When I learned from Josh Calvo, a writer, translator, and Princeton PhD student, that he had read S. Yizhar’s modernist masterpiece Days of Ziklag in the original Hebrew and that he had been assisting with the English translation of Volter Kilpi’s modernist masterpiece Alastalon salissa, I immediately knew I wanted to interview him. Our back-and-forth via e-mail lasted fifteen months, which roughly corresponds to the gestation period of the whale. It is no wonder then that I ended up with a whale of an interview: more than 16,000 words! Josh proved to be an exuberant, erudite and insightful correspondent, fired by a fierce passion for literature and languages. I am especially glad that, among many other things, he helped me fill in some crucial blanks regarding literature in Hebrew and Arabic, the languages which I cannot read. I am positive that you will take away a lot of useful ideas, facts, and arguments from this interview, and, considering the sheer amount of information that is about to come pouring down on you, that you will keep coming back to our conversation, taking note of things you might have missed the first time through.
The Untranslated: Why did you choose to study Hebrew and Arabic? To what extent was that choice motivated by literary factors?
Josh Calvo: I was raised in an observant community of Syrian Jews on the Jersey Shore, so I heard both Arabic and Hebrew regularly throughout my childhood. My mother’s family hails from Aleppo for centuries, and my father’s from islands off the coast of what is now Turkey. Most of the “old timers” I knew from my community spoke a dialect of Arabic which they called “Syrian,” having never been educated in any formal Arabic; what I knew of the language from childhood, then, had irrevocably changed from whatever classical antecedent it once resembled, and had now become mixed in with the English I still use for everyday communication. Hebrew was the untouchably soul-soft language of study and prayer; Arabic, Ladino, and Yiddish, the crasscant-slang of my family and community; and English the everything-else mix-it-all-together concession to our ordinary American reality. This multilingualism left a deep impression on me, and continues to fuel my writing, translation, and current PhD work.
My earliest literary ambitions were spent on the yellow legal pads that I filled, under my school desk during class, in illegible scrawl, with imaginary spy novels and fantasy rip-offs. Later, in high school, I ran a creative writing club, where I read aloud the sad poems I’d written under the influence of Radiohead and my historical fictions inspired by Wikipedia binges. All these were straightforwardly English and could feasibly have been written by any other American kid who grew up in a leafy suburb on the edge of the digital age; rarely, if ever, did I tackle my own community in writing, even though my upbringing in some ways was then and remains the most ubiquitous and inescapable influence on all aspects of my being. More than anything I wanted to leave the “old world” I felt I’d been raised in and become a “Writer” — a New York School devotee in the mold of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, trotting the streets of Manhattan with a notebook always on hand, an American writer who, like many other mythical Americans, had shed the skin of history to walk the world wholly anew. It would take time and the usual beatings of adolescence to complicate my understanding of where I’d come from and where I wanted to go.
My adolescent ambition to follow Ashbery’s sacred footsteps led me away from my home community to the utterly-other campus of Bard College, where I’d heard he taught. (As it turned out, he had not taught at the College for some years, but there was no shortage of professor-poets who took me on and worked closely with me throughout my years there, even as I moved slowly from writing verse to fiction.) By the time I started at Bard, my interest in writing and in my Middle Eastern heritage had begun to merge in the form of a late-onset obsession with modern Hebrew language and literature — this was my first step, taken late in high school, to bring something of my cultural inheritance into the sanctus sanctum of my literary dreams. I decided to add an Arabic class to my first semester schedule to see this through even further. As I continued to study Hebrew and Arabic, then, my literary interests aligned more closely with my academic focus. I learned more about the forgotten history of Jewish writers in Arabic, and the neglected counter-history of Hebrew writers of Arab Jewish extraction. I became enthralled with modernist literature and looked everywhere for echoes of Faulkner and Proust in Hebrew and Arabic bookstores. Graduate school eventually seemed the next logical option — both to follow these interests where they might lead, and to support myself while I selfishly keep reading and writing and discovering.
Indeed it did once seem to be the inevitable course, but the realization itself came slowly, and with many years’ travel, reading, and study in Israel, France, India, Morocco, and elsewhere, and as my Arabic eclipsed my Hebrew, and then my Hebrew leapt ahead of my Arabic, the one language always leapfrogging over and encircling and mixing with the other, I discovered more writers in and between the two languages, and discovered myself as a writer and would-be critic by devouring texts that I wish I’d written myself, so much so I sometimes feel that even in my best Anglo-Saxon English I am always articulating myself somewhere between Hebrew and Arabic, whether I want to or not. (And yet I write, mostly, in English; more on this below.) I like to think that at the best of times, all of my interests and commitments are cyclical: the reading and language-learning feed the writing and vice-versa. But I know that the writing is always the strongest of all these impulses, and the dream of having the stories I carry inside me written and then read in their full multilingual breadth has not left me alone from my boyhood until now.
The Untranslated: Could you tell me more about S. Yizhar’s masterpiece Days of Ziklag? I am especially curious about two things: your personal reading experience of this book and your assessment of its place within world literature.
J.C.: I’m not sure where to begin with Ziklag. The book is nothing short of a behemoth; an endless labyrinth; an intensely real and superbly minute chronicle of a decisive (if belabored) battle in a war that irrevocably changed the face of the land it was waged on; a war novel refusing at every turn of its dense hundreds of pages and 55 chapters to yield to the cheap impulses of Hollywood thrill-making and suspense; a hymn to the human need for beauty and music and a plea for belief in something beyond mere matter; a map of the human soul and its destiny, charted at a moment of dire crisis; a thick interthreading of existential interrogation and impressionistic scene-setting, with the heat of the Negev sun and the cool of the desert night coming and going and coming and going again and again and again; a defiantly anti-war and non-nationalist novel so impossibly bound up with both that it has become confused for both warmongering and nationalism by critics and readers; most amazingly of all, for me, Days of Ziklag is a regenerative feast of language (weaving together varied registers of literary Hebrew, early-State colloquial Hebrew, military terminology, Palestinian Arabic, Russian, and Yiddish) written in a “revived” language whose modern literary legs had only some decades before they begun to leave the synagogue and study hall to walk the rotting city-streets and warzones of the modern world.
Despite all this fanfare, Ziklag, like so many other novels written in the age of high modernism but at the far edges of metropolitan Europe — Volter Kilpi’s Alastalon salissa is another candidate — is now notoriously under-read and, when read, too often misunderstood. The controversial reception of Ziklag would suffice for a book-length essay; moreover, this controversy is so overwhelming that the book itself, its magic and its meaning, has too often been swept aside by ideological readings on the left and the right that are more revealing of social and political change in Hebrew and Israeli culture than the meaning of Yizhar’s novel itself. Still, a brief outline of the “Ziklag controversy” may help set the stage for understanding the novel on its own terms. Upon its release in the 50s and 60s, Yizhar’s book was seen by some as insufficiently Zionist and unfair to the heroism of the soldiers who had actually fought the real battles it depicted; others on the left cheered the book, arguing that the representation of the soldiers’ self-doubts and boredom to be true to a shared national reality, although later waves of leftist critics, among them Yitzhak Laor, an important novelist in his own right, have revised that earlier enthusiasm, and now see the book as too Zionist to swallow, and thus insensitive to the suffering of local Palestinians and adjunct to the building of the founding colonial myths of the Israeli nation-state. One crucial critical voice, the influential literary and cultural critic Barukh Kurtzweil, who had written appreciatively of Yizhar’s earlier work, lambasted the book as a horribly overblown short story whose literary core consisted of nothing more and nothing less than moral emptiness and nihilism — a criticism so loud (and so wrong!) from a voice so respected that it has been alleged, and with reason, to have been the cause of Yizhar’s three decades of literary silence. (Yizhar did not write another novel till 1992’s Mikdamot — which has been translated into English by Nicholas de Lange as Preliminaries.)
For nearly a month and a half (mid-October – early December 2017) I followed those soldiers onto the hill, then off it, then onto it, then off it, again and again. I watched some become casualties – entering the memories and monologues of the others – while others scuttled out of view for a time, only to return and dominate an entire chapter. (In some of the monologue sections, it was delightfully difficult to figure out who was narrating; and incidentally, while none of the books’ characters are female, often the only way to determine whose voice I was listening to was to follow the lustful and lovelorn descriptions of the woman back home the speaker was trying to talk to or think about). I scribbled feverish and illegible notes in the margins, navigated difficult and thorny wordings and sentences, looked up several hundreds of words I did not know before, many of which I still have not found definitions for (Yizhar invented some; others I have listed and will soon be searching after in the exhaustive six volume Even Shoshan dictionary, the OED of Modern Hebrew, one of whose most oft-referenced sources is none other than our Days of Ziklag). I tracked down the books’ many reviews from the original issue (1958) and the later revision (1989). I read nearly all the material I could find on the book in Hebrew and English, from Facebook rants by unsatisfied readers to some illuminating reflections by the editor of the later revision about the made-up words Yizhar decided to take out or the completely reworked sections no critic or reviewer seemed to have noticed in the latest round of reviews. (I’ve now begun tracking these differences, in the hope of extracting still more from the book!) I would listen to nothing other than the book’s musical references (Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and César Franck all make appearances in the monologues of Amikhai the medic). I did everything I could, while reading and while not, to feel immersed by the total world of the novel, to have some corner of my head always stuck in Ziklag the book and on Ziklag the hill. It was (to my delight) a totally-consuming reading experience.
Not the least for the internal variety and symphony of the novel itself. Stylistically, Yizhar demands that his reader move in and out of slow, atmospheric descriptive sections; fast-moving, but fast-ending battle sections; conversations among the soldiers, often debates or disputations; extended passages written in the collective (plural) and singular second tense, referring to the feelings of presumably anyone and everyone in the moment of narration; and personalized internal monologues taking the form of letters back home written in the heads of one among the soldiers, or poems, or merely self-reflections and binges of introspection, or rants and rambles about the heat and the war and the desolation of the desert, or descriptions of symphonies and concertos that have ear-wormed into the head of the speaker. The result has been described as something like attacking the impossible task of capturing the “real” from all sides: from every grammatical tense, from the tenseless nature surrounding the soldiers — Yizhar exploits every available linguistic, thematic, and literary force possible to capture the infinite richness of a single moment of human experience.
