The interior of the terminal at Marrakesh-Menara International Airport, 2013. Photo: Thomas Leuthard
Continuing the Six Degrees series “Translation is Impossible. Let’s do it!” we present translator and scholar Samuel Wilder’s English language version of “Fi mir’at al-akhar” [In the Mirror of the Other] by Moroccan philosopher Abdessalam Benabdelali. The second of two commissioned translations of this text—the first being Christian Hawkey’s—Wilder’s iteration hews closely to the philosopher’s words, making his arguments accessible for the first time to an English-language readership. This text has been edited by Omar Berrada, Director at Dar al-Ma’mûn, and introduced by Alicia Ritson, Research Fellow at the New Museum—co-organizers (with Taraneh Fazeli) of “Temporary Center for Translation.”
One way to determine how translations using different methodologies actually function is to go ahead and produce them side by side, such that they—and their individual problematics—can be compared and contrasted. This was our impetus in commissioning Christian Hawkey and Samuel Wilder to translate the same text, Abdessalam Benabdelali’s “Fi mir’at al-akhar” [In the Mirror of the Other], a chapter from his book Fi al-Tarjama / De la traduction [Of Translation] (Casablanca: Toubkal, 2006). The decision to work with two translators of radically different schools and approaches—Hawkey’s practice is grounded in experimental writing that transpires here in spite of him not knowing Arabic; Wilder is a scholar and translator of Arabic literature and thus has a comprehensive knowledge about the language—meant “Temporary Center for Translation” would highlight the importance of discussing translation methodologies and the influence of a translator’s subjectivity.
Primary to this investigation, our initial interest in translating Benabdelali’s text was sparked by the possibility of engaging the work of a respected scholar of the philosophy of translation, one whose linguistic origins (and thereby his geopolitical and cultural grounding to some extent, too) are in Arabic, and whose work therefore has been inaccessible to us and most of our Six Degrees readership. Our invitations (to translate, to be translated) came about via our “Temporary Center of Translation,” a project conceived in relation to the New Museum’s concurrent exhibition “Here and Elsewhere,” “a major exhibition of contemporary art from and about the Arab world.” Publishing the work of a scholar whose mother tongue was Arabic seemed crucial to our project, lest we fall into the trap of thinking about translation and its associated issues without actually putting our politics into practice, facilitating a meta-critical conversation while failing to create space for intellectual positions developing in situ.
While Hawkey’s translation, published on Six Degrees in January, assumes the recognition of value in free-associative thinking and the pressurizing of the basic requirements for translation to be possible, this translation by Wilder takes us back to other kinds of questions—perhaps more fundamental or traditional ones—that have persisted through time in spite of the establishment of a whole discursive field of translation studies. The most prominent issue raised by Wilder’s method and style concerns his practice of leaving no clues as to how the work of author and translator are imbricated—it’s thoroughly understood in this traditional methodology that hewing closely to the meaning of the original text is of paramount importance. As readers, then, we are left to imagine how Wilder answered the burden of responsibility to adequately represent the source text, with our understanding that this negotiation isn’t simply resolved by the accurate transliteration of each word in succession, but rather through a more holistic understanding of the text and its constituent parts.
The question of authorship within the translation process is a persistent one and one that can’t be fully evaluated without the (perhaps overly clinical) examination of the intricate mechanics of the source text and the text that is born as the translation. Such a detailed analysis is indeed beyond the scope and the resources of our “Temporary Center for Translation,” even as Omar Berrada’s edits of Wilder’s drafts pointed to some rich linguistic duels between words—assimilation and annihilation, for instance. By necessity we can only really describe the relationship between Benabdelali’s Arabic text and Wilder’s English one in general terms and with recourse to the broader, well-hashed issues of translating, rather than the more specific ones. It is for this reason—our desire to touch on a few of the details unique to each translation—that we have invited each of the translators in residence to briefly reflect on their own process within the additional materials section of their respective contributions to the “Translation is Impossible. Let’s do it!” series.
