Arabic Short Stories
April 12, 2010 by Alan Earnshaw
I have been reading two books of Arabic short stories: A Reader of Modern Arabic Short Stories, edited by Sabrey Hafez and Catherine Cobham, and Modern Arabic Short Stories. edited by Ronak Husni and Daniel Newman.
The grammar in all the stories is fairly simple, but the vocabulary can be difficult. This is literature after all, and the writers choose their words to convey exactly what they mean, not to make it easier for a novice Arabic reader.
The Hafez book was the assigned reading for an intermediate level Arabic class I took this winter. To make translating the story easier, I photocopied the pages on 11x17 sheets, enlarging the font to double the original size. That let me make my initial translation right beneath the Arabic text.
The plots and ideas in some of the stories are complex, so it helps to have a native speaker of Arabic to guide your reading. There is no English translation in the book, and no vocabulary list. Reading some of these stories by myself, I would have been totally lost.
One story, “The Heatwave” [ القيظ ] by Yusuf Al-Sharuni, has two main characters who are both called Mahmud. Each Mahmud has a girlfriend called Ilham. And both Mahmuds are due to meet their respective girlfriends that night, though under very different circumstances. The story continually jumps between the two characters, and also jumps to different times of a single day. Some of the action in the story is the speculation of Mahmud – either Mahmud – about his future, and some of the action is the actual events of the day. It is often difficult to tell whether an action is taking place in the imagination of one of the Mahmuds, or in real time.
“House of Flesh” [ بيت من لحم ] by Yusuf Idris has many sentences broken up by commas into one- and two-word fragments that jump rapidly from one idea to another. This style produces a staccato effect, enhancing the story’s tone. But at the same time, this effect makes it almost impossible to anticipate whether one fragment will relate to the previous or following fragment.
The story is about forbidden, unspoken things, and about silent collusion, so a lot of the story is implied rather than directly addressed. With an English story, I may not understand all the allusions, but I get enough of them to follow the story. At my current level of understanding of Arabic language and culture, I miss a lot of allusions in “House of Flesh.”
Without a native Arabic speaker to guide me, trying to follow each story’s thread would have been a frustrating task. That is not a criticism of the stories, which are both excellent. I just found reading them a particularly challenging exercise.
Not every story in this book is as complicated to translate. “In The Village” [ في القرية ] by Mahmud Al-Badawi tells a simple story of love, jealousy and violence in an Egyptian village of the 1930s. The story is easy to follow, with a straightforward plot. A lot of the language is visually descriptive, painting a picture of this village beside the Nile, and the everyday life of its people. I still needed to resort to a dictionary quite often, but the grammar and sentence structure are reasonably easy to understand.
Modern Arabic Short Stories, edited by Husni and Newman, has a page of English translation facing each page of Arabic text. I received the book as a gift two years ago, but I am only now feeling up to the challenge of reading the stories in Arabic. I photocopy only the Arabic pages to do the translation, enlarging the font as I describe above. This is to make sure my eyes aren’t constantly wandering over to look at the English translation. I leave the book itself in another room, so if I get completely stuck, it is there to help me — just not too close.
Once I have finished a story, it’s interesting to look at the English translation in the book to see what choices the translator made. By this time, I’m familiar enough with the story to see what was gained and what was lost by those choices. Some of the translations smooth out the Arabic language more than I think is necessary. I prefer the translation to be as close as possible to the feel of the original Arabic.