For me, though, the heart of the book, the fire that kept me joyously struggling through the desert, the secret ingredient so fatally misread by Kurtzweil, was its constant searching for human meaning, and its belief, however shaken by the horrors of war and the existential emptiness that military combat stirs in the souls of those doomed to fight it, in the magical or divine capacity of language — human language, that is, in all its color and scope — to convey or to comprehend, in fits of inspiration or in subtle searchings, or else to struggle or to battle with, or to otherwise approach, enact, and make real meaning. Language means things; real, important things humans need to say and have said; another someone, an Other, can hear. Someone is listening in the void: God, your girlfriend, maybe even the craggy mountains themselves. This seems to me the essential “message” that will help those with good faith make it to the end of the novel — it may well have been the literary motive that kept Yizhar writing for so long.
(Ziklag took him some six years, he says; scribbled all in longhand between meetings as a member of Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, or on buses to and from the capital; still, six years seems to me, all things considered, a remarkably short amount of time to complete such a monumental book! And what’s more, while he did enter a nearly-definitive literary silence in the wake of Ziklag, having said that he felt he would “die” after completing the novel, Yizhar immediately began writing a series of short stories “for young adults” – though by no means your typical YA fiction – in the aftermath of its release.)
I suspect that the failure to appreciate this essential and earnest effort driving Yizhar’s literary writing, and instead the politicking and racketeering that critics have used to distract themselves from actually reading the book for what it is and not what it “seems” to be superficially — that is, yet another novel, however unfortunately long, about Israel’s War of Independence, and the generation of young native-born Zionist pioneers who fought it — led to Yizhar’s long disillusionment and silence. (Tellingly, his next major work, written long after he left Knesset and thus his last vestige of public life, was a two-volume primer on [how to] “Read a Story,” (Likro Sipur, Am Oved, 1982) in which he argues forcefully for the ciphering off of the world beyond a literary work, and the primal meeting of author and reader in the language-world of the text). Yizhar even noted in an interview with Hilit Yeshurun, the Terry Gross of interviewers to many an important Israeli writer, that the book would’ve been about Canada had he been born and raised there and not in mandatory Palestine-cum-Israel. The belligerent founding of the State of Israel, the invading army of the Egyptians, the Nakba, the collapse of the agrarian-pioneer Zionist ideal — these feature importantly in the novel, and it might be considered rash or incomplete to remove them from our discussion entirely, as Yizhar himself may have argued, but still, there can be no doubt that they serve as background, context, the surface upon which to build his tome, rather than the determining structure which his book would, at best, mimic and reenact.
Yizhar’s is a work of art that stands beyond these contingencies, far above in the radiantly blue desert sky — an extended heart-wrenching description of which closes the novel (“and it called to you, till your insides roared out for it”). My hope is that the English translation of Days of Ziklag forthcoming by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck — who previously tackled, with much deserved success, Yizhar’s earlier and also controversial novella Hirbet Hizeh — will rightfully elevate this masterpiece onto the highest shelves of world literature. (De Lange has said as much in an interview with Words without Borders following the release of his translation of Amos Oz’s Judas.) My own concern is to have the book read alongside other enduring works of high modernism whose linguistic daring we seem to have forgotten or else completely abandoned. The sad truth is that because Yizhar’s oeuvre (with the small and politicized exception of Hirbet Hizeh) is so notoriously under–/misread among Hebrew readers — both of Ziklag’s two editions have run out of print, along with nearly all the later work, leaving behind only Hizeh, and that alone was hard enough to find in bookstores until a recent reprint — his books have not had much of the necessary inertia to emerge onto the scene of what we consider the body of essential “world” literature, and world modernist fiction in particular. I mentioned Volter Kilpi earlier because I see his and Yizhar’s modernist masterpieces as fascinatingly complementary: both suffer from relative neglect in their home countries, both written on the outskirts of Europe but clearly under its influence, both await their second lives in translation. From a writer-literary perspective, too, both texts are fountains of inspiration; Yizhar’s relatively late addition to what I would call the world modernist canon raises the hope for that revolution in literature to be continued across languages, even in our day. From an academic-critical perspective, I’m hoping to use my dissertation to make some of the necessary literary connections between works like Kilpi’s and Yizhar’s — even where historical connections between their respective works might seem wanting or, on the surface at least, non-existent. I would hope to weave the thread of what we think of as high modernism wider in time and space, beyond Dublin and Paris, to include the forgotten island of Kustavi and the wastelands of the upper Negev — and these among other varied landscapes brought to life by the worldwide revolution of Modernism, which should straddle if not erase our illusions of East and West, whether we acknowledge it with our translations or not.
The Untranslated: Most probably you are familiar with Gil Z. Hochberg’s book of literary criticism In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination. In the November 2009 issue of AJS Review there appeared a critical appraisal of this work by Nancy E. Berg, whose reference to one of the novels analyzed in Hochberg’s book immediately caught my attention. This is what she writes about the Moroccan-born Albert Suissa’s challenging novel Aqud: “Its macaronic multilingualism – including lexical items from Hebrew strata ranging from the rabbinic to the street, the biblical and the mystical, combined with Judeo-Berber and phrases from the Jewish Moroccan Arabic dialect – was criticized rather than celebrated as a ‘new and “foreign” kind of Hebrew text or as a further development in the actualization of modern Hebrew.’ ” Since you are currently translating this novel into English, I would like to know two things. Firstly, does it live up to the hype – for based on the above description it sounds like a Middle-Eastern Finnegans Wake? And secondly, how do you go about rendering its linguistic eccentricities in English?
J.C.: I’ll start by saying that I would want to respectfully qualify Nancy Berg’s characterization of Aqud within the context of the development of what we now call Israeli literature. The book is indeed “macaronically” multilingual; so much so that its critical reception has focused more heavily on the language and style than the book’s content, which is equally and richly weird, wacky, and wonderful. That said, I don’t think it is quite right to see Albert Swissa’s multilingualism as strictly “a further development in the actualization of modern Hebrew.” If anything, what Swissa is doing is recapturing and reclaiming a multilingualism so endemic to much of world Jewry before the Holocaust/establishment of Israel, and so foreign to the monolingual-nationalist demand that “Hebrew(s), speak Hebrew!” (ivri, daberivrit!). Swissa was himself born in Casablanca and raised in the Jerusalem slums in which his novel is set: it would be natural, among Moroccan immigrant communities of that time, to hear a mix of low-register, immigrant modern Hebrew with layers of rhetorically “higher” Rabbinic, kabbalistic, ritual, Biblical Hebrew — not to mention French, Berber, and of course Arabic, dialectical and classical. This is *not* to say that Swissa’s language is unmediated or mimetic, only to clarify that his multilingualism is as much a tribute to an enduring Moroccan Jewish cultural reality – in a recognizably modernist and novelistic form, to be sure – as it is his own unique contribution to the opening up of modern Hebrew’s literary horizons. It is truly remarkable to read a novel that is so richly multilingual in the form of the narrative as well as its content, being a multilingually told story of a historically multilingual community thrust into an aggressively monolingual Hebrew-speaking nation-state.
Modern Hebrew literature and culture has never been truly monolingual, anyway — though not for lack of trying by ideologies and nationalists of varied stripes. Even our friend S. Yizhar, born to a pioneering (halutz) family of Hebrew writers from Russia — his father was said to have arrived in Palestine “with the Bible in one hand and Tolstoy in the other” — depended on the vitality of colloquial Arabics, Yiddish, Russian and emerging Israeli slang (itself often a dictionary of repressed multilingualism) to enrich his monolingual Hebrew masterwork. Generationally Yizhar is one of the last (Ashkenazi) writers of modern Hebrew in a long tradition of different strategies for writing fresh and modern literature in a language once exclusively textual or liturgical; models were originally drawn from Yiddish, Russian, Arabic, and other languages that were spoken and written alongside Hebrew in the diaspora (not to mention the decisive shift in modern Hebrew literature from a stiff Biblical idiom to one more in keeping with Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic — which was still in use in religious and legal texts and had been developing quietly among Jewish communities, without being used for spoken communication, for centuries). This was as much about the necessity of developing a living literary language by borrowing from neighboring colloquialisms as it was about the very essence of Jewish literary culture across the world: from the moment we begin to meaningfully speak of something called “Jewish” culture, we are attending in some way to the mixing and intermingling of cultural and linguistic elements both uniquely Jewish and Other.
I would also qualify the Finnegans Wake comparison, though not by forfeiting the idea of that sort of comparison altogether. Such formulae [“the James Joyce of X”] often come under fire by academics for any number of reasons, many of them reasonable, most of them political if not especially literary, but I do think comparing in this way can be useful at least as a start; by identifying the James Joyce of x language, we may begin to make the sort of aesthetic and literary links that should, in my view, be the basis of what we call “modernist literature” across time and space, where modernism is understood as a literary and not a historical-historicist term. In this case I would say that Aqud more closely matches the wonder world of Joyce’s Ulysses – and especially the famous (or infamous) Oxen of the Sun chapter, where Joyce’s language dances through the many substrata of English much the way that Swissa’s does through Hebrew and Moroccan Arabic throughout his novel. The links between Joyce and Swissa are endless and fruitful: on the level of language and form, both are deeply committed to dedicating the extreme highest and lowest registers of their languages for literary use, both are unafraid of and indeed embrace the multilingual origins of their own languages and literary traditions, both are comfortable swimming in the stream-of-consciousness; further still, on the level of content: both write about thorny political-historical realities without prescribing didactic solutions, both write from a necessary and cultivated distance but display essential closeness to the national, religious, and cultural communities in which they were raised, both have more than just one good laugh at the expense of nationalist myths, both are, in different ways, exiles. Differences are worth acknowledging, too, and I could certainly ramble on about them, but it seems to me that too much is said in the academy in honor of difference and too easily. It is far more difficult to make the case for more-than-superficial links and affinities between Joyce and other modernists in other languages and later decades than it is to rule out the connection entirely, and to trust thereby that our best understandings of “Literature” and “literatures” are mimicked by the naming and organization of university departments along national lines.
