Julia Bray on Translating Al-Tanūkhī, ‘A Useful Thinker for Our Times’

Al-Muḥassin ibn ʻAlī al-Tanūkhī (939–994) was a judge, collector of stories, and litterateur who was born in Basra and died in Baghdad. Raised in a lettered family with significant connections to the ruling elite, Tanūkhī knew many of the stories behind the great rises and falls of his day. Deliverance Follows Adversityis one of two influential anthologies he compiled, and it is full of stories of imprisonment, loss, and liberation.

More than a millennium after the author-editor’s death, Julia Bray, the Abdulaziz Saud AlBabtain Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford, has translated the first three chapters of Deliverance, titled Stories of Piety and Prayer, into a sharp, clear English. Bray’s scholarly interests focus on medieval Arabic literature, life-writing, and social history, which puts Tanūkhī’s Deliverance—part autobiography, part social history, and part self-help—directly in her crosshairs. Indeed, Bray said that, when she began reading Tanūkhī, she found “practically everything I was interested in was there.”

What do Tanūkhī’s multiple—and varied—tellings of events tell us about his project? Why does Bray feel Deliverance was “a struggle to write,” and why is it a must-read for historians of emotion and narratologists? In this second part of a two-part discussion, Bray also talks about her translation decisions, and why she tried to stay as close as possible to the Arabic.

I’m usually someone who falls asleep during the isnāds, but I was surprisingly charmed by this book’s vigorous sourcing. Not only do we have chains of transmission, but sometimes Tanūkhī cites a book anda chain of transmission; sometimes he notes whether an anecdote was memorized or loosely remembered; he notes sometimes that he has permission to re-tell a story; sometimes whether the anecdote was read back and verified. Also, he gathers multiple tellings of events. In doing so, does he stand out from other authors in offering a kind of extra scholarly rigor? The function of the isnāds is generally clear, to tie us into a history, but what about the function of the multiple versions? (I find the idea that some translators would have cut the variations a bit shocking; they seem very important to this project.) 

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Julia Bray: I’m pleased that you like and even enjoy the isnāds. They gave me a hard time to translate and annotate, and given that the names in them are often in shorthand I don’t doubt that I’ve got some identifications wrong, but without the isnāds I think we can’t understand Tanūkhī and what writing this book meant to him—a memorial to all his vital contacts, his teachers, friends, family, especially his father, living voices in his ear of people he loved and respected, and of course a living link with the Prophet and his descendants, sometimes an immediate one when he met ʿAlids who taught him ʿAlid family prayers. I sympathize with translators who cut Tanūkhī’s chains of transmitters, because translating them is awful drudgery, but it’s very instructive. Hadith and isnāds were at the core of Tanūkhī’s family identity: his relatives were famous hadith scholars and reciters. Isnāds shaped his literary identity, too. He was a pupil of Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, whose Book of Songsis a mosaic of source citations and text quotations which I believe set the benchmark of good scholarly practice in literature, biography, and history for quite a while to come. His practice certainly set the standard for Tanūkhī. As for the multiple versions of narratives, of course they’re good hadith practice and good practice in literary scholarship, but they do complicate things. Sometimes details change, sometimes people’s identities, and sometimes storylines. Given the impossibility, which more or less everyone at that time acknowledged, of getting at exact, unanimous historical truth, do multiple versions relativize the truth? Or do they multiply it? An open question, now as then.

You called the book in some ways academic, in some ways autobiographical. What do those terms mean in Tanūkhī’s context, in terms of what he meant the book to do? How was it meant to act in the world, to join the written conversation? You suggest this was also something of a journaling exercise, a way of coming to terms with his life? For myself, I suppose I found it in some ways pop lit. 

JB:Let’s start with pop lit. That’s what I find engaging and compelling about Tanūkhī: he was a scholar, but the story came first. Well, obviously, the isnād came first, but not just for the sake of scholarship, equally as a way for Tanūkhī to write himself into what the story meant in terms of his own identity.

