Friday 01/23

In the Mirror of the Other

Cover Image:

Sasan Nasernia, Crimson Mirror, 2010. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the artist

In Part 2 of the series “Translation is Impossible. Let’s do it!” we present the first of two commissioned translations into English of Moroccan philosopher Abdessalam Benabdelali’s text “Fi mir’at al-akhar” [In the Mirror of the Other] from his book, Fi al-Tarjama / De la traduction [Of Translation]. This first iteration is a creative writing through Benabdelali’s Arabic text by the American translator and poet Christian Hawkey. The text is introduced by Alicia Ritson, Research Fellow at the New Museum and co-organizer of “Temporary Center for Translation.”

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.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as quoted in “In the Mirror of the Other” by Abdessalam Benabdelali, trans. Samuel Wilder

Among its activities, “Temporary Center for Translation” commissioned the translation of two texts, one of which was “In the Mirror of the Other” by Moroccan philosopher Abdessalam Benabdelali. The text is a chapter from Benabdelali’s Fi al-Tarjama / De la traduction [Of Translation] (Casablanca: Toubkal, 2006), a work dedicated to turning traditional ideas of translation on their head. “In the Mirror of the Other” is particularly concerned with breaking out of the fidelity-betrayal dichotomy that has long set the terms for thinking about translation. In considering the power relations implicit in any translation process, “In the Mirror of the Other” sets out to complicate the opposition between the original and the foreign, ultimately arguing for the evolution of both languages involved in any translation process—a sign that both the self and the other are irrevocably altered, if still irreconcilable. In this vein, Benabdelali considers how Arabic writing prefigures its future translation: whereas classical Arabic texts were written to intentionally resist translation, employing oblique or difficult language and styles, contemporary Arabic writers, by contrast, often utilize foreign languages as a means to access their desired (Arab) reader. To this end, the translation of a work into Arabic is seen as a testament to its credibility or worthiness, and some Arabic writers craft their texts to catalyze this process with the ease of translation in mind.

That said, Benabdelali himself is a prolific writer in Arabic and is quite well known by Arabic-speaking scholars, a familiarity due in part to his series of pedagogical philosophy readers Dafatir Falsafiyya-Nusus mukhtara [Philosophical Notebooks-Selected texts] (Casablanca: Toubkal, 1996–ongoing) that anthologizes seminal philosophical writings, which he has translated into Arabic for use by Moroccan students. Until now, however, Benabdelali has yet to have his own writings translated into English. The impetus for commissioning the translation of his work was to facilitate the distribution of the philosopher’s knowledge on the subject at hand—knowledge generated from what could be considered a position (geopolitically or temporally) of lesser power within the contemporary arena of global cultural distribution and knowledge production.

Perhaps this was a minor gesture: to act on the idea that providing space—a platform for voices that are more difficult for our predominantly Anglo-American readership to access—is an important project in itself. More ambitious was our desire to create a space in which to consider the other political dimensions of translation—namely, how translation is not a straightforward, finite, or neutral process and does not take place via a sole, standardized methodology. Thus, we commissioned two translations of the same Benabdelali text, both into English, but which deviate radically in their forms and intentions. Samuel Wilder’s translation, the next in the “Translation is Impossible. Let’s do it!” series, takes a more traditional, scholarly approach, attempting to transliterate Benabdelali’s text in close detail. It is through Wilder’s work that we have come to understand the movements of Benabdelali’s meditation on translation. By contrast, Christian Hawkey’s translation, featured here, is an entirely different beast: it is a literary engagement, if you will, that draws out other aspects of textuality from Benabdelali’s original essay and mobilizes them into other richly associative directions.

