- In a Better and Older Language:The Redemptive Potential of Arabic and Its Translated Fictions
“The dead shall be raised”.—I Corinthians 15:15, inscribed in the lintel of the Grove Street Cemetery gate, New Haven, CT
A man in possession of a strange, esoteric and rare medieval manuscript written in an indecipherable old language is approached by a literature-loving friend who beseeches him to make the incredible text accessible by translating it and adding a suitable prologue. It was once a widely-read and -regarded text, but now, owing to social, religious and intellectual controversy, most of the copies have been destroyed -burned or sold for rag- but this hardly matters as so very few people would have been able to read it in its original language, anyway. The man gives in and labors away translating – or does he? The manuscript tells a story of books and death; and [End Page 179] when you read it, you hardly know where its own contours end and where they begin to infiltrate the simulacrum of life that it refracts and sends up as much as it represents. Who, exactly, are the translator, the narrator, and the friend? Sword and lance, or paper and pen? The literary and the literal bleed.
O, idle reader, you think you know where this is going, don’t you?
The text is not the last, lost Morisco-Aljamiado translation of the Arab author Cide Hamete Benengeli’s history of a landed son of something (or other) from a place whose name I do not care to recall; but rather, it is one of those texts written in that older and better language that the fictional Miguel Cervantes, narrated to life by the eponymous literary alter-ego of the man who invented him, knew he could have found if he had wanted. Rather, it is an unimagined imaginative prefatory story told by a narrator with a tenuous connection to a flesh-and-blood writer who, like Cide Hamete and like the fictional Cervantes, stepfather of the book and author of its prologue, meditates upon translation, comments on the relationship between the promise of literature and the promise of religion, and offers a throaty, vociferous vindication of the role of the Arabic language and its literary traditions in the salvage and salvation of a second-diasporic national identity of exiled Andalusi Jews in a wider late medieval and early modern European setting.
The text purports to be a preface to the Treatise on the Doctrine of Resurrection, Moses Maimonides’ 1198 Arabic-language self-defense against the fanatical anti-rationalist followers of Samuel ben ‘Alī ibn al-Dastūr, head of the famed and influential talmudical academy in the legendary round city of Baghdad that was also home to the scientific academy founded by the Abbassid caliph al-Ma’mūn (786-833), an institution so prolific and rigorous that it came to be known as the House of Wisdom.
No, that’s not quite correct. The text is a preface to the Treatise. Clearly it is that; but that is the only thing about the relationship between text and [End Page 180] pretext that is sure. The preface is narrated in the voice of Joseph ben Joel, a name otherwise unattested in co-local contemporaneous sources but quite possibly the literary alter-ego of the otherwise anonymous author; it is dedicated to a patron, a certain Meir ben Sheshet, also otherwise unknown to history. The text is written in rhymed prose with borrowed and original poetry interspersed throughout and tells a story about one particular branch of transmission of the Treatise, a story that raises a variety of questions about the relationship of fiction to historical writing, about reading and reception, and about the place of language choice within individual and community religious identities. It also raises broad questions about the relationship of subject matter to authorial process that are articulated specifically in this case through a complex interplay between not just translation but retranslation and reviving the dead: revitalizing corpse and corpus. By inventing a fictitious process of translating and retranslating and retranslating a seminal articulation of a mostly...