The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Mahfouz and his Echoes

Over at Words without Borders, Geoff Wisner reviews Naguib Mahfouz's "Echoes of an Autobiography" (أصداء السيرة الذاتية) and concludes it may please those with a"high tolerance for mystification and ambiguity." I have a hard time taking seriously any review that starts off by nonchalantly dismissing the Trilogy (as this one does). And I don't have quite as high an opinion of Denys Johnson-Davies's translations as this reviewer does, either.

I read parts of "Echoes" in Arabic, in a literature class, and we spent a very thrilling two hours taking apart just a few of the short, allusive scenes. It struck me as prose poetry--an enormous amount of meaning was condensed into little resonant images and anecdotes (a bit the way memories work). 

I mention this because this is something that comes up again and again with Arabic literature--the difference between the valuation of certain works by Arabic readers and Western readers, or the way a book when first encountered in translation can strike a Western reader as boring or awkward or pretentious, and then the Arabic original just blows you away. (It's happened to me many times). I can't tell if there is something about translation from Arabic that is particularly difficult, or if the field of literary translation into English is just underdeveloped.