A word here about Aqud (The Bound) itself. The novel follows the interconnected boyhoods of three Moroccan Jews — first generation Israelis — growing up in the “concrete slum” of Ir-ganim (“city of gardens”) in 1970s Jerusalem. (Ir-ganim is a real neighborhood, by the way, integrated now into the long-expanding capital, but born of the sort of shoddy, overnight mass construction built to house the mass influx of Jewish immigrants that arrived in Israel from the 50s onward.) Structurally the book is divided into three parts, each focusing on the adventures and inner worlds of one young male protagonist: the first section, titled (like the novel itself) The Bound, follows the uncontrollable Yohai, who is sent to an all-Ashkenazi religious boarding school in Bnei Brak after forcing a neighborhood boy to drink his urine; A Blessed Orphanhood, the second section, explores the failed relationship between tough-boy bully Beber (born in Israel) and his father Mr. Sultan (born in Morocco); the last section, A Futile Attempt to Hold Onto a Fading Memory, focuses on twelve-year old Ayush, who flees from the impending moral and social responsibility of his coming bar-mitzvah (and its erasing of “childhood” and bestowing of “manhood”). Ayush’s section is by far the longest (190 pages out of 270) and most bewildering of the three, delving deep into its protagonist’s surreal and boyish imagination, and blurring the boundaries of fantastic and realist representational modes. We watch Ayush as he adventures in the magical front yard of neighborhood madman and holocaust survivor Gersha, imagines himself as an American cowboy raping (yes, it is that graphic) his schoolteacher, unwittingly experiences an all-boy sex orgy, and imaginatively transforms the sex of his younger sister’s dolls from female to male. These plot points are constructed from Ayush’s streaming consciousness and surrealist philosophical explorations, as well the ramblings of Gersha, and the lessons of the talking “Little Man” (once his sister’s female doll, now a kind of rabbi-teacher incarnate). What ostensibly holds the novel’s three parts together is the titular theme of The Bound, of the Biblical binding of Isaac (aqedah) especially — the novel’s first paragraphs feature an inquisitive Yohai wondering “what Isaac thought of on the day of his Binding?” But unlike earlier modern Hebrew literature, which recast the story of the aqedah as an origin story of Zionist sacrifice, the meaning of “binding” here is various, internally-contradicting, and anything but nationalist.
Another unique feature that links these characters topographically, in addition to the book’s stylistic and thematic unity, are the repeating refrains describing the concrete colony (moshavat ha-beton) of Ir-ganim and its environs. If you’ll forgive me the long quote — this is from the second section’s opening sentence — I think it in its own way serves as a sort of summary of the themes and images that reoccur throughout the book:
Before then, there were these blissful rolling hills and fields of sewage trickling freely down the black ravines, between enormous tractor tires and artichoke thistles and za’arour bushes with ripe berries, and many other kinds of trees still unnamed, and the spring and autumn flowers still remained, along with the wild Arabs and their wild animals and their wild black sons riding donkeys and stealing almonds and figs, else dragging around the remains of old cars and rolling their wheels down the slope of the wadi. Until the day when the wheel of what they call “fortune” in this country turned on them, and it seemed to Mr. Sultan that they’d been told — with unbearable viciousness and frantic national pride, and in a tone that one university professor, half-Moroccan and half-Ashkenazi, but very radical, would call “Bolshevik” — they’d been told that “here we’ll build palaces for you paupers” and not “we came to this land to build and to be built up,” sung out sweetly and innocently to the depths of the old virgin valleys.… and then they dug through and scooped out the hills, and filled them with the steel foundations for rows and rows of bomb shelters, and above these (day and night a strange wind whistled through the dirt-black empty holes as if conducted by the silent rusted machinery) the high cranes raised the doors, windows, hallways, and endless staircases; and so rose the colossal tenements, painted the pale yellow of beer, towering towards the edges of heaven; then the buildings were peopled with women, children, and the elderly, with immigrant mobs resettled in almost a single day alone, each family according to the redemption of its exile: the Persians and the Tunisians and the Algerians and the Iraqis and the Cochinis, and even some Ashkenazi families that called their neighbors “our brothers” — even if they were forced to suffer life alongside those Orientals — of course with such tolerance and eagerness so as to nauseate themselves and without convincing anyone entirely; all these lived under the harsh intensity of a sun that covered itself in a faint Biblical blue, that claimed back the bright colors of the wildflowers and desert-poppies, that now and again burned its white fever into the sky cast over the rows of overflowing tenements.
You may already see the beginnings of what might be my argument for how Swissa can be successfully Englished. It would doubtless be foolish to attempt do so without having read the other modernists whom he has cited as the three main inspirations for his fiction — Proust, Woolf, Faulkner — but equally foolish to think that translating Swissa into English means cheaply imitating his English forebears. Aqud is not only a self-referential feast of language and style; nor is it strictly a story of Moroccan immigrants and the failure of mainstream Israeli society to integrate them; one could easily lose one’s mind (along with the novel’s content) in attempting to somehow replicate in the target language the original effect of the language in Hebrew; one could similarly lose sight of the essence of the novel if one translates merely at the surface of the story, since, as it turns out, there isn’t much of a story to translate. Translating Swissa’s novel of course necessitates deeply attending to the stylistic and literary affinities he shares with other modernists, as it does knowing the historic context inside and out. But more important than either of these, for me at least, is the *essentially literary* demand that the translator make the text work as beautifully in English as it does in the original — and this might mean occasionally sticking strictly to the style and idiosyncrasy of the Hebrew, and occasionally doing the opposite, taking whatever literary license seems necessary in context. Ultimately this means that I cannot advocate for any all-encompassing “approach” or “theory” for my translation beyond what I (subjectively, I admit) deem to be its literary merits in Hebrew and my own ability (or lack thereof) to create similar literary merit from English. (I will also admit to being suspicious of such theories in any case, and I know I would be unable to commit to any of them from sentence to sentence.) I am reminded of what Swissa himself told me when I started working on the translation: “make your own Aqud,” he said, which I thought and still think is exactly right. I am sure a celebrated scholar of Hebrew literature or Moroccan Jewry would do as well if not a better job than myself in capturing either the novel’s content or charting its influences in Hebrew and elsewhere; what I hope I am bringing to the text is an essentially literary sensibility that does not ignore content or style but sees the act of translating as something other than transferring either of those from one language to another, that sees translating as writing, as making one’s own Aqud out of a tenuous synthesis between the demands of English and of the original. It is a dangerous approach, to be sure, but one that succeeds brilliantly when it manages to succeed: the perfectly accurate and academic translations of yore may have been forgotten except among scholars, but Pope’s Homer remains a delightfully English read many centuries later.
(The trouble, of course, is finding someone with enough interest in your translation to actually take the time to determine whether you are in the Sky Lounge with Pope or whether you are flying coach, so to speak. In the English-language publishing world, and for someone like me with little to no contact with those mysterious beings called agents and publishers who hide, I am told, in the heaven-high skyscrapers of Manhattan, this challenge can often seem formidable. But my hope is to do the work, to be upfront with the involvement therein of my own idiosyncrasies and passions, and to keep trying to make forays.)
This non-approach approach is what I like most about translating: I am most drawn to translate books I wish I’d written myself, and when I myself write I could hardly say I do so with anything resembling a systematic or theoretical program for how images and feelings and experiences are expressed from sentence to sentence. But the real joy for me in translation lies in the sad fact that I am, after all, only me: “multiple” and various though my inner world might be if I attempt, like Whitman, to explore and “sing” it, I am ever and always the same Josh who was born and raised in mind-numbing New Jersey, and who has at hand, whenever the urge to write occurs in him, only his own dense cluster of experience and heritage and researched knowledge. Translating allows me to write as Albert Swissa, but also as that same Josh, without there being any need for total metaphysical union or complete separation, and so it is a wonderfully empathetic and ecstatically creative process. It is also far easier and more comforting than original work, which one must always begin in the terrifying mode of ex nihilo. By contrast, translating is always ex original — or whatever the Latin would be. Octavio Paz has a lovely essay where he describes translation as a form of writing (yes, a form of writing all its own!) that begins in the concrete world of the original-language text and then moves to the subjective inchoate world of the translator, only to reappear once again transformed into the tangible world of the translated text. Whereas original writing begins in that same subjective tohubohu and moves toward the articulate and articulated, translation has always its starting point in the richness of a concrete original. It is a great comfort to be able to hang for dear life onto that unchanging original when one’s own impulse to write seems so precarious and unyielding. It is also a kind of vital exercise for future writing of any kind, and I often turn to translating when I find the creative well for my own work has run momentarily (I hope) dry.
The Untranslated: Which works of Hebrew and Arabic literature remain, in your opinion, unjustly untranslated?
J.C.: Oh boy: this is an exciting one.
Unlike Arabic, nominally “successful” (the terms of which I will illuminate in a moment) Israeli literature often makes it into English, and there exists a lovely cadre of Israeli Americans (and others) in the Englishing business: I am thinking now of Vivian Eden and Jessica Cohen, a translator of David Grossman’s recent works, for which they both recently shared the Man Booker, though there is also the British Nicolas de Lange (whose co-translation of Khirbet Khizeh introduced me to Yizhar, and whose translations of Amos Oz were the first books of modern Israeli literature I ever read). There is of course the bias for (Ashkenazi) authors whose work sits comfortably on a liberal Zionist spectrum — Oz, Grossman, Yehoshua and the beloved Etgar Keret have all been translated extensively and lumped, at least in English, into the same ideological ticket; yet Zionists they may all be, or declare themselves to be, but of different stripes indeed. (Yehoshua, for example, is known for ridiculing American Jews for their allegedly cozy diasporic lives, though for some reason they continue to gobble up his novels in English; Grossman, on the other hand, may seem soft-spoken, but his is some of the most bitingly incisive and condemning Israeli writing on the cruelties of the conflict that manages honestly to “speak truth to power,” as it were, without slipping into the language of ideology.)