Just how authorship is rendered in the process of translation is indeed a fascinating subject and one that we’ve found ourselves challenged by in the very presentation of this series. To get to the nuts and bolts of it: Six Degrees, like any online publication, has its own standards for formatting, with set parameters for specific fields. Even while web publishing might appear to support less formal conventions than academic citations, there are of course still limits, in this case it’s how we deal with attributions of texts. This has forced us to really consider (and reconsider) who is acknowledged as an author across the translation series commissions, how our natural assumptions for how to responsibly and generously attribute contributors might in fact result in misrepresentations, or worse, how certain forms of attributions might erroneously imply the ventriloquy of the writer or translator. What we’ve settled on, then, is to attribute the first post of “In the Mirror of the Other” to Hawkey in a way that recognizes his entry as a radically original work, while still a translation of Benabdelali’s text. This post, by contrast, attributes the first author as Benabdelali and the translator as Wilder, acknowledging the closeness with which Wilder has adhered to the philosopher’s work. We hope such subtle differences can be recognized as nuanced and intentional and as a modest signpost of the complex and varied relationships that transpire through the processes of translation. As well, these problematics might be an apt point of departure for Benabdelali to parse the relationship of author and translator in slightly different terms—the self and the other—with respect to the cultural and linguistic histories of Arabic writing.
IN THE MIRROR OF THE OTHER
Can we approach the issues of translation, and the question of the I and the other, beyond fidelity and betrayal, without reference to any notion of dialectic or a theory of alienation? In order to answer this double question, I would suggest that we take our departure from the consideration of two basic texts, one of them from the Fragments of Schlegel, and the other from the Morning Meditations (Khawāṭir al-Ṣabāḥ) by Abdallah Laroui. Schlegel says, “The Arabs possess a polemical nature that marks them to the utmost degree. Among all nations, they are the most capable of negation and annihilation. What characterizes their philosophy in its spirit is a morbid tendency to discard the originals, to do away with them as soon as the translation is completed.”1
In his Meditations, Abdallah Laroui writes, “Two messages from Beirut arrived to me at the same time, each carrying the same demand: permission to put the Ideology into Arabic. What would have been the response of the Eastern reader if I had composed the book in Arabic, as had been my intention from the start? Neglect, without a doubt. All communication between us—Maghrebis, Arabs, or Muslims—passes through the West, just as is the case for the Europeans with respect to America. This is actually the import of this book.”2
The common problem of these two texts concerns the connection between translation and the other: while our first text attempts to deal with the relationship established in classical Arabic culture toward the texts brought into that culture’s language, the second attempts to specify the relationship that contemporary Arab culture bears toward its self and its other, and the role that translation plays therein.
Of course we are not concerned here with treating the ideological contents of Schlegel’s text, or with the degree of literal truth it contains. Rather we will limit ourselves to asking whether the consequences that follow from his assertions speak eloquently to the reality of translation in our traditional culture. In order to define those consequences, let us ask from the start what Schlegel means by the “discarding of originals” or as he says, “the assimilation of [origins] and the throwing of them off to the side.” What he means is that classical Arabic culture, when it translated a text into its own language, would “acclimatize” that text and adapt it, would bring it to submission and eliminate the element of foreignness in it, absorb it in order to bring it within the circle of the ego, considering it as no longer other. Thus this culture very quickly dispensed with the original, once it had “elevated” it into its language.
Within the framework of this power relationship, in which all difference is crushed, we conceive of translation as being born complete from the first moment, just as we conceive of translation as occurring only in one direction, coming only from other languages into Arabic, and not vice versa.
The classical culture considered the language of culture to be Arabic. Among these ancients those who transferred knowledge were “mostly foreign” or “if there was one among them who was Arab by lineage, he was foreign in his language,” as we read in Ibn Khaldun. Yet, despite this fact, the Arabs felt that “they only addressed those readers who had mastered Arabic. The only translations that they imagined were either translations into Arabic, or commentaries, exegesis, and super-commentaries, this is to say a kind of translation occurring within the language itself.”3 A certain kind of self-sufficiency felt by the ancients, the conviction that their literature in its entirety only concerned those who had mastered Arabic, made them intent to build a blockade around their culture. They were not satisfied merely to discard translation from their thought, “but strove, without conscious intention, to make their works resistant to transformation,”4 and developed styles that made translation impossible.
