencia la degollación de su hermano y escucha, como paralizado en sueño, los gritos finales de su agonía y su terror."

My translation: From the far bank of the Euphrates, the one he would never cross again, ‘Abd al-Raḥman can just discern the beheading of his brother and hears his last cries of agony and his terror as though they were a nightmare in which he was trapped.

I'm going to continue to play with the clause about being sleep-paralyzed because I don't really like it as it is. (The editing is, I'm discovering, the biggest part of translating, but that's another issue.)

The reason I'm calling attention to this sentence now is because of how current it sounds: beheading emissaries of rival empires on the banks of the Euphrates. Might as well be ISIS. And it is that currency that is making me question my initial decision — which was not even a decision, really, as much as a reflexive resource to a cognate — to translate the Spanish terror as English terror rather than as any of the other synonyms I might use because of the way it doubles down the invocation of the modern "war on terror" and all its trappings.

Does changing the word make me less faithful to the original? Or perhaps more faithful, because it will not distract the reader by evoking the present day in the middle of an 8th-century history?

Friday, November 21, 2014


I had a love/hate relationship with the Don Quijote class that I took as an undergraduate. Love because, well, what's not to love; and hate because as an undergraduate I was mostly put off by professors whose personalities were forces of nature. I could be as guilty of hero-worship as the next star-struck undergraduate being taught by the go-to authorities on their topics, by the laureates of the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and the Guggenheim and the MacArthur,  but my heros were often not the usual ones.

The one lecture in that class that has stuck with me for a decade was the first of the semester. I remember much of what I learned in the class (although my reading of Quijote has matured considerably since then) but that first lecture is a complete unit in my mind's eye and ear. It walked us through the title page of the first edition of Don Quijote; as a college senior, I was astonished at how much detail and information my professor could pull out of a single page that came before what I then imagined as "the book" even started.

One of the themes of the course was the idea of desengaño. The word is often translated into English as disillusionment but it doesn't carry the same kind of negative connotation; it's a word with more neutral and wider possibilities that represents not a loss of illusion but an increased awareness, a lifting of the curtain from before one's eyes. It's an idea that comes from a very classically-constructed field of Hispanic literature (that's a nice way of not coming right out and calling it a bit outdated), and Otis Green is the scholar most closely associated with developing a vision of that trope within the classically-constructed canon. (Citing Otis Green is another way of not explicitly calling the framework old-fashioned.)

Imagine the desengaño that I would feel ten years thence — unexpectedly and by necessity becoming something of a book historian — upon opening Roger Chartier's The Order of Books to find this spread, a discussion of the title page of the editio princeps with special attention to the relationship between the author and patron named on the title page and the author and patron identified from within the pages of the book: the ultimate source of that lecture.

My the persisting memory of my inner Yale College senior was, if briefly, devastated by this realization that the best bit of that class was cribbed from Chartier, that I had stood in awe of my professor for something that he had not done. Of course, from the other side of the table I know better. Or, "better," because we all cite the scholarship of others when we teach; and when we teach undergraduates we don't necessarily give them the full chain of transmission. Because it would be disruptive to the flow of a lecture for information that won't be meaningful to 99% of them? Because we never expect that one of those students will grow up in her professional life to accidentally open the book that was our source? Because for the most part most of us don't draw so heavily upon a single piece of scholarship as the backbone of a lecture?

Of course, the evidence before me forces me to wonder whether that was actually ever what happened.

The class seems to have changed since then. Thanks to the dubious miracle of the internet and open-online education, I can go back and read a full transcript of the first lecture of that class, a lecture that no longer makes any mention of the shape of the title page or the dedication to the duke or the name of the printer. Perhaps it is appropriate that it should be a lecture on Quijote called up shockingly suddenly from the hazy memory of an undergraduate not yet professionally trained in the study of literature, that should make me question my own judgment, perception, and memory, and wonder whether the lecture occurred as I remember it or whether I myself somehow previsaged my later reading of another scholar's work.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Medieval PSA: "The Allah Ban"**

It's the part of anti-Muslim sentiment in America that makes every last academic Arabist, regardless of his political leanings, cringe:* Some political commentator or politician will bemoan those Moslems who don't pray to God, but to their own special deity, Allah.

Allah. It's just the Arabic word for God.