How did he mean Deliverance to join the written conversation? There’s a clue in the books he quotes from. Even in Stories of Piety and Prayer, he quotes from books about bureaucrats and viziers. You might well ask what they have to do with the shining and unsurpassable example set by the prophets and patriarchs, which prefaces Deliverance. The slender thread is their common faith. The discrepancy is a fact in all religions. Anyone who practices a religion anywhere and at any time has to try to make sense of the fact that they’re nothing like the figures they’re supposed to imitate. By bringing flawed characters (a human menagerie, not just viziers) into the conversation about deliverance, Tanūkhī was throwing the conversation wide open. It needed throwing open, and I don’t think it ever had been before in such inclusive terms. Tanūkhī built a bridge between what we could crudely call the secular, as represented by the literary world of Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī’s Book of Songs, for example, and the devout, and the theologically rigorous: the ascetic, largely exclusionary piety of the hadith folk, and the equally exclusionary ruthlessness of the tougher brands of Muʿtazilism. I find Tanūkhī a useful thinker for our times. He confronts the problem of what to do with a faith model that’s removed from present realities. He doesn’t privilege the past or try to harmonize rules or role models; instead, by a leap of imagination, literary imagination, he works contemporary reality and subjectivity (very important!) into the fabric of lived faith.

You say that his family ties both explain some of his access to information and “[help] us understand certain aspects of his piety.” Can you expand on that?

JB: Tanūkhī had relatives and family contacts who were state scribes and told him a lot of anecdotes about the corridors of power, and he was a protegé of his father’s friend, the vizier al-Muhallabī. His outlook was definitely the outlook of a member of the elite: worldly-wise, with an expectation of privilege. The religious tenets he was brought up in were elitist too. Muʿtazilīs were intellectual, scathing of what they saw as facile and irrational beliefs. They held that humans have complete free will, which makes them the authors of their own salvation or damnation, because God is too just to predestine them in any way. It’s not a consoling doctrine. At the same time, Tanūkhī believed in astrology—his father was an expert in it and had predicted his own death. On the face of it, that sounds a bit like a contradiction of free will, and not very consoling either. But the local Basran school of Muʿtazilism, whose leader his father was close to, had a doctrine of divine grace, and argued that God doesn’t necessarily abandon us to the consequences of our own actions. That’s a more comfortable attitude. And Tanūkhī’s family were steeped in hadith, some them recognized virtuosos as scholars or reciters, and several of them were famed for their exemplary lives too: more elitism, but at what we usually think of as the other end of the religious scale from Muʿtazilism. Tanūkhī even had a relative who belonged to the ultimate pious elite, that of people whose prayers are answered, to the extent that he could pray successfully on behalf of people whose own prayers might not have made the cut, something that Tanūkhī offers no explanation for, rational or otherwise. The first chapters of Deliveranceshow that he believed, or hoped, that there’s a blessing in hadith which rubs off on people who know and repeat them, and that certain prayers and passages of the Qurʾan are guaranteed to help or save. Some of them are common knowledge, but others are passed on to Tanūkhī as insider tips, so to speak: more elitism. So in one way or another, his beliefs were pretty eclectic and accommodating, a kind of belt and braces approach.

Readers of his time would have certainly known more about other authors, popular poems, and notables than we do now. Would they also have known about Tanūkhī’s personal history? When he says, “I was once made to suffer great adversity by an enemy to escape whom I went into hiding,” is he being coy (as I can’t help but read it)? Or doesn’t it matter why he was forced into hiding? Or everyone else knew?

JB:You’re right, he is being coy here, and I wonder why, when in other places he’s quite specific about his misfortunes or oppressors. Of course there are a whole lot of things that he says nothing about, his personal life, for a start. In later volumes we get glimpses of his relatives seen from a child’s-eye viewpoint (which is possibly unique), and stories about some of them, even about an aunt who had led such a secluded life that she’d never seen a camel (actually, this is in Table Talk), but he never mentions his mother or wife or son. And while he’s very keen on love stories and on contemporary sentimental confessions (wait for later volumes of the translation), he never tells us whether he was ever in love himself. 

Does Tanūkhī also gain additional believability and credibility from his attention to detail (and detail in multiple versions)? Or simply…narrative enjoyability? 

JB:I think it cuts both ways. In one sense, because the situation (adversity) is a given, that focuses interest on the action (how does deliverance come about?). In another sense, the given is the adversity anddeliverance, which makes the action a given too and draws attention to the quality and specifics of the situation. And once you accept the premise of the book, which is that all situations in which there’s a deliverance show the operation of God’s mercy, then the more varied the situations (sublime or trivial or anything in between), the more important the details as signs of the reach of mercy. And of course, the better the story. Or the better the read, regardless of the story. In the course of nearly five hundred stories, Tanūkhī introduces his readers to kinds of people and places that their own lifestyles would probably never have brought them into contact with. One of the pleasures of Deliverance is the chance it gives the reader to be a fly-on-the-wall observer.