Perhaps it is this closing off that explains our great philosophers’ feeling no sense of necessary connection between the renewal of interpretation and commentary on the one hand, and the renewal of translation accompanied by a turn back to the originals on the other. It is difficult for us today to imagine how a philosopher like Ibn Rushd, as he reads (or, to use a modern phrase, “rereads”) the First Teacher Aristotle, could fail to feel bound to renew the translation, in the way we observe among great thinkers of today. But what should arouse our surprise even more is the persistence of this relationship among some of us to this day. Is this not still the relationship that we maintain with ancient Greek texts? Who among us today feels, as he rereads Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Organon, the necessity to return to these texts in the original? Rather, this relation that cancels the other is extended today even toward modern texts. It will suffice here to recall the fate of some texts that have been translated into Arabic in not so recent times—texts such as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Goethe’s Werther that were put into Arabic but found no great afterlife or interest, did not impose a problematic and trouble new networks of relationships, and did not enter into conversation with the culture into which they were translated. Indeed, these are texts that have been transported into Arabic without really being translated into it.
Before we return to examining what might lie behind that fact, let us try to define the relation that connects contemporary Arabic culture to its other according to Laroui’s text.
Contrary to the absorption of the other into the self which, as we have seen, characterizes classical Arabic culture, there is another form of absorption that we see characterizes contemporary Arabic culture, which takes place in the opposite direction. Laroui states that if he had written Modern Arab Ideology in Arabic, its fate in the Arab world would have been neglect.
Perhaps the most important point confirmed here by Laroui is that the text is intended for the Arab reader, even if written in a foreign language. Translation here serves as a road leading to the intended reader. In order for the text to reach the Arabic reader it is desirable, even necessary, for it to reach him translated, to reach him through another language. Here, contrary to the first situation, the other acts as a necessary intermediary between the Arab writer and the Arab reader, between the creative Arab and the critical Arab. Elsewhere in the Morning Meditations, in explaining the failure of Arabs to be interested in this same book, Laroui says, “When the French receive the book critically, then many of them will do the same, relying on the rival’s criticisms, and in that action will be confirmation of the claim within the book that the Arabs always respond to problems as they are posed by the West.”5 It is as if an Arab man of culture only relates to himself today through the other, only speaks his own language through another language. Here, there is no meaning to whatever we write or read except through translation. We now write in order to translate, just as we translate in order to write. Who among us now can write without translating? Most of our texts are translations. Most of our writings are secondary writings. Our roots are branches. How is it possible, in such a state, to distinguish between genealogical origins and historical beginnings?
And what is more remarkable, there are those among us who, after they have written in another language, themselves do the work of translating what they have written into Arabic. This is the case with Laroui and, in fact, with that very book. Abdelfattah Kilito points out in his book Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language that a number of Arab novelists write while keeping in mind their potential translator. Their creativity is given significance by the mark of their possible translation and they “work to ease the task of the translator by avoiding expressions and references that might not suit the style of another language.”6 Very often they eagerly await the appearance of translations of what they write, or they work to ease the conditions for their translation into a number of languages. At that point, and only at that point, will they feel that there is real value in their work. We recognize the significance and import of this if we note that a writer like al-Jahiz, a poet like Mutanabbi, or a philosopher like Ibn Rushd never hoped, expected, or even imagined, and certainly did not assume, that his work might be translated into a language other than Arabic.
Our works of creativity have come to be accomplished through the sign of translation. It seems now as though originals are themselves the result of their translation. It may be unavoidable that we should speak here of some “betrayal,” but perhaps it is best for us to say with Borges that “the original is that which betrays its translation.”7
An important point, which we must not pass over, occurs twice in the texts we have provided from the Morning Meditations, where Professor Laroui asserts that the current reality of translation in the Arab world confirms the contents of his book Modern Arab Ideology. The reality of translation is the reality of Arab thought, the reality of contemporary Arab culture. This culture recognizes itself today not only through an other, but in fact through the way that other recognizes it. Translation now is not only a movement of writing and publishing, but a style of living and a mode of existence.