Arabic-speaking Christians (you know, the ones being massacred in Iraq along with the Mandeans and the Yazidis?) use the word in their liturgies and Bibles, and we even have it (less commonly, but still) in Jewish texts written in Arabic. Because if you speak Arabic, when you want to say "God," you say "Allah."

If you would like to insert the word Allah into your speech in English when talking about God in an Islamic context, be sure to do it when you are talking about the practice of any other Arabic-speaking monotheist. Oh, and don't forget to say Deus when you're talking about the beliefs of Latinate Christians. That's the parallel.

It's an issue that plays out in an anti-Muslim, anti-Arab arena in American discourse; but it's also playing out conversely in Malaysia, where the courts have again upheld a law that forbids anyone but Muslims or people talking about Islamic practice from using the word Allah when they mean to refer to God.

One of the things that concerns me (as a scholar, as a feeling and thinking human being, as someone who admires an awful lot about Islam, as someone with friends and colleagues who are Muslims) is that hateful elements in this country will make hay out of that and use it as "evidence" that Muslims really do consider their God to be a whole separate deity rather than a vision of the God of Abraham that supersedes and abrogates those beliefs of Jews and Christians.

As a medievalist, it calls to mind another instance in which people took the word Allah and went to town with exetegicizing in ways that defy linguistics. This was a different case, a population of Muslims who were forced to practice and secret and did not have great access to books and teachers, namely the crypto-Muslims or Moriscos of early modern Spain.

This passage was written by an early Muslim anthropologist known to us only as the "young man from Arévalo" who recorded the customs and beliefs of his community and other crypto-Muslim ones in Spain. In this piece of his report, he distinguishes between what we recognize as the word Allah in the nominative and genitive cases (subject and object, for readers who aren't familiar with languages that decline like that) with explanations based on how he has seen them used in various contexts without really understanding the structure behind the distinctions; and so intend of identifying grammatical function as the thing that determines when one says Allah, Allahu or Allahi, he identifies other distinguishing features between the times he has heard those different terms used. It's not exactly the same thing as saying that the word Allah refers to God only in an Islamic context, but it does represent an attempt to regulate the use of the term Allah with invented frameworks and in order to distinguish oneself and one's own group from an outside group. Instead of using the Spanish word for God, he continues using the Arabic one to emphasize his hidden religion and struggles to account for how to use a term in a language he does not really know.

So, this is a public service announcement from the Middle Ages: It's a really convenient thing to latch onto when you want to make a theological point about yourself and about others, but in the end Allah just means God.

*To be fair, a good many of us are horrified by far more than just this.
** A slightly belated PSA, owing to the fact that I am basically living in a news vacuum trying to finish my book manuscript.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

This is not a book.

The glee of seeing such book-minded Arabic on a billboard foregrounding the New York skyline is tempered somewhat by realizing that it describes a freighted situation.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Guest Lectures, Omissions, and Dumb Visigoths

A really terrible account of Islamic Spain was posted to the academic blogosphere a couple of weeks ago by a modernist. (Not going to link to it.) It basically read like a parody of what critics of Ornament of the World make that book out to be. One medievalist (not me) responded and the author replied with ad hominem attacks against her and against medievalists in general and defended her post in an argument that boiled down to, well, it's a blog post and not a doctoral dissertation (And also: Not all cultures are equal so how dare you call me out for saying that the Visigoths were dumb? I really wish I were kidding, or even exaggerating.)

The blog post =/= dissertation formulation was on my mind this week because I was preparing a guest lecture to give in a colleague's class. It's a "presidential honors seminar," part of a program for the best and brightest NYU freshmen that includes extra access to advising and enrichment, and participation in a seminar that meets every other week and culminates in a trip  to the part of the world that they are learning about. My colleague is teaching the "Spain" seminar, and my guest lecture was the only thing that these students were going to hear about the Middle Ages. It's the guest teaching equivalent of writing a single blog post or teaching one single session on the Middle Ages in a big survey course.