A poet and translator, Hawkey is known for his experimental engagements in literature, including his radical defiance of the demands imposed by different forms of writing. For example, in his earlier works, such as Ventrakl (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010), Hawkey has shown productive disregard for standard assumptions, like the belief that dialogue is only possible between individuals living in the same time period, or that translations require the writer and the translator to have at least one language in common. In the case of Ventrakl, translation took place through experimental techniques like putting Georg Trakl’s original German-language poems into the English version of Microsoft Word and having the spellcheck function attempt to translate. Another attempt involved soaking Trakl’s texts in rainwater “until,” according Hawkey, “its pages, over time, dissolved into words, pieces of words, word-stems, floating up and rearranging themselves on the surface of the jar.” Enamored with his enthusiasm for working against the grain, we invited Hawkey to work with Benabdelali’s text, knowing full well that Hawkey had no knowledge of Arabic—Modern Standard Arabic or any other Arabic language for that matter. However, we trusted that Hawkey would translate “In the Mirror of the Other” in such a way that would open up the original text in meaningful, unexpected, yet uncannily sensible ways that would reflect back on the questions at the very heart of translation itself—including how it is theorized by Benabdelali. Hawkey’s poems, then, tilt toward history. But they also strive to be present in history. His process opens up the creative translations to present politics: “abode” includes references to migrant deaths in the deserts along the US–Mexican border, “damask” circles the chemical weapons attack in Syria in the suburbs of Damascus in August of 2013. In Hawkey’s words, through this process “the mirror of the other creates a space for alliance, alliances across cultures, languages, borders.” (Be sure to scroll through to the Additional Materials section, in which Hawkey shares his reflections on our invitation and his process of engaging with Benabdelali’s text.)

Featured here are the five poems written by Hawkey as translations of—or creative writings through—“In the Mirror of the Other.” Each one is represented in textual form (click on each word-image to open the full poem) and again in audio form, recited by Hawkey himself. Both forms allow for the preservation of noise within the act of translation, elucidating instances where the background (conceptual, historical, auditory) surges to the fore, where unruly feedback from lines of text appearing and being read counter directionally ensures these translations retain their imperfect liveliness. Even as he considered how to share his new works with our Six Degrees readers, Hawkey asks further questions of how we communicate and receive knowledge through language: the extraction and subsequent proximity of these two forms of his own translations, visual and aural, compel comprehension while negotiating additional differences—this time between sensorial forms.

With graphic design by Neda Firfova


The earliest alphabets were written boustrophedonically: You started on the left or right and wrote across the stone or papyrus, and at the end of the line you “turned” and wrote in the reverse direction, with reversed or mirrored letters, turning back and forth down the “page.” Boustrophedon, from Ancient Greek: βουστροφηδόν, boustrophēdon, or “ox-turning.” It’s an agribiz thing. At some point the Greeks settled on only left to right, starting at the top of the page. Hebrew and Arabic: right to left.

When Omar Berrada, Taraneh Fazeli, and Alicia Ritson invited me to contribute to “Temporary Center for Translation” and asked if I would be willing to “translate” (knowing that I had no proficiency with Arabic languages) a short essay dealing with power relations between cultures and languages by Benabdelali, my first thoughts were: What about the power relation implicit in such an invitation? Am I being asked to inhabit, at the most basic level, a condition of ignorance in relation to the Arabic that risks mirroring the US’s past and present history of willful, violent, and ignorant geopolitical colonization? At the start, then, were a set of ethical questions. This is what most interested me about the invitation—and why I accepted it. Ethics are at the heart of any translational endeavor, radical or otherwise; one would not exist without the other.

Increasingly I write out of a sense that language, any language, is multiple, poly. Americans don’t speak and write English. They speak and write a language comprised of multiple other languages, creoles, pidgins. We think of English as primarily composed of Germanic and Latin languages, but what about Arabic, which entered—via various power matrices, de- and re-coloniziations—numerous Romance languages (and Latin itself). Do we already always speak and write Arabic? There are hundreds of Arabic words that we use. Candy. Tangerine. Mattress. Zero. These poems take as their point of departure English words of clear Arabic origin. Algebra. Garble. Spinach. Ream. Monolingualism is ideological; it obscures the facts. Sugar. Popinjay. Tuna. Gerbil.

—Christian Hawkey

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