Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Mediating Iltizam: The Discourse on Translation in the Early Years of Al-Adab

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Mediating Iltizam: The Discourse on Translation in the Early Years of Al-Adab

Article excerpt

Introduction

From its first issue, published in January 1953, the Lebanese monthly journal al-Adab developed and disseminated a particular strand of existentialist philosophy: what Jean-Paul Sartre called engagement, typically translated in English as commitment and rendered in Arabic as iltizam. The journal's editor, Suhayl Idris, along with his wife, 'A'ida Matarji Idris, undertook to summarize, translate, and critique works by such existentialists as Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Jean Wahl, Emmanuel Robles, and above all Sartre. (1) The journal published short stories and poems as well as literary criticism that were influenced by this existentialist nexus, and the associated publishing house, Dar al-Adab, issued full-length works in all of these genres. In addition to promoting a diverse group of Arab writers, the journal also included a section on recent cultural events--books released, plays staged, art exhibits held--in the US, the USSR, and a variety of countries in Western Europe; among these, works with an existentialist tendency featured prominently.

A contradiction haunted this concerted effort to render Sartre and the other existentialists in Arabic. On the one hand, the particular works that the journal chose for translation were of a primarily literary and polemical bent, to the exclusion of the more phenomenological works that constituted the basis of Sartre's professional reputation in France. Scholars working on the reception of existentialism in the Arab world have noted to this end that Sartre's Qu'est-ce que la litterature? was translated before L'etre et le neant. Portions of the former appeared in 1961 in translation by Muhammad GhunaymT Hilal (Klemm 60, n. 21), whereas the latter was not translated until 1966, by 'Abd al-Rahman Badawl (Di-Capua 1070). (2) This pattern was reproduced in the journal's pages, where Sartre's texts on colonialism figured greatly: The first three works written by Sartre that the journal chose for translation were all essays or lectures written about various aspects of the French occupation and the war in Algeria (see Sartre "Nizam" "Qadiyyat"; "al-Jalladun").

This distinction between Sartre's "philosophical" works and his public interventions is not quite so absolute as it has been made out to be. It ignores the literary, rhetorical, and political content of the philosophical works and his use of fiction and polemical interventions to illuminate his philosophy. To say that Arab existentialism was oriented by the texts it privileged for translation toward political, more specifically nationalist, issues is to misconstrue both the nature of the original texts and the role of translation in provoking intellectual movements. Sartre's texts were all more or less simultaneously "political," "literary," and "philosophical" in the sense that they aimed to destabilize existing norms. They were laden with rhetorical tropes and imagery culled from the various arts, and were premised on a particular understanding of the relations between beings and Being that continued to evolve as Sartre wrote and thought in various genres. What mattered in the constitution of al-Adab's mode of existentialism was not only the original texts but rather what DiCapua calls the "creative translation" that the journal made of Sartre's and other existentialists' works (1064). Beyond this affirmation of the creativity in all translation, however, it remains to examine the particular way that translation was understood and deployed in the journal's pages.

On the other hand, this distinction does usefully point to the broader public concerns with which both Sartre in his non-academic mode and al-Adab were primarily concerned. Not simply privileging practice over theory or politics over contemplation, the Sartre that al-Adab saw fit to translate understood writing as a potent tool for changing public consciousness on the road to political revolution. Sartre's theoretical writings, like the Western metaphysical tradition of which they formed a part, had assumed the priority of meaning to the language in which they were expressed; but they nevertheless agonized in language over how best to represent those concepts, and they were generally motivated by an interrogative, rather than declarative, mode of addressing their objects. …

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