The Arabist, part 1

In Reading Mahfouz in Michigan I wrote about how a US English teacher came to choose Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley to read with her high-school students and how they discussed the characters and events set in Cairo in the 1940s.

Now it happens that the translator of Midaq Alley, Professor Trevor LeGassik, has been teaching Arabic literature at the University of Michigan since 1966. Like the students, I was fortunate to be introduced to the professor and he graciously agreed to sit down and share his thoughts about why this particular Mahfouz novel has met success among readers and students of international literature in Europe and America. Translated from Arabic to English in 1966, it is the first and most translated of Mahfouz’s novels, appearing in more than 30 foreign editions and 15 languages. The English edition was positively reviewed when it came out, and in 1994 received a favorable mention in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.

It was hard, however, to stay focused on discussing only Midaq Alley, since LeGassick has known and translated not only Mahfouz, but also Yussuf Idris and Ihsan Abdel Quddous. Even more interesting is how he developed his outlook toward Arabs from the tradition of British orientalists into becoming a self-proclaimed “Arabist,” which will be discussed in part 2.

LeGassick studied Arabic in London in the 1950s at the School of Oriental and African Studies, attending lectures by Bernard Lewis whom he found to be so “witty” that he decided to sit on the same course again the following year. That time however he was less amused, “since he repeated the same witty, though somewhat sarcastic remarks about Arab culture, and did so with the same sense of self-appreciation as before.” Some 30 years later he would criticize his old professor’s seemingly racist remarks toward Arabs in a book review he wrote for The Middle East Journal of Lewis’s Race and Slavery in the Middle East. He was never asked to contribute to that journal again.

Although he has translated Ibn Kathir, Ahmed Urabi’s defense statement, and novels by Halim Barakat, Emile Habibi and Sahar Khalifeh, somehow he is not well known in Arab countries. Perhaps that is because he is content with keeping a low profile within the confines of his academic job, his family and his antique-collecting hobby (he is a regular at local auction houses). But most probably we haven’t heard about him much because he hasn’t translated anything new in the past 20 years, and literary translation awards are quite a recent phenomena in the Arab world. Still that does not make his pioneering contribution any less valuable. We might as well also admit that in the Arab world there is a tendency to view foreigners who translate Arabic literature with suspicion. In fact, despite taking a pro-Palestinian position in the struggle against Israeli Zionism, LeGassick’s outspoken criticism of the dictatorial rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser would still not earn him favor among a certain generation of Arab literary groups.

I talked with him twice in an antique-filled (not fancy but rather old) ranch house on a hill. It’s one of several properties he owns in Ann Arbor, in addition to his two vacation homes, one in Virginia and another in his home country in southeast England. I was invited to attend his meeting with Katie Glupker’s students in the classroom, where he complained laughingly of how his annual royalties for Midaq Alley have gone down from US$2000 in “the good old years” to merely $500 nowadays. The following is an attempt at organizing transcripts from these interviews (which would have been an easier task if I hadn’t digressed so much).

On Midaq Alley and how it all started

Hadil Ghoneim: So how did you come to translate Midaq Alley?

Trevor Legassick: I was kind of disappointed with myself to find that after studying in London a three-year degree in classical Arabic and then a PhD on Arab nationalism I really hadn’t established close friendships with Arabs. I worried that I didn’t get a proper understanding of the culture. It annoyed me, because I normally liked people. What was wrong in my development? Why had I not gotten a sense of familiarity and liking that I derived from reading other literatures? So I thought I should find out about the Arabic novel and so I asked friends in Beirut in 1962 if there were Arabic novelists and was told that Naguib Mahfouz had become important.

You see after graduating, I began working in commerce for a British company (Unilever) in Kuwait but business bored me and I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I decided to teach in the US in Wisconsin and I left Kuwait traveling by car through Jordan and Lebanon, where I had earlier studied for a year at the American University in Beirut. I had friends there and access to a library and an office. As soon as I began reading Mahfouz, I went through a large number of his works including the trilogy. I read pretty much everything over a period of several months while I stayed in Beirut. I was 28.