The fact is that Hebrew literature has for a long time been organized both in Israel and in translation around a rather rigid model of center — comfortably Zionist and comfortingly liberal, usually Ashkenazi and with some relation to the State’s founding families and institutions — and periphery — ethnic, multilingual, female, Arab, ex-Soviet, Ethiopian, Mizrahi, working class, religious, Hassidic, exilic, etc.. That there have been more and more translations from the latter category has not yet broken the resilience of this model in the minds of critics and readers alike; in English, at least, we have a beautiful translation of Anton Shammas’ Arabesques, one of the first Hebrew novels written entirely by and about Arab Christians, but it is not the sort of thing one expects to see in (non-used) bookstores — instead, one might cynically say that it exists solely to serve the just needs of academics in search of syllabus diversity, and the occasional, usually Jewish reader who wants to compliment his or her reading from the major Israeli names mentioned above with a variation (ethnic, religious, etc.) on their themes. In other words, while the center/periphery model continues to dominate, it is after all merely a cultural reflection of a much larger and more insidious political reality in Israel and the US, and in spite of its dominance readers of Hebrew literature in translation are at least lucky enough to be able to find so-called “peripheral” names like Ronit Matalon, Shimon Ballas, and Orly Castel-Bloom in fiction, and Erez Biton and Ronny Someckin poetry (among many others still). Many of these, sadly, are only available in print-on-demand editions, whereas one could reasonably expect to find representatives of the would-be Hebrew “center” in one’s neighborhood Barnes & Noble. (But again, better they exist than not.)
The center/periphery model has another important edge, which is neither ideological nor identitarian: this is the simple bias for what sort of stories we consider “Israeli,” as much in translation as in the original. Fiction about war and the conflict will always and forever edge out novels that just happen to be in Hebrew and are about anything and everything else. One could debate endlessly whether all post-48 Hebrew writing is in some way touched by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the recent success — and translation — of Ruby Namdar’s decidedly non-Israeli Hebrew novel The Ruined House, set in Manhattan (where its author lives) and having more in common with the Anglo-Jewish literary tradition of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, would serve as a fitting challenge to the notion that Hebrew is forever bound with a specific territorial reality and the ongoing war and occupation in that territory. But one must also remember that Namdar is a lucky exception, and his winning of the Sapir Prize in Israel (an equivalent to the Pulitzer) sparked so much outrage that the Prize, so they have ruled, will no longer be awarded to novels written by Israelis abroad — that is, by those who have “descended” (yerida) rather than “ascended” (aliya) from their national homeland.
This brings me to back to the initial question: what Hebrew books are unjustly untranslated? So much more of the above, of course: Anton Shammas’ verse could see light in English, some of the new fiction by Ethiopian immigrants would do well, and my bias for Albert Swissa’s The Bound is eternal and more urgent than any other book I can think of. (Forgive the necessary and ever recurrent blurb, but: there was nothing in Hebrew like this novel at its release, and has been nothing since: it is sui generis brilliance by any reasonable standard, and especially by the standards of this blog.) So yes: we need more Mizrahi literature, more religious literature (that is, written by religious writers), more non-Ashkenazi women — more of anything that rattles the certitude of the reductive model I discussed above. This said and done, another real lacuna I am reminded of when rambling about Hebrew’s territorial link, unbreakable or otherwise, with the land of Israel-Palestine, is the pre-State Hebrew literature of Europe and to a lesser degree the Middle East. In keeping with the relative success of Hebrew works in English, much of this body of literature has also been translated, some of it terribly (forgive me the crude adjective, but really: some of this stuff is unreadable, and not in the good way) and likely out of an academic necessity, with no real expectation of commercial readership. Some of this literature is wanting in the way of non-historic merit, and so it makes some sense that the majority remain untranslated, and that those who are translated are done so in a way that betrays no intention of being used outside of a classroom. But other exemplars from this period, some of whom have been already translated in the mode just mentioned, very much deserve re-translation and re-release, and for so many reasons. Here I am thinking of Uri Nissan Gnessin (1879-1913), who more or less invented a form of writing (we now call it “stream-of-consciousness”) in a “dead” language some years before his coreligionist Marcel Proust would do some of the same in a very alive language. Gnessin’s novellas are brilliant in all the ways we want literature to be, and unlike some of the other big names in pre-State literature, would in the right hands translate unstiffly if not beautifully: turn to the many well-rendered versions of Mr. Aforementioned Proust for an example (and for another example closer to Gnessin’s home: the symbolist-modernist novels of Andrey Bely or, earlier, Dostoyevsky). Beyond the case of Gnessin, someone may discover the clue to Englishing Hebrew’s only Nobel Laureate, S. Y. Agnon, whose life and literature straddle the pre-State European Jewish world and the new Israeli reality. The trouble with Agnon is not that his work is so wildly inventive and modernist but that it derives so much of its vitality — and indeed much of what makes some of his short folk tales “Literature” with a capital L — from specific intertextual links across the long tradition of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish religious literature. I admire what I have read of Barbara Harshav’s English translation Only Yesterday (I have no idea how this became the title of Tmol Shilshom, which literally translates as “the day before yesterday,” with no quasi-elegiac “only” to be found… then again, that is exactly my point, since the title in Hebrew has a very specifically Biblical echo to it that I imagine the translator felt unable to bring literally into the English). But even this book is driven (in translation) largely by content — it does tell a lovely and bit strange tale — and the specific joy of Agnon’s language is all but lost, even when the English itself reads well. Perhaps Agnon is among those few untranslatables, if any truly exist, but I suspect his work is just waiting for the right reader/translation to come along. Gnessin, though, is an easier problem to solve: Gnessin can and should be re-translated, restored to the world modernist shelf on which he so justly belongs. A selection from the short fictions of Dvora Baron (roughly contemporary with U. N. G., though she outlived him by several decades) was so recently and so successfully translated by two brilliant academics/translators, Naomi Seidman and Chana Kronfeld, and published in a beautifully designed University of California Press paperback — shouldn’t Gnessin receive similar treatment, with the expectation being that if you built it well enough, non-academic readers, those on the hunt for good fiction in translation, will come?
All these biases of mine having been laid bare, I heretofore declare that we most of all need more Hebrew literature as Literature — breaking boundaries being a lovely fringe benefit, but Swissa and Gnessin (and others!) deserve to be brought to English because they are timeless and brilliant and mind-expanding, and not only because they challenge bad politics or literary preconceptions. Gnessin was sickly and remained in his hometown whereas his contemporaries sought success in bigger cities like London, Berlin, or elsewhere, not to mention that he was decidedly not a Zionist, and a whopping zero amount of his stories are set in/about Palestine; and Swissa, of course, definitively checks the ethnic mark in his heavily Mizrahi and Moroccan novel. But both of these writers’ works are so much more than whatever superficial controversy these aspects of their lives and writing may stir.
On to Arabic, where the literary-translation situation is both similar and importantly different.
First and foremost, I implore any of those dedicated literary laborers in English publishing (US, UK, et al) who may be reading these words to burn a name deep into their hearts and brains, and that name is Salim Barakat. Salim Barakat is, in my not so humble opinion, the beginning and end of what must urgently and immediately see translation to English from Arabic. Not the least because he, too, expands our understanding of what Arabic literature is and can be (ethnically, he is Kurdish, and often his subjects are the ordinary Kurds of the Syrian Jazira-region; at the level of linguistic style, too, his is not the reigning mode of engágement/iltizām literature once so widespread in Nasserist Egypt and the Baathist Syrian State he was born into and came of age in) – but because his books, all nearly-fifty of them, cover the widest imaginative terrain of any living writer I know of, in any language. Let’s take a rough timeline of his fiction alone as indicative of the continual overflowing of his literary brilliance. Barakat has written (in two parts) what amounts to one of the most beautiful and poetic memoirs of boyhood and adolescence in any language (Two Autobiographies: The Iron Grasshoper; Play the Horn, Play it to its Limit!; 1980 — 1982); as well as several incredible and incredibly under-read darkly magical realist novels set among rural Kurds (Sages of Darkness, 1985; The Feathers, 1990; The Camps of Infinity, 1993); an epic trilogy in the same style and mode (The Astrologers of the Tuesday of Death, 1: The Crossing of the Flamingo,1994, 2: The Cosmos, 1996, 3: The Liver of Milaeus, 1997); a thrilling novel of the Lebanese Civil War (Geometric Spirits, 1987); three separate novels so wonderfully difficult he calls them his “cathedrals” (Debris of the Second Eternity, 1999; Seals and Nebula, 2001; Delshad: Leagues of Abandoned Eternity, 2003); two novels set in fictional fantasy worlds with centaur-like cryptozoological creatures of his own invention (Caves of the Hydrahodahose, 2004, Crushed Hoofs in Hydrahodahose, 2010); novels of djinn, mermaids, and “dead beginners” that are too many to name and too various to categorize; a novel of black-humor and crude conversation among Kurdish refugees in Stockholm (The Rampage of the Geese, 2010); a two-volume historical fiction about Kurds and the Crusades (The Skies are Empty over Jerusalem, I and II: 2011-12); a long novel split between Sweden and Kurdish Iraq, amidst the violence against Yezidi Kurds (Slaves of Sinjar, 2016); and a recent, enormous once more, historical tale set in the court of the Palmyran Queen Zenobia (The Roaring of the Shadows in Zenobia’s Gardens, 2017). These are not even the full borders of this writer’s literary ability and imagination: there are still two books of nonfictional reflections and essays, some 20 volumes of verse on any and every topic imaginable, but especially Kurdish legend, landscape, flora and fauna (a recent collection from 2016 entitled Syria won a recent award in France for its French translation) and three children’s books that even he has lost his copies of.
With Salim’s blessing, I am currently beginning to translate his fictional works, and I hope to do as much as I can, moving from The Autobiographies and Sages of Darkness onward. But I (and, more importantly, Salim Barakat himself) need the backing of a publisher to finally bring his work to English readers. Knowing that some of his novels and poetry are already available in German, French, Spanish, Swedish, Catalan, Turkish, Kurdish, and Hebrew, it is nothing short of a total shame that we in the Anglosphere look in vain for a full volume of Salim Barakat in English.
