Catering to Those Who Are ‘Interested and Ought to Be Interested’ in Classical Arabic Literature

The Library of Arabic Literature recently staged the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute’s first public program in Dubai. They discussed, among other things, why “‘adab” is not in the project’s title:

By Mohga Hassib

The Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) — an NYUAD Institute-funded project that started four years ago — launched their first public lecture in Dubai with some of its board members and editors last week. A panel discussion moderated by itsgeneral editor, Philip Kennedy, took place at Kinokuniya Bookstore in Dubai on Dec. 18.

The arc of the discussion was to highlight the inspiration behind the project, how it selects its titles, future initiatives, and some of the challenges that face the translators.

“We understand literature in the broadest sense of the term,” Kennedy said. “It is not just creative literature, but anything that is written down and part of the literary tradition.”

Indeed, this was the reason the board decided to call their project “al-maktaba al-’arabiyya” and dispense with the term ‘adab — to convey the sense of the genres and types of literature they plan to cover, which ranges from histories to travel narratives to cookbooks to poetry. The project is dedicated to translating Arabic works to English in facing-page format. Their scope is texts from the pre-Islamic works to the 19th century (al-nahda) era. LAL’s goal is simply to produce translations of difficult texts to a range of readers from amateurs to lovers of Arabic literature, especially since pre-modern Arabic is a very difficult language to learn and understand.

“The basic impetus was the lack of works in Arabic that has been translated into English. The books available in translations now are primarily modern Arabic novels,” Kennedy said.

Pre-modern texts are thus less widely read than one would hope. Many of the texts are known and talked about, yet readers need assistance to take hold of them. The LAL’s purpose is to fill a huge chasm in the translations available of premodern Arabic into English (which has been too much neglected in English, aside from the Qur’an and the Arabian Nights).

“It is a huge corpus,” Kennedy said. “We are trying to represent in the works being translated a corpus, a body of literature, but not a canon. We don’t just want to do a canon, because it is debatable, we want to work toward producing a corpus. Because when one reads literature, there’s an emphasis on certain works.”

The panel further elaborated on some of the joys and dangers of translation they encountered. The translators were very careful with the selection of the proper words that would be accessible to the English readers. They chose terms that would not alienate the reader and simultaneously maintain certain specificities and a sense of the Arabic heritage.

The Library of Arabic Literature will cater to a reading public that is interested and ought to be introduced to the rich heritage of Arabic literature.

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