Adapting the Novel into Arabic

Professor Samah Selim discusses the translation of popular European literature into Arabic in her recent lecture  “The People’s Entertainment: Translation, Adaptation and the Novel in Egypt.”  The lecture focuses on the Egyptian periodical Musamarat al-Sha’b (The People’s Entertainment, 1904-1911), and the importance of “doing modern literary history outside the canon of authors and texts (on) which most of our critical theories around modernity, culture and politics tend to be based.”

From there she discusses the issues of adaptation and imitation:

“The whole question of adaptation is still a very thorny subject in our contemporary cultural politcs, as it was at the height of the historical Nahda. From intellectual legacies to lifestyles to literature, we are obssessed with the question of whether we have become merely copies of some Western original.”

Selim notes that “imitation and adaptation were the norm before the 18th century Romantic revolution in philosophy and aesthetics and the concurrent emergence of nationalism in Europe…Before the 18th century originality was not in and of itself considered to  be an aesthetic value in relation to literature Instead imitation free adaptation and commentary were the norm in the circulation of poetic forms.”

An essay I read recently, which examines the translation of Jurji Zaydan’s works into Persian, makes similar points: “The fixation of many critics upon the terms developed by Western literary imaginations has led to a kind of ressentiment among students of non-Western literatures, who may hang their heads in shame or frustration concerning the ‘failures’ of their novelists and other prose writers.”

The essay addresses the problem of  “the value of novelistic writing within non-European societies” which  “finds its roots, perhaps, in the differential economies for literary production in colonial and in colonized societies.”

During the Nahda, European novels were translated, and then adapted, most famously by writers who penned historical romances in the style of Alexandre Dumas and Walter Scott. The most famous of these writers, Jurji Zaydan, explicity stated that he was influenced by Walter Scott (Rastegar 375).

Selim has commented on the Walter Scott connection in working on the translation of Zaydan’s Tree of Pearls, for which she says she chose a “simplified Scottian register.” 

Laura Gribbon discusses Selim’s lecture further here.

For more on Jurji Zaydan, see this symposium and this post.

For more on the early Arabic novel and translations from Western literature: Creative Translation: Towards the Study of Arabic Translations of Western Literature since the 19th Century

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