To be sure, I couldn't do more than give a sledgehammer overview of the period. There's even a decent possibility that the group of students I met now think that the red-and-white alternating vouissoir is the single most important cultural development in the Middle Ages — because the Great Mosque of Cordoba is a really nice encapsulated way to talk about interreligious cultural relationships at that time and place; and because it's concrete, it works well under limits of time and continuity. I did a lot of that kind of shorthanding. I compared the mythology that grew up around the Cid to the mythology that grew up around George Washington because it was an analogy that allowed me to say a lot in just a minute or two, even though it's never an analogy I'd use in a semester-long class. I used the word multicultural, which I hate. And I used the world hybrid, which I spend a lot of time unpacking when I use it in seminars.

I showed these slides and did not once mention the word Almohad (an omission that should be abhorrent to me as a cultural historian of 12th and 13th century Spain), instead explaining that artistic and architectural tastes changed over time and that synagogues and palaces, just as much as mosques, kept up with the times.

But all of the shorthanding and all of the omission was done in the service of conveying the one main idea that I wanted them to take away: That religion is one factor amongst many, including economic interest, taste, desire for power, that goverened people's behavior in the Middle Ages; that they gravitate towards what is familiar to them without regard for its complex history; and in this respect, people in the Middle Ages weren't all that different to us. I thought that was a good takeway for a bunch of college freshmen I'd only ever meet once before they were loosed on the historic Toledo which survives unscathed in name only. It's not how I'd talk to my own students and certainly not how I'd talk to my colleagues (it's also not how I'd shorthand it for my own blog post or even for a general public talk to an older lay audience outside of a university setting) but there's still a certain integrity and logic to the talk that I gave.

So I've really said all of this to hopefully start a conversation.

We all make judgment calls and omissions and elisions when introducing material in introductory classes, and even moreso when we're stepping into someone else's class for one session or giving a public talk. I'm curious to hear what kinds of judgment calls other people make? What do skip when you're pressed for time? What would you unpack in a seminar that you leave at face value in a one-off talk? What kinds of principles or ideas or guiding frames help shape your thinking about what to leave in and what to take out?

Okay. Go.

Close-Reading the News

I spend a lot of time dissecting text, and sometimes it's hard to turn that part of my brain off just because I'm reading the newspaper or listening to NPR.  So an odd extended metaphor caught my attention this morning because it is an odd combination of slightly offensive, badly constructed and just wrong.

NPR ran a story about the Supreme Court hearing a case about whether US citizens born in Jerusalem can say they were born in Jerusalem, Israel, or whether they just have to list Jersualem with no national modification in their passports. It's a labeling issue and has no bearing on dual citizenship.

But it described the scene in court with the following two paragraphs:

Inside the Supreme Court chamber, it was a weird day from the get-go. The hands on the clock were so out of whack that at one point, they were literally spinning. And when the justices walked to their places on the bench, Justice Sonia Sotomayor had to move aside Justice Stephen Breyer, who was about to sit in her seat by mistake.
It was an omen of an even stranger argument. The court's most conservative members, all of whom made their professional bones in Republican administrations aggressively advocating for executive power, seemed now quite hostile to executive powers that date back to George Washington's time. And the court's three Jewish justices seemed pretty unsympathetic to the Jewish plaintiffs.

The reporter seems to be expressing surprise that the Jewish justices should seem skeptical of the Jewish plaintiffs. First of all, there's nothing strange about that. Jewish people disagree with each other all. the. time. It's such common knowledge that it's the source of a variety of well-known jokes. Second of all, it's also a pretty well-known phenomenon that people who belong to religious or ethnic minorities and occupy positions of power will take care not to give the impression of being overly sympathetic to their own community. She's expressing surprise about something that is, on many levels, not surprising.

The construction of the metaphor itself is flawed, too, and doesn't actually bear out the shock that the reporter is trying to convey. I don't know about Nina Totenberg's clocks, but my clocks and watches malfunction or stop or run out of batteries not constantly but with enough regularity that it's not really a surprising thing. So in effect, what she's saying is that Jews disagreeing with each other is an occurrence similar to clocks malfunctioning, that is, a common one. To my mind, that is the correct analogy; but, as evidenced by her opening sentence — "It was a weird day from the get-go" — the commonplace was not what she was trying to express. So she is expressing surprise about something that is not surprising and doing so with a metaphor that, once you actually look at what is comparing, doesn't illustrate "the unusual" very well.

Hey, if Jimmy Fallon can slow-jam the news, then I can close-read it.