I decided to translate Midaq Alley and published an appreciative article about Mahfouz and the trilogy in particular, and that came out in 1963. That kind of aroused the interest of the academic orientalist community, who weren’t aware that there were any novels in Arabic. It wasn’t a question of introducing only Mahfouz — later on I also introduced Yusuf Idris and Ihsan Abdel Quddous.

HG: Yet it was Midaq Alley that you picked out to translate first?

TL: It was an eye-opener for me, because for the first time here was an Arab author with whom I could really relate. I could understand where he was coming from. I was gaining, through his writing, intimate discussions of Arab issues, all presented with engaging humor and irony, and that’s the delightful thing about the book to me. Its irony, which reminded me of course of Chaucer. I love Chaucer because of his irony and the Brits enjoy irony and this all resonated with me.

HG: What were your favorite parts in Midaq Alley?

TL: I haven’t read it in a long time, but my favorite character of course is Sheikh Darwish, because of his irony, because of the humor with which he views the foolishness of it all. A wonderful example of how Mahfouz removes himself from the nitty-gritty of the society he is discussing and views it in almost the same way that someone like myself, an outsider, would view these levels of Arab or Egyptian society. We’re not part of it, but we’re amused by it. We don’t understand it, but on the other hand we love it in some way.

HG: Did reading Mahfouz help you reach that familiarity with Arabs that you were seeking?

TL: Of course, because of all those extraordinary characters you read about in Midaq Alley. One way or the other they are all regular human beings from a completely different cultural environment. But imagining oneself in their environment, one could see how one would react in very similar ways as they reacted. They are regular human beings like everyone. They have different cultural biases and backgrounds — some shocking — but you can emote with every single character in Midaq Alley very easily.

HG: Some critics like to read it as an example of Mahfouz’s social realism literary phase and others see symbolism in it. How do you see it?

TL: Obviously, a central theme is the values of the society, and whether Egyptians or Middle Eastern peoples could achieve satisfaction in their lives by abandoning their heritage and adopting cultures intruding into their lifestyle. That’s a mission that he brings up very forcefully in the book and clearly he is very critical of people who are dissatisfied and want to move away from their traditions and values.

HG: How do you explain its success in the US well before the Nobel prize, compared to other works by Mahfouz?

TL: It’s a wonderful book. A perfectly created novel, in the way in which it begins — setting the environment in the first few wonderful pages and creating an atmosphere, an affectionate environment, as seen from someone who is divorced from it, looking from a critical distance but loves it anyway.

That’s one of the delights of this book. One reason it resonates so well here is because Mahfouz is kind of like an outsider peeking in, and so it’s easy for an outsider also to look in at this very peculiar society, and therefore it becomes less strange because it is presented in a sympathetic and understanding way. And so changes everything in the sense of the way we view it. That dimension of exteriority, if you like, that view is very useful for a westerner.

It’s interesting, I once asked Mahfouz what he thought was his best book. He thought and after several moments, and you could tell he was thinking because he stopped smiling, he said “probably Midaq Alley.”

HG: Wasn’t he being diplomatic?

TL: Frankly I think it’s his best book. In a sense, the most perfect. Because of the way it begins and the way it progresses and the way it develops the life story of each of its characters. Then it ends in a perfectly appropriate manner, in the same way as it began, as a complete circle. You don’t need to know anything more about anything. You’ve been introduced very effectively to the environment, you’ve met those great weird wonderful characters. You’ve seen what happens to them, you end the work having enjoyed the whole thing and you have no questions left. You know what’s likely going to happen, and what’s going to happen is that time is going to go on and that there’s going to be a reproduction of the same issues that began the novel, the same human dilemmas. It is about time. It starts with a reference to time and of course it ends with a reference to time, and so I think from the point of view of the study of Mahfouz, this is a very important book because he was obsessed with time, in almost all his works.

HG: Time as in history? Or change?