I’m very interested in how much imprisonment features, and yet how little of innocence or guilt. We, as readers, are by and large not given information so that we can judge the people within. As to many of those who are imprisoned, we don’t know for what crime (or if there was any crime at all). A few pray. But for many, their release seems entirely down to chance. “Deliverance may come at any moment,” because it’s utterly capricious. What does this tell us about his world, and how we should maneuver our way through it? The random acts of kindness are important, but I never felt as though he were encouraging me to commit any.

JB: You’re right, this isn’t a book about how to live virtuously. It’s about crises, and most of the characters are in a state of panic at that point in their lives and are only thinking about themselves. There’s one very short parable about kindness to animals (the man who goes mad after killing a calf in front of its mother, and is cured when he lifts a fledgling back into its nest). Perspectives broaden in later chapters, but there’s not much kindness in these early ones, or pity. On the contrary, there’s open satisfaction when former oppressors become victims in their turn.

Prison features a lot in Stories of Piety and Prayer, and even more in later chapters of Deliverance. People could be imprisoned for debt, and for holding suspect beliefs. Imprisonment was an almost inevitable risk for members of the elite—when you were in power, you put your enemies in prison; when you fell from power, they did the same to you, and tortured you, and confiscated your wealth. To that extent, imprisonment was a predictable part of a career cycle and life cycle. Perhaps the idea of prison afforded a good frame for thinking about life more generally, by singling out an almost inevitable experience that people would have anticipated and wondered how they would cope with. It is so ubiquitous that, instead of giving it one, exclusive chapter, Tanūkhī allows it to spill over into several.

And how does the vision of the world here relate to the world of Table-Talk (also by Tanūkhī)?

JB:On internal evidence it’s agreed that Table-Talk was begun first. It’s very much about human absurdities, which is something Deliverance often shares with it, and the two books actually share a few of the same stories too, but the outlook of Table-Talk is that of the experienced older people who were Tanūkhī’s unbuttoned oral informants (which explains Margoliouth’s rendering of the title as “Table-Talk”), who could look back on life unfazed by its aberrations. In Table-Talk and Deliverance both, Tanūkhī selected what he found congenial. I don’t think he included in Deliverance anything that he didn’t want to be there just because there was a precedent for it, but some of his materials had to be forced into the “deliverance” mold he’d made for them. Also, there’s a uniformity of outlook and style in Table-Talk, whereas Deliverance, especially Stories of Piety and Prayer, showcases a jumble of voices and a vastly wider range of literary styles and competences. You could say that Table-Talk is by an author in control and Deliveranceby an author who often felt he’d lost control, and was possibly never quite satisfied. Table-Talk has no models or predecessors to contend with, and so has a flexible structure that Tanūkhī could adapt as he went along. Deliverance is conditioned by how Tanūkhī wanted to respond to previous works on the theme: he wanted to be both more comprehensive and more coherent, more expansive and more pertinent—a tall order, all the harder for being self-imposed. He tells us he wasn’t always sure what to drop and what to keep, and that he veered from one extreme to another over a period of years. The result was a lot of re-editing and reorganizing, as Tanūkhī says in his introduction, and as we can see from some manuscripts, where stories are told in a different order, or even assigned to different chapters. Deliverance was a struggle to write, and I think we can feel some of the tensions.

Who should read this translation, outside of historians of the era? You suggested historians of emotion? Who else do you think would be interested?

JB:Historians of emotion certainly. Deliverance, not least in these opening chapters, throws up basic problems of emotions history, methodological, epistemological, and ideological, namely: Do we have direct evidence for what emotions people had in the past and how they expressed them? Do stories, which we connect with intuitively if they work for us, connect us to past reality? Do we really want to know about past emotions if they’re not the same as ours, or don’t confirm them?

I’m sure it would be good for more “straight” medieval historians to read Deliverance. Some of them already do, and Dominique Sourdel based a lot of his monumental history of the Abbasid vizierate on it. (There are a lot more viziers in the volumes that follow Stories of Piety and Prayer.) And I’d like reading Deliverance to be mandatory for students of religion, to show what lived religion was like. But Deliverance is literature, and I designed the translation for people who are interested in literature, comparative literature, and storytelling. Tanūkhī’s implicit analysis of the components and structure of narratives, which I’ve highlighted in my paragraph numbering, makes Deliverance a must for narratologists. In the end, though, this is a book for people who just like a good read and want to keep turning the pages, and that’s my target audience.

