An interview with editor-translator Philip F. Kennedy

Yesterday, the Library of Arabic Literature blog featured an interview with LAL‘s General Editor, Philip F. Kennedy. In the interview, conducted by literary blogger M. Lynx Qualey, Kennedy explains how the Library of Arabic Literature project came about, and a few of the challenges the editors and editor-translators have faced in the process. 

Here are a few of the highlights:

M. Lynx Qualey: So, how did this all begin? How did you get involved?

Philip F. Kennedy: I’ve always felt, as long as I’ve studied Arabic, that there’s a situation where the texts available in translation are very messy. And I expect I noticed that as a student, but then you get used to it. From time to time you come back and you ask yourself: “Well, why is this available, and why is that not available?” And you’d find some old fascicles of the Journal of Asiatic Studies and you’d stumble across some installment of a translation and you’d say, “Oh, there’s that here.” I became aware really early that there is stuff, and it’s all over the place.

Then when I came to work with NYU Abu Dhabi, part of the reason I got involved was because there was this possibility of applying for a grant to do this kind of thing. There are other [classical and pre-modern Arabic translation] projects, but they’re limited in scope. They just don’t have the resources that you need in order to do something comprehensive.

We sold it quite easily from the start as a translation project, but the idea that it be a parallel text translation project is something else. People agreed that’s what was needed, fortunately — preserve the Arabic and have the English. It seemed to me the project could do two things: make you discover the Arabic, as well as the English giving you access to the Arabic. Or, if you’re not an Arabic speaker, you’re able to read the English. So there’s this sort of multi-functionality about it.

How do you go about finding the right people?

Once we actually came to working on the project, and the rubber hit the road, it became apparent that the Arabic needs a lot of thinking about. It needs editing, and the editing is not as easy as that, because people don’t do it that much. Every scholar involved in one of these translations needs to be able to guarantee the text as a viable, credible Arabic text. You look through all the published editions, you look through the main manuscripts, and you produce a text that one can trust.

That varies enormously from genre to genre and text to text, but if the textual tradition is complicated, then the person doing it should be able to do it.

How do you find qualified editor-translators with the time to devote to this project?

[The editing] is not so easy, and it slows things down enormously. In some cases, it’s put people off. They’ve been willing to do a translation, but when they’ve been faced with what we’re really asking for, in terms of editing, and being familiar with the manuscript tradition, then they think twice, because there’s a time commitment.

That’s the other thing that stands in the way: It’s the fact that the academy in the West, in the States, doesn’t recognize this kind of work. And I think it should. You know, you have to produce monographs, and articles in peer-reviewed journals, but producing a critical edition or a credible edition of a translation counts for nothing, and I think that’s appalling. I think most of the people on the team think it’s appalling. It really is wrong.

Obviously it’s not going to change soon, but hopefully this can help change the way the kind of work we’re doing is evaluated for tenure purposes and promotion purposes, because that’s how people decide how they’re going to devote a semester of their time. “I’ve got a promotion coming up, so I can’t do this, because it doesn’t count.” For whom doesn’t it count? For the field it counts. So why are we doing what we do? Who are we working for?

So our hope is that if this has legs in ten years’ time, and we’ve really established what we wanted to establish, that this can help change the way that scholars in the field are evaluated.

What have been the most challenging sorts of translations?

With poetry, we have an issue. Poetry’s obviously extremely important, but it’s the most difficult thing to translate.

Last May when we met, after doing the business of reviewing what’s contracted and what stages those works were at, we decided to have a workshop on poetry. So we invited Peter Cole to come and talk to us about his views about the translation of medieval Hebrew and Arabic and translation in general. And it was a very useful, very practical, very hands-on workshop.

Some people say classical Arabic poetry is un-translatable?

Some people say that, but then you have to qualify that: because you either do it or you don’t. And we’ve decided you do it; you have to do it. But are you just producing a crib or are you producing an attempt at a poem? We could do both. There is a case to be made for doing both.

[When we had our workshop, there were] twelve people around the room. Robyn CreswellRichard Sieburth, who’s a superb translator. Peter Cole. We listened to Peter, we listened to Richard, and there certain bullet points emerged that seem like very good practical advice. To what extent each individual can apply that advice when you actually do it is—well, that’s tricky. Some people are good at it, and some people are not.

Some people around the room were doing some really great work. We took a random poem and went line by line, around the room. And the idea was to have an overarching sense of what you want to do with this poem — basically an idea of what this poem is conveying to you emotionally, and also a formal stylistic idea of what you want to convey — and then stick to that. And it worked.  Because around the room, every poem was consistent within itself.

And I did the worst one, because my idea was just to do the prose crib, so I just went line by line, and produced a block. Other people did these really lean poems. It was like haiku, which means you weren’t translating every detail of the poem, but conveying some essence. Successfully. Somehow, because we did it so methodically, it worked by steps, and the process was very enlightening. I think we decided that’s really the way to go.

Read the full interview here.