TL: Time. That’s how he works, he always starts in the past and he always ends right now. It never has to be very far back, though often it is, as in the trilogy. But in many of his works, the stage opens in the past, then the action moves forward to the immediate present.   .

HG: Why do you think he does that?

TL: I think he was very interested in giving his own witness to what he saw. He was also very aware of his own mortality. He was quite seriously diabetic, he lived on to a good old age because of his discipline. He walked everyday as you know, and watched his diet very carefully.

He was aware personally of the threat of imminent death. He had grown up in an environment where all his family — he was the youngest — eventually died. All his siblings had died, and of course being Egyptian he is obsessed with death anyway. So I think he always felt threatened, always aware of time. He knew he had something to say and he believed his purpose was to be the conscience of Egypt. To tell what he witnessed, what he saw, what he thought, and for the benefit of society. He viewed himself as a serious person with a sense of mission, and that’s what he was consciously trying to do.

HG: What do you think were the central issues for him? What did he want for society? Modernity, going back to older values, or the right marriage between the two? Or was he rather interested in human and political freedom?

TL: I think he was very interested in human happiness, as am I. He wanted people to be happy. He wanted himself to be happy. I think the purpose of life is being and finding ways to be at ease with oneself and others.

HG: You picked Midaq Alley and translated it with no contract in hand?

TL: I read it and knew it was for me. I loved the irony, I loved the characters. I loved Hamida. Such a bitch! I had had an unhappy love affair at that point of my life and I was interested in her motivations.

HG: Mahfouz was not very fond of her either. It seemed to me that he didn’t want us to like her and that’s why I was impressed with Ms. Katie’s defense of Hamida’s ambition.

TL: Sure that’s perfectly understandable, but not from Abbas’s point of view!

HG: Did you choose to translate The Thief and the Dogs because you think it’s Mahfouz’s second best novel?

TL: The way I got involved in translating The Thief and the Dogs was rather curious. I was in Cairo and after having translated Midaq Alley I was recognized as one of the few translators around. People recognized Denys Johnson Davies as the most important translator of Egyptian fiction. I was no challenge to him and he has great abilities of course. And he lived there all the time not needing to teach like myself. Anyway, in the 1970s I met Mustafa Badawi, whom I had known earlier — he is Egyptian and he taught English literature at Oxford University — and he was complaining of the cheapness of the American University in Cairo and the miniscule amount of money they were presenting to him for all his hard work involved in translating that novel. He said he was fed up and then he asked me if I would be interested in taking over. I was well aware of the importance of the book and since there was a publisher lined up, I received the fee of some LE200 with a cynical smile. But I knew I was doing something important. Even recently, in 2006, it was selected among 37 works of American and world literature in the national Big Read program.

HG: You also translated Al-Sira al-Nabawiyya (Life of Mohamed, 14th century) by Ibn Kathir. Why did you translate that?

TL: I found it fascinating. I wasn’t engaged in any way with the story of the rise of Islam in my studies, where we took bits and pieces of the Quran like Surit Maryam, but that never inspired any interest in me. It was Raji Rammuny who suggested I translate it when he was advisor to the Qatar-based center publishing a series called “Great Books of Islamic Civilization.” The committee invited me and so I translated Ibn Kathir’s Life of Mohamed. Four volumes took me 10 years, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I use the work in my teaching. It’s full of wonderful hadith narratives that bring the environment of Islam and Arabia to life because they are all first-hand accounts.

HG: Even if some of them are made up?

TL: Who cares if they are made up? It’s not my job to decide. It is perfectly probable that some are, but clearly the Prophet was so powerful, important and charismatic that everybody who ever met him would remember whatever he said, and so there’s a great chance of authenticity of Elbukhary and Moslim.

HG: So anyone who reads Ibn Kathir will get a glimpse of how society was at this point? Or more about the Prophet himself, or abstractions about Islam?