Beyond Barakat, a word about the situation of Arabic translation generally. Like Hebrew, there exists in the English-reading world a bias toward Arabic novels that reinforce our stereotypes of what Arabic literature is (or should be) — and I am not even talking about Naguib Mahfouz, whose works are extensively available thanks to his Nobel win. (Allow me a brief interruption in order to return to the topic I have only just now left behind to address the esteemed Nobel committee. If any of you luminaries are reading this, though doubtless you are not: it is this curious Mr. Barakat who lives in your backyard, in the foresty Skogås suburb of Stockholm, who deserves the next Arabic Nobel, not the oft-mentioned Adonis/Adunis, who himself once said that “this Kurd contains the key to the entirety of the Arabic language in his pants’ pocket.”) So, not only Mahfouz, or more than Mahfouz: I am talking about our bias toward translating and consuming Arabic novels that seem cued directly to subjects on syllabi in Middle Eastern Studies college classes — of which I was once a serial attendee, by the way, having jointly majored in Written Arts (a fancy coinage for creative writing) and Middle Eastern Studies. We thus have texts on women in the Arab-Islamic world, on the Lebanese Civil War, on oil and the Gulf countries, on colonial resistance, and of course, the forever favorite, unendingly interesting, widely translated and disseminated texts of Israel-Palestine. I am certainly not saying that there is anything wrong with a text being ostensibly “about” or touching on that conflict or on any of these and other important sociopolitical issues; they’re important, we should talk about them, I myself have learned much about these various topics in the modern history of the Middle East from basically-readable if unmemorable novels; but I am arguing here and will forever argue that enduring Literature is not “about” anything in the superficial sense, and certainly not “about” any social issue or historical moment as to be itself the representation of that moment/issue or its critique. So, when our understanding of the worth of literary texts is limited in this socio-historical way, when we conceive of novels and poems as being merely fanciful mirrors of historical and social contexts, we should not be surprised that what is newly translated will fit too narrowly into these syllabi-tailored categories — that is, we should expect Arabic literature and not Arabic Literature. Take Ghassan Kanafani, a poster child of the Palestinian “engaged” (iltizam in Arabic, as mentioned above) fiction who was himself a PLO member (before the organization dropped its weapons, that is; one is not left with any doubt, reading his often didactic fiction, that Kanafani would’ve strongly opposed the move). Even if his work were independently complex and irreducible to its didactic political claims made about the conflict, it would not matter much, given the way he is so often read —indeed the main purpose for his being read and translated into English — as a proxy for discussion about the conflict. In my view anyway, Kanafani’s work can only be accorded so much merit as Literature, which is why it makes perfect reading as “literature of Palestine,” or literature of colonial struggle: its language is superficial and simple enough to translate and thus to assign to the student masses, and it stimulates important conversations about the conflict in history and to this day. But no casual reader of world literature (an endangered species in English, maybe, if this blog is any indication, but not yet an extinct one!) who reads as much for content as for aesthetic reasons would bother with it, and why should they? To speak plainly, and polemically, much of Kanafani’s fictions, though enormously influential, or so may seem, is no more interesting than its capacity to probe the biases of your average college student on things Israel-Palestine.
Unfortunately, this industry of translation-as-political-proxy plagues Palestinian literature especially, although its side-effect and fringe-benefit is that much of the most brilliant Palestinian writing *is translated*, but only under the burden of being a statement about the conflict. (Take Mahmoud Darwish’s later work, for example: famously individuated, thorny, lyrical, beautiful, certainly political, but also available widely in translation, which is not something that can be said of very many poets of Arabic who share all of the above attributes with Darwish — not to mention that he was well aware of this trend; as one of his later texts begins, “the critics kill me sometimes,” by which he meant literary critics and criticism, for whose academic activism translations of “conflict lit” are most useful). More ironically, even in mainstream Palestinian literature in translation, the would-be complexities at the level of language and content — those subtle elements that would make a novel a novel more than a statement about the conflict — are often mis-translated, to little notice, because no one who is reading these texts is looking for them. (They are looking, instead, for books that cue in well with the discussion they may wish to have in class, say, about literature as “resistance” and so on). One example: in a wonderful and linguistically-multilayered text (though you wouldn’t know it from the English) like Emil Habibi’s tragicomedy The Pessoptimist, the frequent punning on Hebrew and Arabic is equally frequently missed by the English translator, who cannot be faulted for knowing only the latter of the two languages except in so far as they, and their uneasy intermixing, serve as one of the novel’s core themes. (Anton Shammas brilliantly translated Habibi’s text into Hebrew, by the way, and for the famous title Arabic neologism, built of the words for “optimist” and pessimist”, he invented the Hebrew “Opeeimist,” or “Opsimist,” which to my ear is far kinder than the grating pause in the conjunction of “Pesso-optimist”). Jokes on a bilingual basis appear throughout the novel, including the famous confusion of “medina,” which in Hebrew means “state” (as in, State of Israel) and in Arabic means “city,” leading the foppish protagonist Sai’d to imagine that his beloved hometown of Haifa has been renamed “Israel” when, upon returning to the city from exile, he is told “welcome to Medinat Yisra’el” (i.e., to the State of Israel, not to the city of Israel). But for those who read this novel merely as a segue into a seminar conversation about the conflict, these jokes don’t matter — or rather, they are easily missed as trees for the superficial forest, so to speak, and the distinctions between Kanafani’s activism in exile and Habibi, who “remained” (as his tombstone says) in what became Israel, served in Knesset and accepted, to the chagrin of many an Arab commentator, the state-sponsored Israel Prize for Arabic Literature, are all but lost.
(For a thorough analysis of these mistranslations in Habibi and elsewhere that is both scholarly necessary and actually readable, I recommend Lital Levy’s Poetic Trespass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel-Palestine. Full disclosure, LL is my PhD advisor at Princeton, but I read her book before applying and as far as modern lit-critic books go, the book has deserved every award it has received.)
The long and the short of what I am trying to convey here (and it is similar to what I had to say above in the case of Hebrew) is that we are sorely in need of Arabic fiction and poetry that relieves us of our narrow and superficial literary-political categories — first by complicating them, but ultimately by leaving them behind altogether, leapfrogging from the realm of “literature *about* X social issue” to the more enduring canon of world Literature, which is itself not removed from its first noun, but is not determined exclusively by it. Put differently, “always historicize!” — or so commands eminent Marxist critic Frederic Jameson in his extremely influential treatise on The Political Unconscious (1981), whereas I am saying, with the full knowledge of immense hubris involved, Jameson being tenured academic royalty and myself not even having finished my doctoral degree, “meh.” My personal maxim would be a bit different: historicize sometimes, because history is important and a real subject matter for all forms of art, but where we must historicize, we must never do so in a way that prevents the reading of Literature as Literature — both for our students’ sake and our own.
To that end, I present some important but subjectively-selected names from Arabic literature in need of translating, with a bias for fiction of an experimental nature, arranged roughly Eastward by country, and excluding those countries for which I, with much regret and eagerness to learn more, have no recommendations for the moment:
Morocco: more of Muhammad Barrada’s fiction and nonfiction (The Game of Forgetting is in English, if hard to find outside Amazon, but very satisfying).
Egypt: relative newcomers Ahmed ‘Abd al-Latif and Na’il el-Toukhy (whose first novel, Women of Karantina, is available in a lovely English translation), Fathi Ghanem, the bilingual Yusuf Rakha, Mustafa Zikri, Tariq Imam, Muhammad al-Makhzangi’s short story collections of rural Egypt, Sabri Musa’s The Corruption of Places sorely deserves translating. Gamal al-Ghitani’s Book of Revelations, whose French translation has been written about before on this blog, should be re-translated in full, and certainly not excerpted without clarifying as such (this happens all too often in Arabic translations).
Israel-Palestine: Contemporary Ala Hlehel, who lives in Akko/Akka, and re the discussion above, we are desperately in need of more of Emil Habibi’s work to be well translated and made widely available. There are a number of important Palestinians writing in Hebrew and awaiting translation, too, but that’s another list.
Lebanon: Rabee Jaber’s trilogy Beirut: City of the World and Druze Belgrade (and many other novels besides); Yusif Habchi el-Achqar’s trilogy of the Civil War (set not in the city but in a rural village, has been compared misleadingly to Proust, hard to find even in Arabic, but one short story of his appears in an old issue of McSweeny’s); more of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq should be translated, though Humphrey Davies handled Leg over Leg excellently, and I humbly invite him to turn his talents now to The Secrets of Night, on Metathesis and Substitution in Arabic Words, a tale of insomnia and deep dictionary diving.
Syria: Maha Hassan (another Syrian Kurd with many novels to her name; my favorite of those I’ve read is The Storytellers — the title word is female in the Arabic, by the way, so should be The Female Storytellers, and while that’s too awkward-sounding I don’t have a solution at the moment); Rosa Yaseen Hasan’s recent long novel Those Touched by Magic; Taysir Khalaf, whose The Slaughter of the Philosophers was longlisted for last year’s IPAF; more microfiction from Zakariyya Tamir; the historical Syrian epic The Plague by Hani al-Rahib; and finally the Druze writer Mamdouh Azzam, a lover of strange metaphors whose equally epic The Castle of Rain ought to find translation someday.
Iraq: Gha’ib Tu’ama Farman’s novels, and everything by Samir Naqqash (who constitutes, by the way, another obsession of mine, and after Barakat has my translator’s eye; his longest Ulysses-like multivocal tome of colloquial Iraqi dialects entitled Nuzuh wa-Khayt ash-Shaytan (Tenants and Cobwebs) will be published in late 2018.)
The Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE): ‘Ali Muqri from Yemen (one novel, The Handsome Jew, has been on my to-read list for a long while), Omani Husayn al-Ibri, who says he doesn’t read Arabic literature (but knows how to write a decent novel in the language nonetheless). Yes, I am terrible and lumped all these countries into one big hulk of a peninsula but I must, and will, find more names in my continued Mid-East travels to come.
There are likely several more names from the Gulf, North Africa, and Iraq that I have in my library but since I am not with it, writing these words from Stockholm, I of course am forgetting them. The honest truth, though, is that I know far too little of Arabic literature — indeed we all do, and what we do know (in English) is not necessary the best or most enduring. The simple truth, both encouraging and daunting, is that modern Arabic literature is an enormous ocean, with some of its nautical regions mostly uncharted or at least to some degree isolated from or unknown by others.