We have come to the point now where we can only read and write our own literature by juxtaposing and comparing and translating. Comparison does not concern only some specialists among us. It concerns every person who approaches or draws near to Arabic culture. The reader who comes upon an Arabic text will very quickly link it to a European text, either directly or indirectly. Rather, we should say that he does not read this text without having already linked it to a European text. He does not read Hayy Ibn Yaqzan without comparing it to Robinson Crusoe; Mutanabbi without looking in him for Nietzsche; Risalat al-Ghufran without finding The Divine Comedy; The Luzumiyat without looking for Shopenhauer; The Proofs of Inimitability without looking for Saussure; Deliverance from Error without Descartes; The Incoherence of the Philosophers without Hume; or The Muqaddima except through the eyes of Auguste Comte. “Woe to the writers for whom we find no equivalent among the Europeans!”8
Indeed we can see that this process of linking goes farther still, leading to attempts to translate literary genres themselves, to find in Arabic literature equivalents to the novel, the theater play, or the essay, to search outside of Arabic literature for equivalents for the Maqama genre or for whether ʿIlm al-ʿUmrān can have some external equivalent.
Now, having drawn out the conclusions that issue from the two texts that form the basis for our investigation, let us ask what these two texts have in common. We can confirm based on the preceding that in both these cases Arabic culture cancels difference, either by pulling the other toward the self, or by absorbing the self into the other; at its base, the function of translation is to engender nearness and to do away with foreignness.
We are not at all interested in bemoaning some lost identity, or in transforming translation theory into a branch within a larger theory of alienation. We are attempting to pose the issue of translation beyond fidelity and betrayal, without an impulse toward humanism and without leaving out the underlying reality of struggle: the Babelic state in which all languages live, a situation of confusion and original misunderstanding that characterizes every reading, every interpretation, and every translation. It is our aim to involve and implicate translation in the relations of power that rule being, characterize the will, determine language, and prevail in culture. That is to say that we are not singling out any one culture for condemnation. To show this, we can return to a parenthetical statement that occurs in the text by Laroui with which we began, where he compares the relationship between the Arabs and the West with that between Europe and America. As illustration of this, we can just mention how many French writers now approach the French reader through English—the most important examples being perhaps Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida (who wrote his essential text on translation in English).9
It is inevitable that translation occurs between languages connected by relations of power. Sometimes these relations are exploited in order to enter into battle with the foreign language, to seek to conquer it and to do away with anything in the text that fastidiously refuses to submit. Here translation does not work to raise problematics. It is never defeated in face of the text and does not stop to ponder at what is “difficult to translate” or “untranslatable,” at what bears witness to foreignness, distance, and “otherness,” and thus to the refusal to bow down, to give in. In this mode, translation is not a strategy for giving rise to differences that might open a language to its “outside,” an attempt to open what is foreign, qua foreign, to the space of the translating language. For openness is predicated on the recognition of the other as other, and on the willingness to attend to what is “untranslatable.” Goethe asserts so much when he writes, in one of his letters, “We must not dive into a direct confrontation with a foreign language. We must approach that which is untranslatable within it and show it respect. It is here that the value of every language lies hidden, and its special nature shows forth.”10
This pondering of what is “difficult to translate” is of course incompatible with the “doing away with originals.” On the contrary, it is an implicit confession of the constant need for originals, the need to return to them and dwell on their consideration. It is an affirmation of the fact that translation constitutes a continuous creation, that it cannot represent the other in itself. It cannot be the text that the author would have written if he had spoken the translator’s language. The space between the self and the other cannot be entirely canceled; the translated text does not cease to be linked to its translation, and every translation remains a transparent object that does not replace the translated text or become its substitute.
Perhaps this is what explains the appearance of dual language publications. And perhaps this is what explains their absence in our culture. I mean those mirror compositions that place before the reader from the start both the text and its translation, the original and the copy, face to face, acknowledging the transparency of the copy in its constant and unavoidable reference to the original, demanding that the reader produce a third text through comparison of the two texts and the forging of a (marriage) “pact” between the two.