One of the key translation decisions certainly seems to have been using consistent renderings on terms such as shiddah and faraj rather than free variation based on context, emphasizing these words’ incantatory weight. Were there other translational decisions you made up front? Particular stylistic markers you wanted to re-craft in the English? Key translational decisions you had to wrestle with in the moment?

JB: I’ve tried to keep as close to the Arabic as possible throughout, for several reasons. As a rule, I think it’s taken for granted intuitively by most readers that if you translate a piece of contemporary writing into the idioms and expressions of your own language, it’s a transposition, not a reproduction of the original. So if you make someone say, “I was over the moon” or “He’s just pulling your leg,” readers don’t assume that your contemporary Japanese or Norwegian original has the same metaphors or cultural references as your English rendering. But if you do that with a piece of pre-modern writing, Deliverancefor example, that’s exactly what they think, and they start speculating about linguistic convergence or cultural borrowing. So if you want a translation of non-contemporary writing to have any kind of reliability and value for historical understanding, you must avoid that particular level of free translation.

But I think you can be freer on the structural level and still be faithful, for example when Arabic anticipates for dramatic effect in narrative, as I mentioned earlier. The same sort of anticipation happens a lot in poetry, where the way Arabic develops the relationship between the ideas in the two half-lines that make up a line can work better the other way round in English. So for a line of Arabic verse that presents as “A : B”, I might sometimes translate “B : A”. Otherwise, I try to translate poetry to the letter of the meaning. I avoid padding it to explain things or make the lines scan or rhyme. (Inverting the half-lines as just described can be a good way of avoiding padding.) Good poetry is muscular, and serviceable poetry is at least hardworking. I’m not sure that I know when this sort of Arabic poetry is just OK or better than OK, but my translations try to convey the work that poetry does at either level.

As for prose, I’ve avoided falling back on the fairly standard translator’s default practice of substituting indirect speech for direct speech whenever it might sound better in English, because I’m sure that the predominance of direct speech in medieval Arabic is culturally and stylistically significant (but like a lot of other basics this has never been explored).

Overall, I want to provide a rendering where readers who don’t know Arabic but want to think about howa story is told by and large have a chance to observe the main original features. I also want to flag up to Arabists features like direct speech that need thinking about.It’s legitimate for translations to address people who do know the language as well as those who don’t.

When it comes to register, sometimes it’s unambiguous in the original, as, for example, in highly wrought epistles or sermons, but in simpler passages it often isn’t, and in those cases the translator has to interpret, and decide whether to treat something as an archaeological hodge-podge, as with the stories about the three travelers or the snake I mentioned earlier, or as a modern faux–fairy tale, as with the story of the shipwrecked man and woman. Proverbs and adages are particularly elusive, even though, by definition, their meaning ought to be transparent; but perhaps it’s best to present them as linguistic fossils to be decoded, which is how Tanūkhī treats at least some of them.

I’d also like to talk a bit about the title. “Stories of Piety and Prayer: Deliverance Follows Adversity” makes it seem, to me, as though it will be a quiet and reflective book about well-behaved people. Although the German translation “Ende Gut, Alles Gut,” (All’s Well that Ends Well?) certainly takes it in a different direction, re-setting the context. 

JB: We could have called this volume Deliverance Follows Adversity, Volume One, but instead we decided on a title that condenses Tanūkhī’s first three chapter headings.

The idea that piety and prayer should be quiet and well behaved belongs to a secular outlook that sees piety as pretty well anachronistic, if not extinct, and prayer as a social convention, performed only occasionally, in set forms and in designated spaces. The piety in Stories of Piety and Prayer is about frantic personal praying in extreme circumstances, by people whose usual level of devoutness may only have consisted of routine ritual prayers, but who find themselves catapulted into desperate belief in their hour of need. As for “all’s well that ends well”, I don’t think so. It may cover some of Tanūkhī’s cases if it’s meant naively, but not all. Tanūkhī quotes some exemplary sayings about equanimity in adversity and adversity being a spur to ethical or spiritual growth, but most of his protagonists, himself included, seem to be lastingly harrowed by the shock of their ordeals. It’s not something they put behind them, and they don’t claim to have been improved by it. The idea that “all’s well that ends well” is not without irony for them: adversity brings them accesses of piety, lingering memories of pain in most cases, and an improvement of fortune, which may or may not lead to a “happy ever after”, witness Tanūkhī’s own ups and downs. As Tanūkhī’s would-be consoler Abū l-Faraj al-Makhzūmī wasn’t alone in pointing out, it’s a law of nature that as soon as things have got better, they’re bound to start getting worse again.

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