The Importance of One’s Voice

In the interview posted on Blackboard with Rafik Schami, Schami speaks about the power and significance of one’s voice. Schami makes the point that one ought to speak out and utilize one’s voice as an integral aspect to a functioning democracy; without speaking out, Schami suggests that democracy would fail. Silence then becomes anathema to democracy. According to Schami, democracies as a form of government would be unable to sustain themselves or function in their most idyllic sense without an electorate and citizenship that is unabashedly unafraid of using their voices and their freedoms to do so. Schami connects this notion of “responsible citizenship” to the importance of telling stories orally; the two are both vital to healthy societies.

Throughout Schami’s Damascus Nights, the notion of Salim’s lost voice and attempts to regain that voice through others employing their voices by way of oral story-telling, a cultural trope, allegorically parallels to the repression of free speech in totalitarian military societies. The impact of Salim’s lost voice reverberates throughout the Middle East as numerous authoritarian regimes monopolize speech in a manner directly inimical to democracy. For example, in addition to my grandfather’s anecdote about Saddam’s silencing of Iraqi’s voices, Schami’s work alludes to Nasser’s radio station, Sawt al-Arab,  which acted as a monolithic voice for the Arab people as it simultaneously silenced the voices of the Arab people. Furthermore, the theme of losing one’s voice occurs throughout the work to underscore its significance. In addition to Salim’s lost voice, the farmer’s Faustian bargain in which he trades his voice reinforces this theme. The farmer is noted to have paid an incredible price for the gold lira at the expense of his voice. Similar to 1001 Nights, the significance of one’s voice is equivalent to life. Within the Nights, oral stories allow the characters to live; the decapitated woman in “The Story of the Three Apples” is reduced to an object because she cannot tell her stories.

The significance of one’s voice, to me at least, is perhaps best expressed, as I said in class, by Dante’s image of Satan at the end of Inferno.  That Satan, the paradigmatic sinner, is punished by the denial of the Word, or in other words, the loss of his ability to utilize his voice, is significant precisely because of the importance of one’s voice. I think this image parallels to both Schami’s Damascus Nights and 1001 Nights well and reveals the importance of story-telling not only in both works, but also in literature and society as a whole.


Ruminations on the Great Translators’ Debate

If there was anything that I took away from the debate in class today, it was that the debate reaffirmed my position on translation and adaptation theory. Arguments made, particularly by Haddawy, which argued for strict fidelity, seemed completely unjustifiable. As I wrote more extensively in a previous blog post, arguments for near perfect fidelity in the act of translation are extremely unconvincing. The weakness of arguments attempting to promote a particular translation over others by arguing that one is more faithful to a source text are essentially a moot point because of the impossibility of fidelity: a new language transforms the text and notions of having the “best” failure is an unquantifiable proposition. I am more firmly entrenched in my attitude that the best way to read a text which has been translated and adapted, as the Arabian Nights have, is to place the many translations in conversation with one another and examining each on its own terms. I cannot stress this point enough. I find it exceptionally counterproductive to argue that a certain translation is more faithful than other. By no means do I advocate that Burton’s is in fact “the best” translation; however, it is translation and should be examined not against other translations, but rather, in conversation with the other translators. A more productive discussion would analyze why certain translators made the decisions that they did. It seems to me wholly unacademic to proclaim a certain version of a text, which is ostensibly different to the point that it could be considered its own version of the text, to be the best telling of that text. The problem lies in the difficulty in quantifying “best,” which, in conjunction with the problematic notions of fidelity, does not create a productive way of engaging with the texts.

Problems with Lane

Among my biggest problems with Lane’s translation of 1001 Nights is the fact that he takes this work of literature to be an ethnographic text. Not only does he make his Orientalist approach clear in his extensive preface, but also throughout his many notes. The problems with this approach are clear: Lane’s interpretation of the work is exceedingly Orientalist. He reduces the Arabian Nights to a mirror for Arab culture. The richness and complexities of the transcultural text are dismissed as aspects of the text that are un-Arab are taken to be  the result of troubling translations. Lane’s verbose notes reveal his ethnographic Orientalist approach as he writes substantially on aspects of the Arab culture within the context of the work.