This pact, like every pact, respects the two parties as two entities. That is, it confirms foreignness at the same time that it establishes closeness. The origins, if they persist, quickly enter into an inevitable sequence of re-production, being renewed, transformed, becoming foreign. The elements of foreignness and transformation give rise in a translated text to new lives, they transform it and renew it, involving it in a new network of relations, opening it to cultures in which it never expected to live. On the occasion of the appearance of an English translation of a poem by Schiller, Goethe wrote, “The translator not only performs a service for his own nation, but also for the nations that speak the languages from which he translates. For it may happen that one nation drinks up the nectar of a certain work and exhausts its powers, leaving no space for enjoyment or benefit from that work, and exhausting its refreshing spring. This is often true of the Germans, who very quickly will gobble up those works that come before them, exhaust them, and submit them to all manner of trials of tradition and imitation. Thus it is not surprising that their own works of creativity should appear to them refreshed and brought back to life in the performance of a good translation.”11 This is the feeling that Goethe himself expressed after looking over a Latin translation of one of his own poems: “I had not looked for some years at this, the finest of my poems. And now I look at it as if gazing into a mirror. A mirror, as we know, is possessed of a strong magical faculty. Here now I see my sensibility and my poetry at once identical and transformed, alive in a language of greater perfection. I realized that Latin goes toward the concept and transforms, that which remains innocently veiled and invisible in German.”12
In this dense text, the great Goethe not only shows us the substance of the activity of translation, its tremendous mirror-like power for transformation and the creation of simulacra; he also shows us the dialectical nature that characterizes every translation. The difference that Goethe points out between Latin and German—the difference between the thought that considers nature in a modest, veiled, silent way and that which approaches it with a view toward concepts and clarity—that difference pervades all translation and is in fact embedded in all processes of engendering meaning. Every translation comprises a violent dialectic between the Germanic spirit and the Latin spirit, between the synthetic thought that renders meaning the result of struggle, dispute, and violence, and the analytic thought that reaches meanings in their presence and clarity; between the thought that sees misunderstanding as a basis for meaning’s existence and all signifiers as the children of a dark night, and the thought which views these signs in the bright light of morning.
This struggle unavoidably breaks the mirror of translation. In the end, it places us not before an original and a copy, but before a game of mirrors in which the original becomes a copy and the I becomes an other, while the transformations undergone by the other soon overtake the self. What is revealed is that the self is distant from itself, that it is an other in relation to itself.
This is to say that translation does not merely transform the translated text, for when it transforms it, it also transforms the translating language. In this connection a German theorist has written: “The best of our German translations take off from a mistaken premise, claiming to give a German character to Sanskrit, Greek, and English rather than to do the opposite, to give German a Sanskrit or Greek or English character. Indeed the greatest mistake to which a translator can fall victim, is to work to magnify the accidental condition in which his own language happens to find itself, rather than to submit it to the violent push that comes from a foreign language.”13
Perhaps this is what justifies the flavors of French and English that we find today in our Arabic texts, whether they are translated or not. For the translator must, according to Benjamin, “explode the decaying framework of his language.”14 On this basis, translation is not only what ensures the ongoing life of a text, or what offers it transformation, growth, and diffusion, but translation is what ensures the life of language and thought. Heidegger wrote, in the context of an introduction to a French translation of his works, “In the act of translation, a work of thought finds itself having taken on the spirit of another language. In that way it is exposed to an unavoidable transformation. But this transformation may be fruitful, for it can make the original posing of the question appear in a new kind of light.”15 Heidegger wrote this introduction in 1932, a few years before the appearance of Sartre’s first novel, and was thus anticipating the fertility and refreshment that his thought would undergo through his French translations and the new life that German philosophy would find in French thought. This confirms that the most brilliant ages of thought occur in connection to the flowering of translation movements. Translation is no sign of subservience. It is not a vanquishment of the other or a throwing of oneself onto his mercies. It is transformation, renewal, transmigration, openness, cross-pollination, profusion, and life.