On that note, then, and unrelated to all the novels and writers above, it must be sadly admitted that what we most sorely lack in English is a robust collection of translated Arabic classical texts. Where are our non-deadening (the available options being mostly old, outdated, and orientalist, but also boring) translations of al-Mutanabbi, al-Ma’arri, Abu Tammam, Abu Nuwas? And before them, the Umayyads Jarir and al-Farazdaq, and the Jahili “hanging odes” (mu’allaqat) of Imru al-Qays, Antar bin Shaddad, Tarafa, Labid? Where are the Andalusian poets and the ancient Arabian bandit (su’uluk) poets? The list would simply never end. A relatively recent endeavor, NYU’s Library of Arabic Literature, is working to change this ironically “deserted” translational landscape, but it will take decades, and several dedicated literarily-inclined translators, to bring over a broad stroke of the so-called “classical” Arabic tradition into literary English. (Not to mention that the editors of the NYU Library reject the notion that they are bringing over an absolute Arabic “canon” so much as building one as they go). The enormous difficulty here will be not only to produce translations that are linguistically accurate (of these there already exist some boring renditions, essential for students, but still very little compared to the breadth of the tradition involved) and exciting and engaging in a literary way. A tall order, but one I hope will come together in time. The same Library of Arabic Literature is slated to release all of al-Mutanabbi’s Diwan (collected poems) in English sometime in the not especially distant future; this would be a wonderful inaugural step in a new era of Arabic translation, and knowing their work it will likely be translated with both the utmost philological precision and with subtle literary care.
The Untranslated: Let us turn to European literature now. You have drawn parallels between Yizhar’s Days of Ziklag and the monument of Finnish modernism Alastalon salissa by Volter Kilpi. If you are at liberty to talk about this, could you provide some details about your involvement with the English translation of Volter Kilpi’s mammoth novel as well as share your initial impressions of this work?
J.C.: Sure, I could. (I say this having double-checked that I am, indeed, at liberty to discuss what I am about to discuss).
As for my involvement: all the credit, really, must go to Jaakko Mäntyjärvi — the translation with which I am involved is really and truly his own, and I can only claim to have offered comments that were at best annoyingly helpful and at worst frustratingly idiosyncratic. Mäntyjärvi’s approach to translating this opus could be reasonably compared with Lydia Davis’ version of Du côté de chez Swann (which she renders, true to her thinking, as the “The Way by Swann’s,” although the American Penguin refused this innovation — itself truer to the original French — on Montcrieff’s canonical choice of “Swann’s Way”) — in a word, these two translators set accuracy and fidelity atop the wobbling tower of competing values in translation. (You have already heard how I stack the deck myself.) Mäntyjärvi alliterates where Kilpi alliterates; he neologizes where Kilpi neologizes; he tries holding the varying dialects and registers in the same order of relations, increasingly complex and unbearable to some readers, as Kilpi kept them in the Finnish; the standard of syntax of English is broken where Kilpi has broken that of Finnish (or rather, the Finnish of his day), and this even if to some readers the result is less than melodious or awkward, but to the end that the effect of the original is conveyed as best it can be — that recreates in English as much Kilpi’s occasionally strange, disturbing, masterful, musical if unexpectedly so, colloquial, coarse, alliterative, idiosyncratic, archaic language. Jaakko also makes use of period-specific words and anachronisms, corresponding with the usage of the same in Kilpi’s Finnish: over these we occasionally battled, especially over his choice of “must needs” (which reminds me too much of Melville, though this is precisely the point!) and other instances where I felt that the old or discarded word or saying was more of an impediment to the overall effect of the translation than it was helpful in the way of conveying the original. (To be clear, by impediment I don’t mean “hindrance to the ease of reading”; I do not have the mind of an editor, and am not one to chop into bits an elastic long sentence simply because it cannot be said in one breath, whether in translating or writing. But there are literary impediments, too subjective than can be elucidated and theorized, that, to my ear, render some choices aesthetically meaningful and others less so.)
One other example from Kilpi that I am reminded of now is the interchangeable use of first (Christian) names and the names of the residences that the men at the novel’s titular “salon” own in the town of Kustavi. Alastalo, in whose salon the entirety of the novel takes place, where men of the parish have congregated to discuss the collective investiture of building a new barque, is both the name of the residence (part farm, part seaside manor) and of its patriarch, Hermanni Mattson. Such effects are mostly lost in the English, and maybe needlessly. Yet this quirk is emphasized even in the title of the novel, Alastalon salissa, which Mäntyjärvi chose to translate as “In the Parlor at Alastalo” on the basis of an earlier Swedish translation — Thomas Warburton’s I salenpå Alastalo. (Coincidentally, or not, this Finland Swede also translated Joyce’s Ulysses into Swedish.) I remember thinking that a more sonorous title “In Alastalo’s Salon” (retaining the inessive “—ssa” suffix appended to the word “salon” (sali) in the title) was staring us in the face, but Jaakko felt, with some justification, that Warburton’s precedent was not to be casually ignored, and that the “at Alastalo” already indicates the culture-specific complexity by which the characters will be referred throughout the novel.
It should be said that when we began (and how this occurred I can explain shortly) I was perhaps less naturally inclined toward historic accuracy and slavish adherence to the original than Jaakko was, and there remains in me an impulse, when I translate, to think first (if not dramatically before values of accuracy and faithfulness) of making something beautiful in English, since, as I think I mentioned in an earlier response, I am only ever drawn towards translating into my native language those texts in my reading languages that I wish I had written myself, and that seem to me, for after all I love them, exceptional and difficult aesthetic achievements. Still, in the months and now years that we have been corresponding and trading back comments and counter-comments on the English, I have come to accord Jaakko’s own impulses, developed as they were over decades of his translating from Finnish to English, with deep reverence, even to the extent of tempering my own idiosyncratic impulses in translating other texts, as when I am at work on Albert Swissa’s Bound and I think of its author’s comment that I should “make my own Bound.” As well, I would hope that my own extensive (often sentence by sentence) comments have had the effect, for Mr. Mäntyjärvi’s thinking, of adding to his already well-trained bilingual ear my own literary sensibility as a native speaker, not to mention my admitted bias that there exist some words or phrases — even if they could be argued to agree, in some way, with the original language’s difficulties — do not help render the novel in English but beautiful and difficult. Where one sets this red line, so to speak, may be the subject of disagreement, but that they should be set somewhere seems to me indisputable. I do not believe in this business of making translations foreign simply for their own sake; despite whatever academic argument will be made for the need for political sensitivity and for the work of any translator into English to take seriously the deleterious effects on foreign literature of Global English and the World Literature translation-engine, which, so these argument go, domesticates and makes American everything which is in the slightest bit difficult or alien to the resistant, barely literate English reader — despite whatever merits these arguments may have on their own terms, and having heard and read them more than once I cannot say that their claims are worth ignoring entirely, it still feels spurious to me to bow before the idol of the “foreign,” as if that were something readily identifiable and reified, and to somehow replicate or honor this divinity of otherness in the form of the translation itself. Translations should be as worth reading as literature in one’s native language, and by “worth reading” I mean to refer to a set of literary or aesthetic values, however defined, rather than ideological or identarian ones. I would further claim that translation, as an art of both distortion and creation, has a longer and more dynamic history than the forces of either capitalism or colonialism, or even of English; and that translators have trouble enough finding the right words in the right order for their books without having to lose sleep over whether their work, which makes them no money almost all of the time, is feeding an English-speaking capitalist beast, or is servicing well enough some or other political cause to justify its existence, or is insufficiently foreign, whatever that means, or excessively domestic, whatever that means.
The right words in the right order: this is the beginning and end of the battle, for me at least, and whatever our differences or phrasing disagreements, I hope I can say the same for Jaakko too. And maybe also for Kilpi himself, who translated Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays into Finnish, or Proust, who translated two volumes of John Ruskin’s.
I had become obsessed with Kilpi after reading your own post on his meganovel in the late summer of 2016. I was just then moving to (suburban, droll) Princeton for the first time, and was ripe for a new literary infatuation from very far away to take hold of me like a sickness. And this is what happened with Kilpi, and with Finnish: an academic year later, in May, when I was leaving the same apartment to which I was moving when I first read of Kilpi, I had already built up an extensive library of Finnish literature, some of it quite rare even in Scandinavia. To wit, I’ve found every book Kilpi has written in every published edition, including all firsts; several monographs in a series on Kilpi and his life and work; his translations into Finnish from various languages; his essays; his correspondence with his wife and with his publisher; the first dissertation-turned-monograph on Alastalon salissa; and all this among other Finnish modernists and literary experimenters and many of the delightful paperback classics of the Finnish Literature Society (Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura) — which I suppose is like our black-covered (in the US) Penguin Classics series. I had also in the intervening two semesters begun to learn Finnish, first on my own, by aid of the few books I could find, and then with the help of a tutor from the Finnish American Society of the Delaware Valley, who would meet me in Philadelphia, where I was taking a course at UPenn in the fall. I emailed whoever I could find that was associated with Kilpi and Kilpi studies; eventually I reached out to Professor Pirjo Lyytikäinen of the University of Helsinki, who had written that first dissertation/monograph I mentioned earlier, Mielen meri, elämän pidot: Volter Kilven Alastalonsalissa (Sea of Mind, Feast of Life: Volter Kilpi’s “Alastalon salissa”). She referred me to Jaakko, who, bless him, sent me his then-current draft of the first two chapters; amazingly he had actually completed a full translation, and in a little under a year at that, whereas I had been diligently laying the plans to slowly learn Finnish solely for the purpose of translating this novel, then the other two in the “Archipelago trilogy” of which it forms the first and largest part. I was so absolutely taken in by this text that I had for so long only been imagining — whether on the basis of whatever description I could find in English (almost none, outside of this blog) or of that which I could tentatively translate from Finnish, or of what my Finnish bookseller correspondents would tell me — but I also began to notice things here and there in Jaakko’s translation that I might wish to see differently, and so indicated them in the form of comments, which kept building up endlessly along the sides of the Word document much in the manner of Proust’s infamous paperoles (apparently I’m keeping all my references modernist for this answer!). I sent these comments back to Jaakko, albeit timidly, remarking in all frankness that I did not know what value they could have, if any, coming from a barely-literate non-native Finnish reader with a healthy if still uninformed love of all things Kilpi. He was, if I can say so without paying myself undue compliment, astounded by how closely I was reading his English — and even if he did not accept any or even most of my comments or proposed revisions, he nonetheless responded to every one of them, often at length, sometimes by way of explaining what I had missed in the original, or defending his own choice, or taking something of what I’d suggested and incorporating it into what he felt was a closer and more precise second rendering. In this way we moved, chapter by chapter, through the book, eventually reaching an understanding so refreshing and mutually respecting that he would know to expect what I might comment on, and I might know not to comment on those choices that he had time and again defended making. At the risk of boasting I’ll say that I feel this has improved the draft overall, and Jaakko has been kind enough to speed ahead of me, editing later chapters on the basis of reoccurring comments I had been making that he incorporated in good faith; but even if my contribution hadn’t improved his draft, it will be sadly observed that whether this book will find a publisher in English is only partially based on its inherent merit in the original or in translation.
