Humphrey Davies speaks about translating Ahmad Faris Al Shidyaq’s ‘Leg Over Leg’ at the Abu Dhabi InterContinental Hotel Image Credit: Abdul Rahman/Gulf News

Literature is universal, and its virtues appeal to everyone, regardless of the subject it deals with. Transferring the meaning, tone, rhythm and musicality of one narrative from one language to another is a complex endeavour and capturing the spirit of a book of art in a language in which it was not originally written is deemed simply unattainable by some.

Humphrey Davies, literary translator and consultant to the School of Humanities at the American University of Cairo, spoke to Weekend Review about the challenges of translating classical Arabic. "The difficulty in offering classical Arabic literature to an English audience is greater than when offering classical English literature to an English audience," Davies said.

"With regard to historical background and cultural distance, the challenges faced in both cases are essentially the same, but the degree is greater when it comes to the former.

"For example, reading Dickens now is not as straightforward as it was in the days that Dickens was writing. You need to do a certain amount of explaining — that's where footnotes come in. You need to give an amount of information that is enough to clarify the details, but you need to be careful not to be too officious. It is important to remember how intelligent readers are; people can often get things quite quickly."

Pattern and morphology

Can rhythm be translated? I asked. The beauty of classical Arabic is not just in its words but in its rhythm as well, that which cannot be translated and maintained in another language. But there are ways to make up for the loss of poetic cadence in translation, he said.

"Rhythm depends to a large extent on the specific morphology of a language — the way in which words are built up. Arabic has words of the same pattern. You can play with this and produce a rhythm and rhyme that you can't in English. However, there are other things you can use in English, such as alliteration and assonance, which to some extent can be employed to provide an echo at least in the reader's mind of the sound of classical Arabic," Davies said.

Another aspect of translation is the transfer of old lexicology into new-world vocabulary. "Classical Arabic consciously tries to maintain elements of the older language. This is especially the case in the book I am translating now, by [Ahmad Faris] Al Shidyaq; part of its purpose is to glorify the older language," he said.

"However, generally speaking, there is an obsession with accuracy that is often out of place. How can someone ever understand what a shisha really is in English unless you draw a picture of it? However, in literature it's a little different. It's enough to know that it is a water pipe — the reader doesn't need to be given a lecture on what everything exactly is," he added.

Obtaining clarity about obscure meanings is a challenge compounded by the translator sometimes unconsciously becoming subjective, rather than objective, in his opinion. Understanding what the original author said may require thorough research and multiple cross-references.

"There are a number of references which present some Arabic poets in their time and which try to explain obscurity in poetry. Sometimes, however, it does get very difficult. But there are other resources and scholars one can go to for interpretation," Davies said.

At present he is working on a book called Al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq (Leg Over Leg) by Ahmad Faris Al Shidyaq, who is considered a pioneer in modern Arabic literature, a reviver of classical forms, the father of Arabic journalism and a moderniser of formal Arabic. He was an author, editor, journalist, lexicographer, grammarian, translator, literary historian and travel writer, and has about eight published works of literary prose to his credit, along with ten linguistic studies of Arabic, Turkish, English and French, more than 20,000 verses of poetry and at least four unpublished manuscripts — not to mention his many translations, and journalistic and critical articles.

However, Al Shidyaq's works have not yet been translated into English. In fact, the period in which he lived, known as the Nahda (often translated as the awakening or the revival), is not one that has been thoroughly studied.

A curious tome

Al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq is a 700-page distillation of his career in letters. His style, which includes frequent diversions, extended metaphors and long lists of synonyms, present a challenge for translators, who struggle to maintain coherent interpretations of his writings.

"Al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq demonstrates both linguistic prowess in Arabic and erudition in European literature, and at the same time lampoons them both. It is no wonder that it begins with 11 synonyms for the command ‘Be quiet!'" said Rebecca Johnson, assistant professor of English at the Alice Kaplan Institute for Humanities at Northwestern University.

"Al Shidyaq's works, especially Al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq, has helped scholars understand the importance of both translation and philology in modern Arabic literature. The book defies categorisation and requires the use of no fewer than four dictionaries to read it, let alone translate it," Johnson added.