The Sufist and the Supernatural

January 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Seventh Heaven – Tales of the Supernatural (Mahfouz, Naguib)

Mohammed’s Paradise, 11th Century miniature, courtesy Bibliotheque Nationale and Wikimedia Commons

This collection of short stories was my introduction to Naguib Mahfouz, and also the very last book he wrote, a few months before dying at the age of 95. By the time he published this collection, he was already an acclaimed author, the voice and conscience of moderate Islam, the victim of an assassination attempt, and a Nobel Prize Laureate. I was encouraged by what I read, to read more of him, but my musings on the book at hand are to do with translations, in general.

Just how well do short stories like Mahfouz’s translate from their original Arabic?

Is it merely a question of the language skills of the translator, by which I mean his ability to find appropriate synonyms, to understand the full purport of foreign metaphors and to replace them with, at times, completely different metaphors that convey the identical sentiment in the local language? I think the issue goes beyond that. Is it possible to translate the sights, sounds and smells of suburban Cairo, with its graveyards, rose gardens, alleys, coffee shops and cheap hotels, in such a way that readers in London, Tokyo or New York would understand? The charm of Mahfouz’s profoundly earthy (and earthily profound) tales depends on the reader’s grasp of the characters – their hopes, fears, ambitions, insecurities, superstitions and importantly, their mythologies. Is it possible to grasp these without having in common with the characters a value system, a belief system, a literary tradition, a political and social history that goes back a millennium or two, and a way of perceiving the world?

A childhood spent on a literary diet that included mystical legends and folk-tales, has prepared me for much of Mahfouz, especially for the unmistakable Sufi strain that runs through the stories. Even so, I came away with a strong suspicion that I was missing quite a bit by way of allegory – the writer’s device still in common use in Eastern tradition, but absent for the last few centuries from the Western canon, whereby a man’s simple daily trials and tribulations can be read as symbolic representations of human struggle, with the characters he meets standing in for Death, Love, God and so on.

How can I be sure that Mahfouz’s The Seventh Heaven has been well-translated? Only by learning to speak Arabic, and settling down in Cairo for a few years.



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