It’s been a lovely experience, on the whole, and Jaakko and I have even discussed taking on the next volumes in the Trilogy, following the model of the famous Pevear and Volokhonsky, only one of whom knows fluent Russian.
About the book itself. It is deservedly compared, even to its author’s dismay, with Proust and Joyce (Kilpi did not have the English for Ulysses, but was horrified to find that someone had discovered a new literary prose style that he fancied himself the inventor of in all Europe!). It will indeed take some time and diligence before Kilpi’s achievement can be brought more meaningfully into dialogue with the modernist magnum opuses written in the same decade of its publication and in its same continental backyard, but I’m astounded by how little attention Kilpi has received in the international (English language) academy; as it stands, his work has only made it as far away from Scandinavia as Germany, where as you know an excerpt has been published in translation. All the same, his writing is very different from Proust, and even more so from Joyce; Kilpi shares with the latter a fondness for language archaisms and an investment in closely, almost maniacally, stretching across several hundred pages a short span of time, even shorter than the twenty-four hours of Ulysses. Kilpi also writes in something like what we would call a stream-of-consciousness style that shares affinities with Joyce, too, if not as much with Proust, whose several volumes are written largely in the relentlessly analytical and self-probing voice of the narrator; in Kilpi we hear from all the men at Alastalo’s manor, following their colloquialized thoughts, worries, memories, and observations of the others, and the stream, as it were, is rife with Kilpi’s own authorial interventions as well as seemingly mimetic representations of each of these men who think or talk. But aside from these mitigating factors, it is with Proust that I believe Kilpi could be most fruitfully compared — after, of course, one attends to the native Finnish context, and reads closely Kilpi’s own models, especially Aleksis Kivi’s Seitsemän veljestä (for which three English translations now exist). This is because Kilpi’s novel is essentially one in search of temps perdu — in his case, not that of any narrating I, but that of an entire world lost to history, a world on the edge of obliteration by the time of his composing; a world Kilpi himself could not be said to “remember” the way Proust remembered his vacations at Illiers and made of them his Combray.
Like Proust, though, Kilpi consciously modeled his characters, with necessary adjustments and enlargements, on once living men and women, though not those he had closely known so much as those of his grandfather’s generation; in fact the novel opens with a “preamble” or “pre-chapter” (esiluku) in which Kilpi visits the old cemetery at Kustavi and mourns the loss of that generation, and their religious, cultural, and economic way of life. This lamentation, apparently the text of a speech he had made in real life at reunion or memorial on Kustavi, is of a style dramatically different from the text that follows; it is sentimental and anguished almost to excess. The novel that follows is thus marked by the rainclouds of memory, if I can speak figuratively: memories, fading and blurring, of this world that no longer exists: no longer exists because from the Swedish and Russian Empires there emerged the nation-states of Sweden and Finland in the shadow of Soviet Russia, and because there is no longer that class of trilinguals of the archipelago region who, though native Finnish speakers, made their money skirting the various tax and import regimes in the seas between their island, closer to Finland, and the ports of Sweden; because the world of the nineteenth century in all its rich historic complexity had crumbled over two world wars; because the twinned livelihood of farming and seafaring in these islands was replaced by more industrial labor in the cities; because the social structure of collective ownership (on islands such as Kustavi, all the members of the local parish would share partially in the ownership of each other’s houses, so that the ruin of any one by storm or circumstance would not spell total financial destruction for that family; hence the meeting at Alastalo’s, the sole object of which is to discuss the collective building and owning of a barque, with much ado about how the shares are apportioned) was not entirely in keeping with the developing of a modern nation, whether Sweden or Finland; because the Biblically-fluent Lutheran ethic of this island community was to be replaced by the forward-marching, secular-minded Scandinavia of the future; and because all ages and times, all capitals and all communities, are blown over by those same indifferent sands of time that Shelley says are “boundless and bare…[and] stretch far away.”
I think that for me the remembering of this lost world, the conjuring of its full life and voice, and the full faith with which Kilpi makes (for one example) 70 pages of narrative and consciousness out of the few minutes it takes one of his characters to choose a pipe from a pipe rack — for me these are the most attractive and enduringly fascinating of his achievements. I hope that someday, when my Finnish is up to the task of reading the original in full without the aid of a dictionary, I may know even more intimately the unique delights of Kilpi’s malleable and magic deployment of any and every tool in the Finnish language in the forging of what can only be called an enduring literary masterpiece.
The Untranslated: Many great works of contemporary literature written in languages other than English have been deeply influenced by the masterpieces of Anglophone modernism: works by Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, T. S. Eliot. As you have noted above, “the James Joyce of X” has become a widely used (and abused) mantra when talking about authors of ambitious and linguistically challenging texts. If we take a look at most of the English-language literature written in the 21st century so far, it becomes painfully obvious that it has nothing of the might possessed by those early-20th century literary landmarks. What could today’s Anglophone writers learn from literature in other languages to find their way back to greatness?
J.C.: Thanks for this magnificent final question.
The first and most obvious argument that will be made concerning the fate of Anglophone writing rests on seeing the challenge of English literature in terms of unsavory duals: on the one hand, English is an absurdly globalized language and culture; yet at the same time it imports, proportionally speaking, far less works in translation than other world languages of comparable size and commercial importance. To make matters worse and still more complicated, even among the available translations the sensitive reader will not fail to notice how much is left wanting in the way of what I have been throughout this interview calling (with admitted vagueness) literary merit, this being the natural result of academics taking up the lion’s share of the consumers and manufactures of world literature in English translation, since many academics — through no fault of their own, maybe? — are not always the best writers of non-academic writing, not to mention that what they choose to translate and how often is motivated by extra-literary factors. (The industry of translation theory is, by the looks of randomly selected panels at randomly selected academic conferences in the field of Comparative Literature, having something of a hot moment; at the same time, somehow, translations of challenging works are by no means appearing in abundance; where they are published, they are not bought, and are often not very well made; worst of all, to the chagrin of bibliopsychopaths like myself, their covers are often ugly, and their titles are maligned by needless sociological subtitles, such as “an Egyptian novel”, that serve only to stimulate a specialist audience). But you have made this argument your own over various entries in this blog about works “untranslated” (and not untranslatables!). Instead of aping your words then, I’ll try and devote my time here to considering the literary future of English — that world language that so few remember is, actually, a language.
I mean a language no less specifically itself than the Upper Arrernte language of the indigenous Australian communities around Alice Springs, spoken by some few thousand guardians of an ancient culture, connected to the stuff of the land — the flora and fauna — around which it flowered and bloomed; yet also a language no more ample and generous than other languages of regional and world conquest, Arabic on the heels of Islam, Spanish with the conquistadors, Latin with the Romans; a language with a history and a geography both enormously unmappable and microscopically local, with dialects, lexical borrowings, spelling variants, dead verb forms, and forms of style as specific to places and times as genetically near duplicate (save for a single defining allele) as differently named species of plants in counties once separated by a day’s travel and now traversable by a car in some twenty minutes. Yes, English is huge; huger than any language has ever been before, no doubt; carnivorous, and the would-be enemy of languages as large (in number of speakers) as French and as small as the aforementioned Arrernte. Yes, the happy marriage of the globalizing forces of the British Empire and of twentieth century American capitalism has led to consequences far more threatening and overreaching than the crescent of Islamic monotheism being raised across Africa and Asia, or the language of Cervantes being forced onto the lips of fallen Incan royals. But all this is, if you’ll forgive me the political insensitivity, not quite enough to stop a writer of English from being sensitive to his or her language: all of this matters little, in my view, when this writer of English must needs recognize the Englishness of English, from its indecipherable runic origins to our day. English is indeed a language; a language of considerable beauty; a language — we should hold as self-evident that all languages are inherently equal in this respect — in which great and enduring literature has and can still be written. But only by those who write in it, instead of through it, as if it were an obstacle or a tool of simple use, employed toward some straightforwardly communicative non-language modelled on that of highway-side ads or radio jingles.
Not the faculty of language as such, but a language. A language built up of disagreeable halves Latinate and Germanic, with plenty of wild cards besides. A language whose miniature specificity and whose astounding breadth I could spend many a lifetime writing my way across. A language without the case markings of many a classical tongue but with wonderfully varied and intricate sentence structures, from the voluminously verbose and baroquishly long to the stilted staccato rhythm of the short sentence of a single clause. A language that still offers its speakers the opportunity to invent, as I have just done, a neologism of existing parts. (Whether “baroquishly” has the aesthetic or communicative merit to go the dictionary’s distance, so to speak, I cannot say; but it is worth reporting here, if only in a complete sentence between parentheses, a vanity which English permits me, that it seems to my ear especially English-sounding to have the squish of the –sh adjectival suffix applied to so stuffy and Latinate-sounding a word as “baroque”; and that, while they are very often unjustly maligned by writers and readers alike, it seems to me equally English to make of that grotesque half-breed adjective “baroquish” an adverb by which to not so much succinctly describe the manner in which an action as done so much as to make that action more complicated, more meaningful, even.)
