#UPWeek: Chip Rossetti on the Library of Arabic Literature

Happy University Press Week!  We are thrilled to once again be kicking off the final run of the university press blog tour—this year, with a post by Chip Rossetti, Managing Editor of the Library of Arabic Literature

After reading the piece, head on over “from the square” to the Princeton University Press blog, where today’s tour continues!  [The tour also stops at Columbia University PressJohn Hopkins University PressGeorgetown University Press, Indiana University Press, University of Wisconsin Pressand Yale University Press. For a complete schedule, click here.]

Global reach of university presses: The Library of Arabic Literature at New York University Press
—Chip Rossetti

New York University Press has a long history of championing cutting-edge scholarship, and for many readers and scholars, it is associated with books on contemporary life. Certainly, the Press publishes outstanding books on the modern world, but as part of its contribution to University Press Week, I would like to highlight a global initiative the Press has launched over the last few years that I hope showcases the broad scope of its commitment to disseminating scholarly work. Specifically, I am the managing editor for an NYU Press series, the Library of Arabic Literature, that publishes pre-modern Arabic texts in facing-page bilingual editions. The series is supported by a five-year grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and its general editor is Professor Philip Kennedy, who since 2009 has been based in Abu Dhabi as a faculty member at the new university of NYU Abu Dhabi.

I began work on the series in January, 2011. Along with Kennedy and an eight-member editorial board consisting of scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies, I spent much of my first year laying the groundwork for the series, such as coming up with a wish list of key Arabic texts the editors wanted to see in translation; hiring a digital production manager to set up our XML-first workflow; designing an interior template and series book jacket design; and working out the technical difficulties of publishing books with both right-to-left and left-to-right texts.

Since December, 2012, we have published seven books, with several more in production, twenty more under contract, and a number of others under review. The series aims for a broad range of genres, including poetry, belles lettres, biography, travel and geographical literature, theology, and law. It has been enormously gratifying over the past year to see these books take shape, and to realize that we are taking this enormously rich and varied written heritage and making it accessible to a broad swath of readers who would otherwise be unfamiliar with these works. Most of them have never been translated into English before (or if they were, they are available only in partial 19th-century versions.)

Take, for example, The Epistle of Forgiveness by the blind, ascetic, possibly heretical Syrian poet Abu l-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri (d. 449 H/1057 AD): a sardonic, literate tour of heaven and hell (and the famous poets, scholars, kings, and others who inhabit them), it has sometimes been claimed as the inspiration for Dante’s Divine Comedy, possibly via a no-longer-extant Latin translation. Or take our recent publication of Leg Over Leg, by the 19th-century Lebanese reformer and pioneering journalist Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. Often compared to Tristram Shandy, it is a tour de force of language, an “untranslatable” text that touches on everything from modernity to women’s rights, gender relations, freedom of religion, and relations between Europe and the Arabs. Needless to say, neither of these LAL books was available to English readers before the Library of Arabic Literature.

It has been a steep learning curve for all of us, and many of our editorial discussions have revolved around laying down series-wide rules: can we insist that technical or cultural terms in Arabic be translated in a certain way? Or do we allow individual translators the leeway to make their translation their own, even at the expense of consistency across the series? What is the best way to translate archaic poetry coming out of a very different cultural and literary milieu into comprehensible, lucid English? (And as with any poetry, is it still poetry after it’s been translated?)

All of those questions are well worth tackling in and of themselves, but they are in the service of a greater goal that New York University Press is aspiring to for a translation series like this: ultimately, we want non-Arabic-speaking readers to view these authors and their texts as part of their global cultural heritage, so that an educated reader is as familiar with the names of Ibn al-Muqaffa’ and al-Ma’arri as she is with Homer, Tolstoy and Confucius.

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