M.M. Badawi RIP

I didn’t realize that the groundbreaking scholar Muhammad Mustafa Badawi had died last month until a few minutes ago when, searching for his contact info to share with a documentary producer interested in Shakespeare translation, I looked him up online. Allah yarhamhu.

Long interested in the topic of “Shakespeare and the Arabs” (on which he gave a much-quoted lecture on the occasion of the quadricentennial in 1964, later published in Cairo Studies in English, 1964/65), Badawi turned late in life to translating Shakespeare’s plays. I have several of his texts at home: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello (partial text online), and I believe he’s also done a Macbeth and maybe a Richard III.  You can find these at the National Center for Translation bookstore at the Opera complex in Cairo.

 

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.