TL: They are all mixed together. It includes some introductory materials about ancient pre-Islamic history and those predecessors of Mohamed who advocated the same things he called for later on. The first volume is very exciting in this regard, not about him, but the background in western Arabia prior to his birth.

HG: Ahmed Amin in Fajr al-Islam (The Dawn of Islam, 1928) and Taha Hussein were interested in writing about this period in the modern way of studying and writing history.

TL: Yes of course, and you know how it all started? It was Mohamed Hussein Heikal Pasha, who was a lawyer, novelist and a senate, and who on holiday in Luxor found Washington Irving’s book about the Prophet Mohamed and it blew him away, because in the 1930s in Cairo and in all the Arab world there was no easy way to find anything much about the Prophet Mohamed. Everyone knew the Quran and serious scholars knew classical manuscripts like Ibn Kathir, but they were not easily accessible or understandable, and so he wrote his own Hayat Muhammed (Life of Mohamed). Curiously then, it was Irving’s writings — who was an American author appointed ambassador to Spain — that inspired all these writers in Cairo in the 1930s, and if it wasn’t for him, it would have taken decades to produce accessible books about the Prophet. Who has time to read four volumes of Ibn Kathir?

On translation and breaking the barrier

HG: You mentioned that you edited Mustafa Badawi’s work, “cheering up the text a little.” Do translations by non-native speakers often need that?

TL: As far as I am concerned, a text needs to come to life. It needs to have a life of its own and it has to look as if it was written by someone native to the language in which you the reader find it. If it looks like a translation then it’s not going to work. So what I tried to do always is to be precise one way or another in translation, but also to get the reader’s attention and maintain it through the language. If the work doesn’t come to life in English then it’s a failed translation, and unfortunately of course, as you know, most translations from Arabic into English are not successful.

HG: Why?

TL: Here’s why. Because most people who try to translate from Arabic spend a long time trying to learn the language and they know damn well that if they make mistakes somebody is going to pick up a copy and compare it to the Arabic and go: “Aha! He’s made a mistake! He’s gone too far away from the Arabic.” The translator feels the presence of an on-looking critic who knows Arabic, and also that that he has a duty to the author that he mustn’t move away from the original.

In Midaq Alley I was taking a lot of trouble to make the dialogue flow, because dialogue is very important. If it reads badly (and there’s a lot of dialogue in this book) and if you cannot imagine someone actually saying the words that are on the printed page then it just doesn’t work. When I was doing this translation I was unmarried and living in Madison, Wisconsin in a nice central faculty housing building. I had a friend teaching English language and literature also residing there and I would meet with him every day over dinner or lunch. He was very interested in what I was doing and I would read him the previous day’s result of translated work. I would read aloud to him and I was very interested of course in him loving the work as I loved it. So in a sense, I was translating for him. I wanted it to be alive for him. I knew I was going to read it aloud so I wanted it to be interesting and enjoyable. So it was very fortunate for me.

HG: This method of reading aloud, did you suggest it to your students or practice it again?

TL: As time went by I did not feel that need so much, but it was very good that I had such a friend who was expert in English and who would appreciate a tale being told well.

Student: In translating Midaq Alley, were there words or phrases that were lost in translation (cultural specific items) because they have no matching words in English?

TL: There are lots of those. Things that you can’t translate and that you don’t want to translate because you don’t want to give a context which is beyond the comprehension of the reading public. I wrote this to achieve what it has done — to become popular in the English language, and I tried to make it so by not having footnotes, for example. Lots of translators come across some phrase that is deeply linked to some aspect of Arab or Muslim culture and they therefore feel obliged to explain it, maybe transliterate it from the Arabic to English and then provide a footnote. If I had done that, then this text would have been littered with footnotes. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to diminish the distance between potential readers and the work itself by making it look as if it didn’t have those cultural issues.

S: Then what did you put in place of such phrases?

