Monday, August 20, 2012

Stetkevych on non-literary translations of Arabic

From the beginning of Jaroslav Stetkevych's Arabism and Arabic literature: A Self-View of a Profession; with thanks to Alex Foreman for spotting this excellent articulation of that central question in the translation of non-European languages:
I sincerely admire the romantic generation of Orientalists. They were possessed by the fever of discovery, by a great, soulfilling illusion, by a delightful, redeeming impatience. They were brilliant scholars, too, but their brilliance did not owe everything to professional competence. In literature they were mostly translators -- remarkable, still unsurpassed translators. I am thinking of [Friedrich] Riickert mainly, but also of [William] Jones, [Joseph Dacre] Carlyle, [Alfred] Lyall. The not-necessarily confessed aim of their work was to enrich their own national literatures: a sound, legitimate aim that was amply rewarded by the echo their work found among their contemporaries. From Goethe to Baudelaire and beyond, romantic orientalism received the most enviable homage. If I may add my own grain of praise and indebtedness to the romantics, I should confess that, if it had not been for Riickert's Hamasah translation and for some delightful poetic variations on Arabic themes by the Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko, I would most certainly not be writing this. Actually, my first, still half-adolescent ambition had once been to become a translator of Arabic literature into my native Ukrainian.
After the innocent romantics there came the Orientalists as cultural historians, swept on the last, ebbing waves of German idealism. They did much good and they possessed an enviable certainty about their purpose and intellectual mission: they were integrating the Orient into universal culture -- if only by means of the western catalyst.
Now it is our turn and we are not so sure of ourselves. We have lost the romantic innocence, and our own national literatures do not seem to want us any more. Neither are we idealists, having become skeptical about universal culture. What seems to be left to us is knowledge for knowledge's sake. If I were a mathematician I would be perfectly happy with such a solution. But be< ing a student of literature I hesitate. Of course, there is something to be said for "art for art's sake," but "scholarly work on art for scholarly work on art's sake" is, besides being a tongue-twister, utterly absurd. Enjoyment of art for enjoyment's sake would be a different story, were it not such a private matter and such a public luxury.
In view of this perplexity we should quite earnestly ask ourselves some of the fundamental questions again: Do we still believe that by conveying our experiences with Arabic literature to our own readers we shall be making a contribution to the creative literary processes that are going on in our native literatures? Can we in any way stimulate a nascent poet in the English language, for example, to find some creative affinity with Imru' al-Qays or al-Mutanabbi? And if we feel that this is possible, what approach shall we adopt?
Will translations, simply more translations, be enough? I cannot help but have the uneasy impression that no matter how large an amount of translations from Arabic literature we produce as we are used to produce them, our problem of purpose and self-justification will not be solved. To begin with, our translations are of the scholarly kind. Who needs scholarly translations? Other scholars, maybe. But should they need them? Do Hispanists or Germanists need such translations in their fields? Of course, our students of Arabic can profit from translations of Arabic verse, but this would constitute a limited purpose, entering in the realm of textbooks. Otherwise, translations should either be made with a more ambitious literary aim in mind or else they should not even be mentioned in a discussion of literary problems.
Emphasis added. See also Prof. Stetkeych's brief but illuminating survey of sources of pre-Islamic Arabia, and the relationship between the mythic tales of that culture with other regional literatures, among them Gilgamesh and Homer -- Muhammad and the Golden Bough: Reconstructing Arabian Myth