In addition to assuming that 1001 Nights is an ethnographic text, Lane interprets the work to be specifically informative about Arab culture. Lane ignores claims to authorship from Persia and India and disavows Galland’s translation because for Lane, the Arabian Nights are informative only about the Middle East. His Orientalist approach, while on some level privileges the Arab culture for giving it an authentic claim to the Nights, is paradoxical because it also reduces both the Arab culture to an Orientalist subject for study and the Nights as a whole by ignoring the cultural diversity within the text.

Postmodernism and Translation of the Arabian Nights

Absolute fidelity to a translated work is impossible. Languages are entwined with cultural idiosyncrasies that do not carry the same connotations when they are guised in another language. For example, I once was talking about rap music with an Arabic professor, particularly about the difficulty in translating it to Arabic. The example that the professor brought up was a Jay-Z line in which he spits, “I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adnes Reeves / who made love under the sycamore tree / which makes me a more sicka mc.” This line simply does not make nearly as much sense when translated into Arabic, demonstrating the inherent difficulties and undesirability of translation. Translated content undergoes a disfiguring or a fragmentation as it moves from one language to another. The connotations of the words in a different language carry with them different meanings that both do not and cannot create fidelity to a translated work. At best what is being produced is a slanted truth rather than an absolute. Translation posits a particular interpretation put forth by the translator in order to convey the meanings that they see fit. There are, as Lawrence Venuti articulates, three-source language contexts that are being lost. Venuti aptly perceives that both intertextual and intratextual context is lost in translation, as well as the context of the text’s reception in addition to its existence as a cultural object.

To be clear, I am not arguing against translation. Rather, I am arguing that translated texts do not reproduce the “original” work as typically believed. Instead, what is being produced, by definition of translation, is a new work. Not only is this work new, but it should be treated as such. To clarify yet again, I am not advocating the treatment of each translation of The Arabian Nights as completely separate from other translations of the work. What I am advocating is that they be treated as separated works in dialogue with other translations of the text.

It seems extremely silly and intellectually irresponsible to discredit some translated versions of the The Arabian Nights on the basis of alleged infidelity. The Arabian Nights are a work of literature and each translation is a separate entity that conveys meanings innate to the context of its creation as well as to the idiosyncratic cultures that influence the translation. It is in this spirit that I argue, somewhat in the spirit of Susan Sontag, against notions that some versions of translated works are verifiably false. No, they are not. The problem with translation is central to the concept of fidelity. Both of which are problematic. Devaluing works on the basis of improper translations (translations that are not faithful) is baseless. A work of art is a work of art and has value in and of itself. It is fundamentally impossible to produce an identical meaning in a new language (though similar meanings are possible). There are no such things as “poisonous fruit” within different translation because the works can and must be considered new works that are ends in and of themselves.


A Feminist Reading of 1001 Nights?

From the moment I began to read 1001 Nights I’ve been grappling with the question of whether or not this work is meant to be read as a feminist text. Throughout the work women are placed in a variety of positions, some of which are authoritative. However, the question persistently lingered as to whether or not the work is explicitly suggesting a feminist reading or if I was simply projecting a modern understanding of gender dynamics onto the work. Furthermore, as Prof. Litvin explained Wayne C. Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction, which argues that works of literature inform the reader how they are meant to be read, I continued to grapple with the question of interpreting 1001 Nights through a feminist lens. Working on my presentation for this week on Suzanne Gauch’s Liberating Shahrazad, I found myself leaning towards the edge of the spectrum that interprets 1001 Nights as a feminist text for several reasons. I think  the fact that Shahrazad is in a position of authority as the story-teller does seem to lend credence to feminist readings of the text. Shahrazad is explicitly an authoritative figure and wields significant sway over Shahryar through her oratorical abilities. As story-telling is life throughout 1001 Nights, Shahrazad is the ultimate wielder of life and power in the text. While I do think that my modern understanding of feminism certainly colors my reading of the text and pushes me toward buying into this particular reading, I think that there is a powerful feminist overtone throughout the work that does suggest the veracity of a feminist interpretation.