TL: Sometimes I try to get around the problem by putting a word or so in a bracket or a transliteration, but in Midaq Alley I didn’t even do that. Maybe I put in a few phrases descriptive of the word, but I but didn’t use footnotes or italics. I wanted the reader to immerse himself into the alley as an Egyptian would. I believe, you see, the most important thing about literature is its universal qualities and we have to remember that we’re all the same human race and that we should try to find bridges between us all. Instead of emphasizing the points of difference. That’s the way I choose to translate. Lots of other people who translate don’t have that same wish. They don’t seek to break the barrier.

HG: So it seems that trying to be too accurate can be a disservice to the author and the book, while trying to “make it popular” and enjoyable is almost like sharing the author’s stress of attracting the reader. But too much liberty with the text might actually offend the author. What was the case with Mahfouz in Midaq Alley?

TL: Having finished my initial translation, I had some editorial help from a very capable American editor in Beirut, Mrs. French, who used to work for Time magazine. She took some of my elongated English translation of the original and tightened it up. But the only substantial editing done was towards the middle of the book regarding Hamida’s motivations. She took exception to how Mahfouz kept telling us about the motivations of the characters. She found that boring, and she was right, and suggested cutting out the repetitions.

This resulted in an English language translation that reads in some ways better to the modern reader of English who does not like repetition. But Arabs don’t care about repetition. I have a theory about this, and that is that Arab authors sometimes aren’t too sure whether their audience are aware of what’s happening because their language level isn’t very good, so just to make sure that their reader is still following along, some authors repeat themselves. We don’t like to do that in English. We get annoyed if we read a passage in English and 15 pages later we are reminded of that. We are offended, “I am the reader, what do you think? That I don’t have a memory?”

And when I met Mahfouz in 1964 to ask him to sign the contract, having arranged with Khayyat in Beirut to publish the book, I apologized for having, in agreement with Khayat’s copy editor, decided to leave out a few sentences since they were repetitive. The subject was, of course, sensitive and potentially dangerous, and I was much relieved when he responded with one of his great laughs and smilingly responded that he understood the problem very well.  He was standing at the window of his office in the TV building overlooking the Nile that was then in its last-ever full flood, and he gestured towards it saying, “Well, we Egyptians are much influenced in our music and our literary culture by the constant, repetitive patterns of the flow of the Nile, and I can see how this would not reflect well in English!”

And so there was no problem. He clearly respected our views and wanted the work to read well in English. By the way, Mahfouz’s writing had not been as crisp and economical in the 1940s as it became later. And he might also at that stage have wanted to be sure that his readers “got the point” despite his sometimes difficult wording, and so occasionally repeated himself. In any case, the small excisions we made improved the work, I think, and certainly enhanced its reception in English. He was very sensible. He wanted his book to read well.

S: Are you fluent in Arabic?

TL: No. Anyone who tells you they know Arabic doesn’t know Arabic. They know some Arabic. Most Arabs don’t own dictionaries although it is a very complex language for which you really do need to have a dictionary, especially if you want to understand the earlier ranges of Arabic literature.

S: Were there things you missed when translating Arabic humor?

TL: I’m sure I have missed a few things. One of the delights of being an Arabist is that occasionally you get to review somebody else’s translation, and if you’re in a bad mood you can always find something wrong or missing that you can point out in your review. Everybody likes to find mistakes that other people have made. You have to have thick skin to be a translator.

One example of a mistake I made in the first edition is when the matchmaker suggests an elderly suitor for Saniya Afifi, who was 50 herself, and in the wonderful dance between her and the matchmaker she responds with the phrase: “Aftar ala basala?” (break a fast by eating an onion?). I didn’t have an Egyptian friend to ask and had no idea how common a phrase it was, so I translated it to mean “eat very little to become fitter”. That is: I’ll take care of my health and eat only an onion for breakfast, whereas as you know, and as it was pointed out later to me with great glee, what she was obviously saying is that she wants a young virile man.

I made mistakes of course when I translated. It’s hard even for literate Arabs. It’s a near impossible language, no doubt one of the most complex in its vocabulary. Even harder than Russian.

Part 2 of this interview can be found here.

Hadil Ghoneim 

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