In “Embargoed Literature,” an essay written twenty-five years ago, Edward W. Said noted that “of all the major world literatures, Arabic remains relatively unknown and unread in the West.” How is it that one of the world’s great literary corpuses, as rich as those of classical Greek, Sanskrit, and Chinese, has so little echo in English? Is Arabic literature untranslatable? The obstacles in this case are political as much as they are linguistic. Taking its cue from Said’s notion of a “perfect inequality” between the two languages, this essay argues for a situational—rather than literal—approach to translation, emphasizing the intellectual gains (and risks) to be had from thinking of translation as an act of cultural interpretation rather than verbal substitution.
Is Arabic Untranslatable?
Robyn Creswell is an assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University and the poetry editor of the Paris Review. He is the translator of Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Clash of Images (2010) and Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell and Notes from Prison (2013).
Robyn Creswell; Is Arabic Untranslatable?. Public Culture 1 September 2016; 28 (3 (80)): 447–456. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-3511490
Download citation file: