Amid the Literature of Syria, the Cradle of Civilization

Keep an eye out for the whole series! Looks like some great material is coming up.

By Nuri Al-Khalaf

Syrian Literature Month Editor

It has been said that Arabs took soil with them while they travelled – to smell it and be reminded of their homelands. Today, Syrians are taking with them their dreams, hopes, pains, memories and literature wherever their feet take them after the disastrous events in their country. I’m delighted to be a part of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative and to have this opportunity to shed light upon the works of the greatest Syrian pens. A few of the poets and novelists featured in upcoming posts are the great poet Nizar Qabbani, who renewed Arabic poetry, plus authors with globally-known novels like Rafick Schami,  Khaled Khalifa, Ghada al-Samman and others.

It is worth mentioning that the word literature refers to the sciences and disciplines that raise the level of knowledge, awareness and the quality of life in society. Literature is a…

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Why go back to college?

I’m 46 years old. I can certainly say that I am mid-career. I hold the American Translators Association certification for Arabic into English translation. I have worked as a translator both in-house and freelance for over 15 years now. I have a few stable clients and a good full-time job. And I am working on my masters degree in translation from the University of Illinois, via their online program.

I have been surprised by how often people, including my fellow students, ask me why. Why, when I seem to have the career they aspire to, the certification they hope to earn someday, and the experience they are seeking through education, am I back in college?

It isn’t to make my wife happy, I can tell you that. And it isn’t so I can spend more time with my kids -though that may be a long-term result. It also is not because I love hearing this question over and over again.

So why, then?

An MA is no small undertaking. I had to apply to the university, I had to apply to the program, and now that I’m in it, I am spending 15-20 hours a week on it. When I already have a 40-hour a week job and about 15 hours a week tied up in my commute, that is a serious time commitment.

So why, then?

My father was not an academic, he was a machinist – he worked on airplane propellers for nearly all of his adult life after having spent his teens trying out lots of jobs (he was a miner, restaurant work, ranch hand, and more). My mother was a stay at home mom, a career choice I still respect very highly. He worked in a skilled labor field, and would have been every bit as proud had I chosen to be a welder, mechanic, or deep-sea fisherman. So it isn’t to please them or live up to some aspiration I think they may have had for me or my siblings.

My folks were an influencing factor: dad was the best at what he did. He was highly respected in his field and was the last pair of hands and eyes on those propellers before they were mounted on an airplane loaded with people or cargo; lives depended on his skill and attention to detail. Mom could have stayed at home and let her mind turn into a rutabaga. Instead, she read voraciously and was active in our church community, studying and improving herself for the things she believed in.

The pursuit of excellence never really ends. I learned Arabic in an academic environment, but I never learned to be a translator. Without a degree, I decided to get the ATA certification (accreditation at the time) as proof of my ability. I failed the exam, then sought advice from those who had passed. Based on that advice, I bought a couple of translation textbooks, studied them, and then passed the exam. And that fact takes me nearly all the way to my conclusion and the truest answer.

I love translation, I want to continue doing it as a career, and I would love to take the “freelance plunge,” working for myself full time. What I really want to do is get into translating literature and translate three or four books a year (there are lots of them out there, and not enough translators to go around). Translating literature is completely different from the work I have done for years, yet close enough that without training, practice and criticism it would be easy to work on literature the same way I work on everything else. That takes me to the short form of my answer:

If reading a few books was enough to help me pass the ATA certification exam, how much will I learn from college professors, texts, and exercises?

The only way to answer that question is to go to college, so here I am. Will I become a full-fledged academic and seek a PhD or a position at a university somewhere? I doubt it. But I will use the knowledge and experience I gain from this program to improve my skills and start giving serious effort to translating books.

Keep an eye on this space. I’ll talk about what I am working on, and when my author permits, I will share it as I go – not in its entirety, of course. I’ll want you to buy the books, after all. But enough to, hopefully, spark some interest.


Tens and Dozens

I feel like this comes up a lot. In Arabic things are spoken of in tens: tens of people at a party, tens of cars in a parking lot, tens of houses in a neighborhood.

In English – at least in the US, but I think it applies elsewhere – this sounds awkward and wrong. We use “dozens” for the same kind of general estimate.

If my say-so isn’t enough, here is a logical explanation: The Arabic here is عشرات, the plural of ten. To use the plural in Arabic means there are between three and ten of the counted object; i.e. 30-100. In English, the plural is two or more, so dozens means 24 or more. Good equivalent for an estimate, right?

Ok? Good talk.

Farewell to Denys Johnson-Davies, a legend

Denys Johnson-Davies was the elder statesman and master craftsman of Arabic into English translation. At nearly 95 years old, no one can claim his passing came too soon or was tragic, but his contributions to the field will certainly be missed and the life he lived was worthy of honor.

I encourage you to read his biography, Memories in Translation, published in 2006. 

An Excerpt from Mansoura Ez Eldin’s ‘Emerald Mountain’

I am excited and honored to have this translation appear on ArabLit. Thanks to Mansoura for sharing her novel and M. Lynx Qualey for putting us in touch and sharing this chapter of Emerald Mountain!

& Arablit

In 2014, Egyptian novelist Mansoura Ez Eldin won the best-novel award at the Sharjah International Book Fair for her Emerald MountainIt has since been translated into French by the celebrated Stéphanie Dujols (2017), and Ez Eldin will appear later this month at a book event in Paris.

In the book, there is a search for a lost tale from the 1,001 Nights amidst the upheavals of Egypt, 2011. The narrator, Bustan, seeks to restore the story of Mount Qaf, or the titular the Emerald Mountain:

Road Dust

By Mansoura Ez Eldin, trans. Tim Gregory

I do not belong to myself… I was sworn to a mystery.

All I can do is go on and join with my fate

My name is Bustan.

Those who know me well, and very few do, call me “the Priestess of Black and White.” Others, well, they just think I’m peculiar. Someone writing about me might call me…

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Behind High Curtains

by Faiza Sultan

Translator’s Note:

I am currently working on my MA in Translation Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Naturally, there are quite a few translation assignments as part of the program. The student cadre is multilingual so the department’s instructors ask us to find our own works to translate rather than attempting to find short stories, poems, or excerpts from longer works in six or more languages per class.  This posed a bit of difficulty for me because I have had very little exposure to Arabic literature. Fortunately I have friends and colleagues. I wrote to Faiza Sultan, who I know from the American Translators Association, and who manages her own small press, to ask for short stories I might be able to use for my class. She was kind enough to offer one of her own, the translation of which follows:


Ancillary Justice: Is there room for Science Fiction in Arabic Literature?

Translated from Inkitab

written by Fatimah Bint Nasser al-Wahibi

Ancillary Justice has attained great success among general readers and organizations that have unanimously awarded it with prizes, including: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke award.

This novel was written by author Ann Leckie whose description on her website is stark: She lives in St. Louis, Missouri and is the author of the Imperial Radch trilogy. She has also published short stories in several science fiction magazines. Ann Leckie has worked in several professions; from waitress to secretary, even as a recording engineer.

The simplicity with which she presents herself on her website has another dimension: Most of the time there is a tall tower separating the Arab literary elite from the general public. Most of them present themselves as specialists who have won enough prizes and earned enough degrees to shut you up. Even those of them who have not earned any prizes or degrees present themselves as pompously and superior as possible; pressing me to make this point before I talk about the novel.

The barrier between reader and author in the Arab world is not simply one of hubris. It goes on to encompass some literary genres that are seen by the Arab literary elite as inferior and unimportant. This, in turn, is reflected by popular taste; science fiction literature in the Arab world is slowly fading away. Therefore it is worth bringing up Manscript 5229; an Emirati project that promises to produce and translate science fiction literature, and which has provided me—and others—with the opportunity to learn about amazing worlds, confirming that the human mind is capable of innovation and producing extraordinary things.

Coming back to Ancillary Justice [translated in Arabic as Bariq al-‘Adalah, The Luster of Justice, which also allows them to play on the main character’s name, Breq]: what we have here is a rich novel filled with complex characters, events, and worlds.  The characters come from fictional races and tribes created by the author and actualized by her imagery and descriptions.  These races and tribes all fall under a regime that governs them and the nations they belong to. These nations are influenced by the ambitions and desires of others who wish to control them, just like real-world struggles for influence and power.

Despite the differences in weapons and equipment, the evolution of equipment and machinery, war is grotesque and cares little for justice—especially while it is being waged. But when things calm down a little, and when the strong solidify their power and think that the other has accepted them—or, at least, appears to, they will try to forget that injustice is indelible, and the blood that was spilled runs through the veins of all those who were oppressed, keeping them from forgetting.

There is always someone who tries to bring balance to blind enmity and the equality that only the nobles and those with high morals achieve. What could be easier than eternal enmity? And what could be harder than overcoming the monstrous ego, controlling its caprice, and making it more just and equitable?

The novel abounds in situations that pit good against evil; predispositions imposed on you by your surroundings, your territory, your racial identity, your automatic alignment with those you belong to, and the overwhelming forces that drag you along. These are forces we are only aware of when we are far removed from the conflict, free to ask: are we actually in the right?

Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing. All of these wars are waged for the right reasons, in order to establish values, but we do not see that in this way we kill values and morals. I won’t tell you about the fascinating, enchanting, and mysterious characters in the novel; I do not want to spoil the fun that awaits you.

*Manuscript 5229: An Emirati publishing company specializing in science fiction and fantasy, established by Emirati author Noura Noman. It was named in honor of the manuscript of Ibn Fadlan, written about the journey he undertook for the Abbasid Emperor al-Muqatdir bi-Illah to the land of the Bulgars. The number 5229 is the number of a neglected manuscript in a famous Turkish museum. The voyages recorded by Ibn Fadlan in the manuscript had amazing impact on literature and art, not least the 1999 movie The Thirteenth Warrior. Now it is our turn to come back to this long-neglected heritage that encompasses all kinds of literature and knowledge that speaks to all ages and different minds. The publishing house’s focus is on science fiction and fantasy literature, a genre of utmost importance in encouraging young people to read. Science fiction stories have, and still do, attracted many, young and old alike, and tell stories to all ages. This genre has also created many who are passionate about writing; the fantastic aspects of these stories have sparked their creative imaginations.

On translation and anti-intellectualism

I have seen some pretty awful and very blatant antintellectualism in my life. This is a nice call out, we need to pay more attention.

Translator's Digest


Chandler: “You didn’t read Lord of the Rings in high school?”

Joey: “No, I had sex in high school.”

…and the audience laughed.

I get why it’s a good comeback. But I also get why that, in itself, is a problem.

Don’t take me wrong, Friends was one of my favorite shows in the mid to late nineties. Back then I was a teenager with a lot to learn about life, yet even then I knew (at least intuitively) that there was something fundamentally wrong with the world as Friends portrayed it (starting with its lack of ethnic diversity). I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I came across this thought provoking post by David Hopkins where he makes a compelling case against Friends and what the show’s success says about us as viewers. While the initial premise that a single American sitcom triggered the downfall of…

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