We are at a moment in our literature – Anglo-American literature – when the cult of televised realism has all but won out against the likes of Joyce’s book(s) of the day and the night. We – allow me the nosism – have had enough of the sort of fiction meant simply to replace that suspense stirred automatically in the breasts of many an action movie lover with phrases so translatably boring and so terribly clichéd they might as well have been written in computer code. (Ironically or horrifyingly enough, since I’d first written these words in August this terror of a report from the deathbed of Literature has appeared in the NYT.) We have had enough of the sort of poets who merely turn down their blinds and remark pithily on the appearance of a bird in a language less interesting in color and tone than that sung by the same bird; likewise have we tired of their urban poet-cousins, knockoff Ginsbergs or would-be social media activists, those who stroll down the repugnantly bright streets of a city as deadening as New York and write with the mind-numbing clarity and foot-stomping ease of Soviet soldiers in old propaganda films. We have had enough of writers writing without paying the least attention to the heritage of the language in which they write, have had enough of what we might as well just call out, at the risk of being crude, as bad writing; enough dead metaphors used out of laziness and not for the love of dead metaphors; or of so-called literature written in a communicative matter no more complicated than that of turn signals or popup ads. (John Ashbery loved, and made alive again, every cliché in our Anglo-American book; he also made wonders out of the stuff of ads; but he was a special case; the rest of us would have trouble striking the same magic with material that is in most hands dead on arrival). Enough, I (we) say, along with a host of dead writers who I trust will back me up from their graves, of English writing that takes English for granted, writing in anything-ese with no more meaning than acronyms or surfaces, and no more difficult to comprehend faster than the speed of Netflix buffering.
This is not a stylistic recommendation (read: demand) I am making, because English is large even when small, and contains multitudes (to riff again from one of our best poets, who I trust would approve of my personal English) even when written in the narrow and uneducated idiolects of Faulkner’s former slaves or Gaddis’ grog-voiced Vietnam vet. It is also large when large, even when impossibly large; if we return to Joyce, who understood this argument of mine far better than I do myself, we read a book “basically in English” — Finnegans Wake — and find ourselves either bored to death (wrong answer, bub) or astounded by the explosive and not at all solipsistic celebration of meaning entailed by the writing, reading, and reciting of that tome. But Finnegans Wake isn’t just basically in English: it is in English. For all its foreign imports and kooky coinages, Finnegans Wake, says I, is the best book written in the English language, and consequently a better instructor for this polemic than I could ever hope to be in as many words. Don’t believe me? Take up that book in your hands, because you are not reading this blog unless you own a copy, or several (doesn’t everyone?), and read through any random sentence, from where the first word leaps ahead of the last sentence’s period to when the last word stomps at its end with the next. Remove all neologisms. Remove all that seems to confound or that would confound your average Barnes-&-Noble-going reader. Metaphorically speaking, remove from the road of the sentence all manner of cars and trucks and other moving things and leave only that which directs you from sound to image, that which suggests the motion of the syntax — the street signs, the speed limit, the comas, the small phrases, the “thats,” the little verbs and pronouns. That syntax is English. These sentences are – “basically,” that is, at their very base – English. Joyce just knew how to fill them with all sorts of goodies, sure. But those goodies, too, are often English. Certainly they become so when they are musically integrated into the whole of the work. You can get away with anything in English — in any language, of which English is (I remind you) but one — if you’re good enough at English. Having done his time in the idiom of realism (Dubliners, some of the Portrait) and having already transcended the high modernist style that came after it (Ulysses) — Joyce, ever the Irishman in exile, was better than anyone at English, and we are still waiting for someone to top his achievement. (Or at least, let us try!)
It may be argued, and with merit, that smaller languages — even big-small languages, like Dutch and Danish — or languages of the so-called Global South — from Arabic to Shona and etc. — suffer from English; suffer the lack of English’s audience; are swallowed by the insatiable stomach of English imperialism. A recent Guardian article makes this last point well enough, though its argument will not suit my purposes, for its author leaves the writer of English with nothing but an anxious burden with no solution, however imperfect, to be found. (I will note by way of aside that my non-English allegiances, of which I bear many, render me not at all the optimist when it comes to the death of small languages; I have felt so deeply and inexplicably connected with their loss that I have gone the length of teaching myself the rudimentary elements of languages as varied as Navajo and Lenape; but these are separate stories, relevant here only to inform my reader than I am not cold nor insensitive to the oppression of English; just that I still believe, as I write these words with its blessing, in English; and in fact I have no other choice but to take up this belief as earnestly as I can — more to come on that below). I will venture the opposing argument, if only to shed light on the side of the coin we tend not to talk about when we talk about English: these languages suffering under the very real burden of globalized English have the gift of what much of English has lost: a blessed sense of specificity, of the danger that drives us to cherish what we would otherwise take as a given. Of “the course of a particular,” or of various language-specific particulars, to use a phrase of Wallace Steven’s. Writers who write in so-called minor languages around the world do so under the stormclouds of English; but it is precisely those stormclouds that (at least as often as they provoke an impulse toward “translatese,” where a book in Norwegian is written with the ease of English translation and world audience in mind) also incite the writer to turn into his or her own language. (Translatese is a serious problem, to be fair, but not one I’ll address here.) Not to turn away from an increasingly English world, but to find and express the world of their own language, in its particular music. We, writers and readers of English, would do well to imagine those globalizing stormclouds that are so often called by the name of our language as being not inherently related to that tongue in which our mother sang us lullabies — that language both small and large, that language which, like all languages, will always and forever remain just a language, and how much better, how much more human, for that fact — but as being the thing in English that makes us forget English. In other words, we might turn our attention to the necrophilic tendencies of a global monstrosity that seems to be the English language but that, in occupying so much of our fear and our effort, takes us only further away from all that English is at heart and can still be in the right hands.
There are those who, with Silicon valley style efficiency, would see a world language of supposed succinctness and prescribed precision as a harbinger of world peace, but a certain writer of English knows, as does a certain writer of French or of Japanese and every other written language still alive on human tongues, that the illusion of greater communication only brings ruin upon us — that we can choose between the beautiful babble of human languages worldwide, a blessing in disguise from God, and the world-destroying nothing-ese of a Newspeak that condemns us all to soul-stilling sameness. A certain writer of English knows furthermore that a truer form of “connecting the world” than Facebook friend-requests or United Airlines in-flight videos is in literature that seems, but only seems, disconnectedly singular, and utterly English. A certain writer of English knows he or she has only one language, however various, however multiple and welcoming of italicized intruders from beyond — and that that language is none other than beautiful, many-faced, monumental English.
In the time since I began exchanging these responses with you, dear Andrei, and imagining with patience how they may be received when they eventually appear on this blog which I have followed eagerly all the while and which I believe to be a real force for good in the various literary battles described at length above, I have visited, sojourned, and lived in Paris, Beirut, Erbil, Brooklyn, Stockholm, Paris (again), Cairo, Rabat, and of course the Jersey shore, my hometown. Now I write you from another hemisphere and continent entirely — from a quiet café on a rainy winter day (or else the first of spring; it’s all opposite) in Melbourne, Australia. I am here to visit a writer of English whose work has, for lack of a better phrase, changed my life. And yes, here English is all around me, and drowning out many dead and dying Aboriginal languages. Even in my time in Iraqi Kurdistan, I admit that my English was often more practicable than my Arabic. But I have concluded, throughout all my traveling, and despite my ongoing love affair with any number of different languages and cultures, that I cannot but write these words to you or to anyone else in English, my native language, even if it was not that of my ancestors’, nor that of my ancestors’ ancestors’. (The trail leads backwards from Arabic-speaking Aleppo through Spain to who knows where). My last name is of Ladino origin; I pray to my God in Hebrew; my curse words are invariably Arabic; and in all the places I have traveled just this year alone, I have had the recourse to navigate through or make use of any number of languages, some of which I know quite well after much effort spent relearning them, others self-taught but steady (French, Swedish), and others still completely foreign (Tamazight, Kurdish). But all that I really have is English.
I have concluded, then, what Paul Celan concluded long before me: “only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth — in a foreign tongue the poet lies.” I no longer aspire to be a poet, but I interpret his words as applying to all forms of that sacred endeavor I call Literature, and thus to my own efforts in prose. It should be noted that Celan wrote in German — rewrote German, some say, not that it matters, since some form of German it remains — against the weight of the Holocaust, which he survived, at least until he killed himself after a lifetime of torment and trauma. Much murder has been conducted in and with English, but the weight of the language’s imperial and capitalized heritage, real though it is, does not hang over me as I write, or at least does not blind me from English, or make mute its music. I hear only the sound of the thoughts of my narrator or the narrating of images that have often woven themselves through my mind, and all this occurs in English. I try and relax. Sometimes I imagine mastering Arabic, learning its 500 million words and finding use for them in fictions about a community – my own – that has spoken Arabic for centuries. I imagine myself a monolingual Hebrew-speaker, writing in and of diaspora, and thus honoring the long tradition of Hebrew literature kept alive by the likes of my ancestors. Or I imagine forgetting my Hebrew and my Arabic and taking up Japanese or moving to some tree-lined Tokyo suburb and only eating sushi and pretending to be hip, up-to-date, and readerly. But when I’m ready, often after many hours of effort, I leave behind these fantasies or nightmares and write word after word in the only language I have had the random but blessed fate of calling my own: I write in English.
About Josh Calvo
Josh Calvo is a writer of fiction, translator from Hebrew and Arabic, obsessive reader and language-learner, shameless bibliophile addict, and PhD student in Comparative Literature at Princeton University — in that order. He is currently at work on two increasingly large manuscripts of fiction and the beginnings of a dissertation focused on modernism in modern Hebrew and Arabic that also entertains comparison with similar material from Finnish, Hungarian, Judeo-Spanish, Russian, Japanese, French, Dutch, and much too many others. He has twice tried living in Brooklyn, but for want of trees, affordable rent, and other such luxuries, finds himself often returning for long sojourns to the Jersey Shore suburbs and Syrian Jewish community in which he was raised — though he sometimes also moves to Princeton, NJ, in which leafy quiet town one may walk humbly in the footsteps of Mann, Eliot, Fuentes, among other literary ghosts. Josh welcomes any questions or comments on anything mentioned above or otherwise — especially from those who should like to hear more about his fiction or translation work. He can be reached directly at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update: Josh elaborates some of the above points in a riveting conversation with the hosts of Feeling Bookish Podcast. I invite everybody to listen to this 70-minute talk imbued with passion for literature and languages.