- To Translate or Not to Translate Arabic: Michael Cooperson and Waïl Hassan on the Criticism of Abdelfattah Kilito
Over the past decade, British and American publishers have been churning out one reference work after another on Arabs, the “Middle East,” and Islam.1 As a result of these efforts, any reader of English with access to a library or an internet connection can learn practically anything she wants to know about Southwest Asia (a less colonially freighted term than the “Middle East”). Although casual searchers are unlikely to look further than Wikipedia, the increased availability of reliable information means that even Wikipedia articles are getting better. This profusion of knowledge, one imagines, must be a good thing.
But if we look more closely at how this knowledge is propagated, we notice some oddities. The information we are getting may be fresh, but it comes packaged in the musty categories of the nineteenth century. For example, the Encyclopaedia of Islam, a standard scholarly reference, contains an article on tarṣī‘, an Arabic rhetorical device in which words of similar form and sound are grouped in pairs or triads, roughly like Dorothy Parker’s “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”2 I am delighted that such an article exists, but why is it hiding in an encyclopedia of Islam? It is as if one had to look for an entry on spoonerism in an encyclopedia [End Page 566] of Christianity. The reason, of course, is that Islam serves as the most conspicuous marker of the alterity of particular parts of the world, and in that capacity has long served as the default principle by which information derived from those regions is organized. It is, in other words, a placeholder that operates in the same way as Edward Said’s “Orient.” Admittedly, “Islam” is a less obnoxious classifier than “national security” and “American (or British, etc.) interests in the region,” the signs under which news from Southwest Asia tends to reach Anglo-American audiences. But if one had to look up “metaphor” or “metonymy” in a dictionary of counterterrorism, the result would hardly be less absurd than the current configuration, according to which assonance, alliteration, and end-rhyme are religious phenomena.
This sort of absurdity fascinates Abdelfattah Kilito, professor of literature at Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco, and author of several idiosyncratic studies of Arabic literary culture as well as three works of fiction. Kilito spins no theory, at least not in conventional terms. His method, as I wrote in 2001, “consists in imaginatively reconstructing the cultural assumptions that lie behind a poem or anecdote, and then relentlessly following all these assumptions to their logical, and often contradictory, conclusions.”3 In Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, a collection of essays newly translated by Waïl S. Hassan, he offers—knowingly or otherwise—a mischievous dig at the project of explanatory transculturation, if that is the right word for what we are doing when we produce surveys, encyclopedias, and handbooks.
Kilito begins with a common convention: the citation of dates. In studies of premodern Arabic history and literature, it is common to give dates according to the Islamic calendar, usually with an equivalent Julian date. Thus al-Hamadhānī, the author of fifty-odd short stories full of tarṣī‘ and other sonorous devices, is said to have died in 398 AH/1008 AD. In this formula, the “AH” stands for anno hegirae, or year after the Prophet Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina. Asked to give a lecture on al-Hamadhānī for a French audience, Kilito writes, he drafted a text that described him as a writer who lived in the fourth century AH. Then, realizing that this way of placing his subject would probably mean nothing to his audience, he changed the date to “the tenth century AD.” But this way of identifying al-Hamadhānī was not much better: Kilito himself could think of no European writers...