Khalil Mutran salutes Shaykh Salama Higazi

Click on photo to enlarge and read poem.
From Volume I of Khalil Mutran’s diwan (4 vols, 1949), first published 1908. See last two stanzas for Mutran’s admiration of Higazi’s dramatic art… and desire to transcend it.

Early Arabic Shakespeare translations

This week I figured out which French translation was used by Tanyus Abdu, author of the first published Arabic Hamlet. (Hint: pick up John Pemble’s very entertaining Shakespeare Goes to Paris (2005). Then spend three days at Widener comparing half a dozen 18th and 19th-c French translations.)

It’s amazing no one has bothered to trace this before. It’s common knowledge that the early Arabic adapters/translators of Shakespeare were mainly Syrian-Lebanese immigrants to Egypt who knew French better than English and had absorbed the neo-classical aesthetics of French theatre. It’s even known that the earliest Arabic versions of Shakespeare were translated not from English but from French. (No surprise there — same thing happened in Russian, in Spanish, probably in plenty of other languages. Paris, capital of the 19th century, etc., etc.)

But… doesn’t this matter? Every critic and scholar I’ve seen notes the French mediation, then proceeds as though it never happened. They spill ink deploring or defending the “distortions” introduced by early adapters, especially Abdu and Mutran — without considering which of these distortions (like Abdu’s much-mocked happy ending!) were already present in their French sources. What a waste. Stop seeing it as a simple two-way exchange between Shakespeare and his Arab translator, and the literary argument about textual fidelity falls apart; even the Bourdieusian sociological argument (adaptation to the needs of Cairo’s emerging middle-class commercial theatre audience, then pursuit of autonomous aesthetic standards, etc.) can be made in a considerably more complicated and fruitful way.

Nu`aymah on Mutran

Reading Mikhail Nu’aymah’s Ghirbal (الغربال), specifically the hilarious essay where he tears apart Khalil Mutran’s translation (published 1922) of The Merchant of Venice . I’ve seen this essay summarized before, but never realized it was so hilarious!
First Nu`aymah goes after Mutran for various inaccuracies and misunderstandings that suggest he translated from a French translation rather than Shakespeare’s original. (This claim is now widely accepted, though nobody seems to have a specific theory of which version/s Mutran used: please contact me if you do.) Next he attacks Mutran’s use of rarified Arabic vocables “dug up from the lexical graveyard” – these archaisms, he says, are designed mainly to make the Arab reader feel he does not know his own language well enough. He hates Mutran’s intralingual glosses. (Strikingly, Mutran’s footnotes do not elucidate difficult points in Shakespeare, but rather explain Mutran’s own recherché words and expressions.) The unstated assumption behind both critiques is that translations of Shakespeare should be accurate and transparent: the great master’s words and thoughts are so important that the translator should try to convey them as accurately and clearly as he can, without drawing attention to his own style. As though he were translating Scripture. (Translations should also be actable, he says.)
Here’s the interesting thing about Nu`aymah: he both does and doesn’t accept that Shakespeare’s sacred status is culturally constructed. He starts his essay by observing that to translate Shakespeare is a uniquely difficult task. Shakespeare is the literary equivalent of “the summit of Mount Everest”; “The son of literature approaches Shakespeare with the same piety as that with which a son of religion approaches the saints of his religion.” He explicitly refuses to discuss whether Shakespeare deserves this veneration or not. Yet two paragraphs later he is doing it himself: claiming that to mistranslate even a phrase of Shakespeare is to betray “the link between his thoughts and their linguistic reflection” where Shakespeare’s unique genius lies. Nu`aymah insists this is not true of translating Hugo or Tolstoy.
Don’t all scholars in our field end up doing this? Historicizing and analyzing Shakespeare’s prominence, then accepting and subtly reinforcing it?
(The photo is Mutran… see how serious he is! For more on him, see Sameh Hanna’s article in Critical Survey 19:3.)

Sameh Hanna on two nationalist Egyptian Othellos

Sameh F. Hanna, Othello in Egypt: Translation and the (Un)making of National Identity. In Translation and the Construction of Identity (St. Jerome, 2005), 109-128. (This is the First Yearbook of the International Association of Translation and Intercultural Studies.)


The long held view that national identities are natural entities whose
formation is not conditioned by human agency, and hence are constitutive rather
than constituted, has been challenged by a whole range of scholarship which
underlined the constructedness of national identities and the role of
intellectuals in their formation. The role of translators, as intellectuals, in
fashioning and subverting versions of national identity is discussed in this
paper in relation to two translations of Othello in Egypt, one by Khalil Mutran
(1912), and the other by Mustapha Safouan (1998). The translation strategies
adopted by these two translators are deployed towards the (de)construction of
the national identity of the target culture. In reading the two translators’
(un)making of national identity, this article relates their translation
strategies to their discourse on translation.

Some parts of this article (on Mutran) are recapped in Sameh’s contribution to the 2007 Critical Survey volume. But this piece is really good on the language politics guiding the two translations: Mutran’s Levantine Christian need to forge an identity that is larger than Egypt yet not premised on Islam; Safouan’s post-Nasser and post-Gulf War reversion to Egyptian identity and use of the play for collective political psychoanalysis. Using Othello allegorically in just the opposite of an anticolonial way, Safouan casts him as the delusional Arab nationalist leader so caught up in his own glory that he murders his willing and competent nation (Desdemona). If Safouan is washing any dirty linen, he doesn’t care — anyway for an `ammiyya translation his public would be small.