Academic journal article New Formations

Responsible Reading and Cultural Distance

Academic journal article New Formations

Responsible Reading and Cultural Distance

Article excerpt

Abstract This essay asks how we can account for the experience of inventiveness when we read a work that arises from, and on its initial publication spoke to, a significantly different cultural context from our own. To what extent does a responsible reading of such a work imply a project of countering any sense of inventiveness that arises solely from the cultural distance between the contexts of production and of reception ? If so, how can this be achieved? How can we know if it has been achieved? If on the other hand, it is legitimate to capitalize on effects of inventiveness that arise from cultural difference, how can we avoid reducing the work to an example of pleasurable exoticism? The example of Alaa al-Aswany's novel The Yacoubian Building is used to discuss these issues, concluding that the inevitable disparity that ames under such circumstances need not disqualify a reading; the responsibility of the reader is not to undertake a reconstruction of the original moment of reception in the home culture but to allow the norms of the host culture to be challenged by whatever is experienced as inventive in the work.

Keywords cultural difference, responsibility, inventiveness, production, reception, al-Aswany

When Alaa al-Aswany's Arabic novel Imarat Ya'qubyan was published in 2002, it quickly established itself as a runaway popular success. It was the Arab world's best-selling work of fiction for 2002 and 2003, and listeners to the Middle East Broadcasting Service voted it the best novel of 2003.' A highly successful Egyptian film and mini-series followed. By 2007 the work was in its ninth edition.

In 2006 in the USA and 2007 in the UK, an English translation by Humphrey Davies with the title The Yacoubian Building appeared to great critical acclaim - the British paperback includes two pages of glowing tributes from the country's leading newspapers and magazines - and achieved substantial sales. English is far from being the only language in which a version of the novel has appeared: in conversation with Pamela Nice in 2006, al-Aswany noted that it had been translated into 19 languages, and in 2010 he responded angrily when the IsraelPalestine Centre for Research and Information made an unauthorised Hebrew translation freely available. Samia Mehrez, in her 2008 study of cultural conflict in the Egypt of the Mubarak era (i.e., after 1981), calls the novel's global triumph 'mind-boggling and overwhelming,' and cites nearly 200,000 sales worldwide at the time of writing.2 This figure has undoubtedly risen considerably since then.

What is the relation between these two sets of facts? To what degree do the reasons for the success of the Arabic original overlap with the reasons for the success of the various translations - and the English translation in particular? And what would constitute a responsible reading of one of the translated versions by a reader without Arabic, a reading that could be said to do justice to al-Aswany's work?

I'm using this very specific example to raise the much broader question of cultural distance as a factor in reading. Inevitably, when a work crosses geographical and linguistic boundaries the cultural context within which it was produced and within which it was first read (for simplicity's sake, I shall assume for the time being that these are the same) differs from the cultural contexts within which it is received. If, then, the work that I encounter strikes me as remarkable, how do I know whether that remarkableness is a direct response to the author's achievement in his or her own milieu, or is generated by the cultural difference between that milieu and my own? And how much does it matter which of these it is?

To get to grips with these questions, it's necessary to consider what 'remarkable' might mean when used in this way. Literary works that achieve high status in Western culture are characterised by their singularity; those that are seen as merely following out a formula, and are thus barely distinguishable from other examples of the genre in question, are accorded low standing and may not, in fact, be dignified with the title literature'. …

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