Todorov & Characters

I found Todorov’s analysis of characters in The Arabian Nights to be particularly interesting as he provides a new lens for looking at the the characters. My tradition manner of analyzing characters tends to place emphasis on the psychology of the character in question. However, Todorov provides an excellent explanation of Henry James essay, The Art of Fiction, by exploring the idea that characters can be subservient to the actions they undertake. This lens presents all character traits as causal because they provoke action by the character in question. Taking a step further, Todorov explains that the character traits are more than just causal: the character trait is both the cause and effect of the action. The significance of Todorov’s explanation is that the people become living stories as they are characterized by what they do while at the same time what they do is what characterizes them.

Throughout The Arabian Nights characterization is revealed in each of the stories by  the characters telling their own stories: because the characters are defined by their actions simultaneously as their actions define them. As characters appear in stories and begin to explain their own origins, the characters themselves amount to their actions. For example, in “The Porter and the Three Ladies” when the dervishes enter the story, each one is tasked with explaining how he lost his eye and shaved his beard. As each dervish engages in the act of story-telling, each dervish shows his how his character traits caused his actions and how his actions are the product of his character traits. As Todorov explains, this amounts to the fact that narrating equals living in The Arabian Nights. 

Pinault & Story-Telling Techniques

Pinault’s article, “Story-Telling Techniques in The Arabian Nights,” struck me in particular because of his illuminating examination of several story-telling techniques that help make The Arabian Nights an enchanting and enduring collection of stories. For example, Pinault’s explanation of the relationship between redactors and the oral tradition of The Arabian Nights both grounds the text in its historical context and provides a frame for analyzing The Arabian Nights. Pinault shows that this text is more than transcribed oral folktales by acknowledging that the text is “the crafted composition of authors who used various forms of written literary Arabic to capture an oral narrative tradition” (Norton, 507). In acknowledging The Arabian Nights as more than transcribed oral folklore, Pinault provides a richer and more layered frame to analyze the stories. He argues that redactors are responsible for shaping the chain of oral and textual transmission and provide readers with the story. Pinault characterizes the redactor as a figure that actively engages with a dynamic text; the text is dynamic because it undergoes changes as it is filtered through the lenses of individuals in an oral and textual transmission chain.

In addition to explaining the importance of redactors in shaping The Arabian Nights, Pinault’s analysis of effective narrative devices, such as Repetitive Designation, Leitwortstil,  Thematic and Formal Patterning, and Dramatic Visualization, struck me as each of those techniques I found to be prominent in other great works of literature. Repetitive Design seemed similar to Chekhov’s gun as even the most minute can be seen as casual foreshadowing. Moreover, Repetitive Design is an integral part of George R.R. Martin’s lauded series A Song of Ice and Fire. In Martin’s own words, he describes this technique as gardening; Martin plants seeds and cultivates them to bear fruit later in his plot. Similarly, I found Pinault’s explication of Leitwortstil reminiscent of Dante’s The Divine Comedy because both emphasized language as a means of adding layers of meaning to the text. While Arabic’s triliteral roots harmonize the meaning in The Arabian Nights, Dante’s use of Italian throughout his seminal work adds undertones to several of his stories that are missed in English translations. In both cases the use of the native language harmonizes the texts as some layers of meaning are lost in translation while new meaning are added; such is the nature of translation. Furthermore, the use of both Thematic and Formal Patterning as a means of connecting and organizing seemingly disparate stories is prevalent in, among other authors, the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. For example, in the same manner that The Arabian Nights’ “story-as-random motif binds much of the entirety of the collection, Dostoyevsky’s are patterned together through a recurring pattern of rebirth that places his works within a distinct lexicon. Finally, Pinault’s examination of Dramatic Visualization I found pertinent to myriad literary works as authors capitalize on this narrative device to consistently emphasize the climax of their respective works.