Colby Cosh has begun posting a daily (or near-daily) survey of items from the obscure nooks and exotic crannies of the English-language world press. Sez he:
There are English-language newspapers nearly everywhere, and most aggregator sites don't really touch them. Surely intelligent Westerners would get interested in what's going on in China or Nigeria or Bangladesh -- if somebody made it easy for them.
No doubt they would -- and don't call me Shirley.
Mr. Cosh's April 19 aggregation included a fascinating-to-me article from Cairo's Al-Ahram Weekly by Mohamed Enani, a professor of English literature at Cairo University: "On translating Shakespeare into Arabic." The piece is adapted from a talk Professor Enani presented during a "Shakespeare Now" conference held earlier this month at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
As a riveting read, Professor Enani's talk suffers a bit from its academic origins -- this was the sort of conference, we learn from the sidebar, at which professors laid out "a postcolonial critique of humanist interpretations of the playwright" or read papers with titles such as "Enter the Ghost in his Night Gowne: the Corpus or Corpse of Shakespeare" and the poststructuralist "King Lear and the Missing Salt" -- but it is chock full of intriguing nuggets reminding the Western reader that, Harold Bloom notwithstanding, Shakespeare's influence is not so "universal" as we sometimes assume. Indeed, the theatrical landscape of the Arab world is very different from our own, as Professor Enani begins by pointing out:
Until less than a century ago there had been no Arabic plays, that is, plays written originally in Arabic.
As for Shakespeare in Arabic,
The earliest extant Shakespearean translation dates as far back as [sic!] 1900, namely Mohamed Iffat's free -- perhaps too free -- translation of Macbeth. The early decades of the 20th century saw a variety of adaptations, notably Sheikh Salama Higazi's Shuhada' Al-Gharam (Martyrs of Love) -- a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, presented to an audience brought up on the tradition of Ottoman music, and written in classical rhymed verse, in 1912. . . .
* * *
[B]y the early 1950s, the Shakespearean canon came to include three of the four 'great tragedies' -- Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth -- and three other plays, The Merchant of Venice in Mutran's version, Julius Caesar in Mohamed Hamdi's version, and Romeo and Juliet in Ali Ahmed Bakatheer's blank verse version. The omission of King Lear from the canon seems odd; it was not done into Arabic until the 1960s in modern standard Arabic prose, then into verse in the 1990s. So, in fact, was the omission of the rest of the comedies and all histories. Even after Taha Hussein had initiated in the 1950s the grand project of translating all of Shakespeare's plays, under the aegis of the Arabic League, into Arabic prose, the other plays of Shakespeare remained largely unknown.
(It is interesting to note that the one of Shakespeare's plays that is actually set in Egypt -- Antony and Cleopatra -- is apparently not among the works that have been widely translated for reading or performance by Egyptians.)
Professor Enani also describes the critical fallout he endured after translating The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1981. Fed a steady diet of mighty Shakespearean tragedy, the critics questioned whether the frolicsome intrigues of Falstaff and company weren't a betrayal of the Master:
One wrote an article in a Cairene weekly, a virulent attack on my 'frivolous' work, entitled 'The killing of a dramatist', by which he meant that I had murdered Shakespeare, the grand writer of tragedies. Another exclaimed 'Is this the Shakespeare we know? This is an act of forgery, committed by a man who should know better than to vulgarise the venerable poet of the English-speaking world.'
Some things -- testy theater critics among them -- seemingly are universal.
Bonus Alexandrian content: I have, most unexpectedly, managed now to write two consecutive and unrelated posts somehow tied into the libraries, ancient and modern, of Alexandria. One more Alexandrian connection occurs to me to close out this post:
The poet C. P. Cavafy, though Greek himself, was a lifelong resident of Alexandria, and knew a thing or two (we non-Greek readers are assured) about mixing "high" and "low" or formal and demotic language in his work, as did Shakespeare. Cavafy, for that matter, wrote a poem or two referencing Antony and Cleopatra and the sad fate of their offspring. The opening paragraphs of W. H. Auden's Introduction to Rae Dalven's translations of Cavafy's poems take a hard squint at the migration of poetry from one language to another:
Ever since I was first introduced to his poetry by the late Professor R. M. Dawkins over thirty years ago, C. P. Cavafy has remained an influence on my own writing; that is to say, I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently or perhaps not written at all. Yet I do not know a word of Modern Greek, so that my only access to Cavafy's poetry has been through English and French translations.
This perplexes and a little disturbs me. Like everybody else, I think, who writes poetry, I have always believed the essential difference between prose and poetry to be that prose can be translated into another tongue but poetry cannot.
But it if it possible to be poetically influenced by work which one can read only in translation, this belief must be qualified.
[Photo of Miss Langtry as Cleopatra via Shakespeare and the Players.]