Translating this text by Abdessalem Benabdelali was confirming and freeing, but also humbling. The idea that translation cross-pollinates, transforming the languages, presences, and “cultures” involved; the notion that—in Benabdelali’s words as put into my words and then carefully adjusted by Omar Berrada—translation is “renewal…openness…profusion, and life”: all of this gives strength to the call of the translator who seeks creativity in the transmigration of voices across space and difference. But then there are all the mistakes. In a text such as Benabdelali’s, which is argumentative and fairly rigorously tuned against critical post-Romantic philosophical and literary discourses, one has to try hard just to meet the demands of conveying the literal mechanics of argument. Benabdelali quotes Heidegger at the end of the piece to the effect that the translation of (philosophical) arguments renews the force of the questions raised in the original text by positing these questions in new historical and linguistic situations. But what about the very real doubts and ambiguities that arise in the mundane process of dictionary lookups, in the failure to capture tone, the slippages even in the bare denotation of the text being translated?
Just one example will show how humbling this situation/process is. In this version of the translation, you read the following sentence: “It is an affirmation of the fact that translation constitutes a continuous creation, that it cannot represent the other in itself.” Two changes in wording to this sentence resulted from revisions by Omar, which were marked in pen above and below the printed first draft: “a continuous creation” once read “a reciprocal creativity”; “other in itself” was previously “other in himself.” The first change by Omar shows vacillations in the logical ambiguity of the original language. The Arabic term ibdāʿ mutawāṣil might have meant something “reciprocal.” Words of the same pattern as the verbal adjective mutawāṣil tend to have meanings that involve several parties involved in one act. It is even called the “reciprocal” verb form in English-language grammars of Arabic. Did that affect my decision as translator, as a foreign learner of Arabic grammar, to choose this word? Is Omar correct to detect that the meaning here is rather a temporal one, closer to the English “continuous?” The second change, from “himself” to “itself” as the final word, implies the changing of a masculine gender pronoun in the original to a gender neutral pronoun, a grammatical sign that does not exist in Arabic. This change is in some sense a limited one but is anything but marginal to how and what the text means in the actual world. Both of these examples require readers with extraordinary lived sensitivity to the valence of the original discourse and of readers’ expectations to suggest the appropriate honing of such details.
These changes might seem at first to be small—but imagine the cumulative significance of such questions piling up all over the text, recurring with almost constant frequency throughout the argument. It is humbling to the translator who believes in renewal.
1 Friedrich Schlegel, “Fragments de l’Athnaeum” (fragment 229), in Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, L’Absolu litteraire (Paris: Seuil, 1978), 131.
2 Abdallah Laroui, Khawāṭir aṣ-Ṣabāḥ [Morning Meditations], Journal (1967–1973), (Casablanca and Beyrouth: Centre Culturel Arabe, 2001), 71–72.
3 Abdelfattah Kilito, Lan Tatakallama Lughati [Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language] (Beirut: Dar al-tali’a, 2002), 24.
4 Ibid., 24.
5 Laroui, 71–72.
6 Kilito, 25.
7 Jorge Luis Borges, Enquêtes 1937-1952 (Paris: Gallimard, 1957), 201–02. In particular see Borges’s review of William Beckford’s novel Vathek, an Arabian Tale (1782–85), “About William Beckford’s Vathek.”
8 Kilito, 25–26.
9 Jacques Derrida, “Des tours de Babel,” in Psyché: Inventions de l’autre (Paris: Galilée, 1998), 203–35.
10 Antoine Berman, L’epreuve de l’Etranger (Paris: Gallimard, 1995), 97.
11 Fritz Strich, Goethe und die Weltliteratur, (Bern: Franck Verlag, 1946), 36, quoted in Berman, 107.
12 Ibid., 106.
13 Walter Benjamin, “La tâche du traducteur,” in Oeuvres I (Paris: Gallimard, 2000), 258.
14 Ibid., 259.
15 Martin Heidegger, Questions I et II (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), 10.