Like many American-born English speakers, I have an unhappy story to tell about my ignorance of the rest of the world’s languages. It begins in my youth when I spent eight years studying Latin. This rendered me well-versed in Vergil, Horace and Catullus, but unfit for modern literature, conversation or travel outside the borders of my native English. I had inadvertently chosen to be consigned indefinitely to the rank of a dilettante. What better career then, than journalism, and in particular domestic reporting? Yet I was definitely a strange ranger in the news biz; I doubt any of my colleagues cared what arma virumque cano meant.
In 1999 I met my first Arab, Farsi, and Urdu speakers when I was assigned to cover an international terrorism plot. I quit journalism and from that moment forward, my fiction, reviews, and essays have been heliotropic, with the Muslim world my sun. My first novel was about Arab-speaking North Africans who were stowaways from Algeria to Boston. My second novel, The Room and the Chair, took place in Iran, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates (and Washington D.C.); it included Farsi and Arab speakers. The novel I’m writing now is set in Lahore, Pakistan, with conversation in Punjabi and Urdu. I’ve traveled extensively in all these countries with the exception of Algeria. I studied Arabic for three years but have been unable to master it. I’ve not made an attempt to study Punjabi, Farsi, or Urdu. I’ve also studied French, lived in Paris, and can read it, but my conversational skills are abysmal. A survey of my book reviews shows I’ve assessed works written originally in Arabic, Albanian, French, and Spanish. Some people would argue I’m still very much the dilettante.
To this extent I agree with them: the optimal reviewer of work in translation is always fluent in the original language. As such my reviews are problematic. Anyone ignorant of the original language loses the attendant cultural nuance that comes from speaking, living, working, and reading in that language. The problem goes beyond being unable to compare the original work as written by the author in Arabic with the English translation. Perhaps it’s because of this I don’t feel all that much more comfortable reviewing fiction written in English by writers who grew up speaking Arabic, such as Hisham Mattar from Libya, or Turkish, such as Elif Shafak, or Urdu, such as Nadeem Aslam.
So perhaps I should turn down the assignments that come my way. I take them—certainly not for the money—out of a sense of passionate, if admittedly amateur commitment to the cultures where Islam is the predominant religion. I also defend the indefensible in other ways. First, I’m not an academic. There is nothing scholarly about my understanding of the Muslim world. I explore it as a novelist, one of the last refuges of the generalist. Second, Arabic is spoken in so many countries, it would be difficult to master in detail the cultures of places as diverse as Libya, Iraq, and Morocco, to name just three countries and one language Muslims speak. Third, Islam is the dominant religion in so many countries with so many different languages—Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi, and Indonesian to name just those with the largest number of speakers. Third, few would argue that reviewers of works written by Muslims should be Muslim too. And finally, not all writers about the Muslim world are Muslim—Elias Khoury, for example, is a Christian Arab from Lebanon.
Even so, reviewers without the languages of the authors they’re reviewing have heavier obligations. They must be humble. Arrogance is an unforgivable sin for any reviewer of translated literature. But reviewers without the original language should always take into consideration their narrow set of references and permit wide latitude to the translator in terms of the book’s style, phrasing and dialogue, and, to the author, in terms of his or her structure, ideas, insights and characterizations. This doesn’t relieve the reviewer from making judgments—I’m a firm believer any review that hangs back from that duty is worthless. But the translated literature reviewer is also an ambassador, in a way that other reviewers simply don’t need to be. And that calls for diplomacy.
One other quick note. In all my reviews I keep to a fairly rigid practice of what I call “reading around” the book under review. This means reading all the previous work by the author. It means reading all the books similar to the author’s book—regardless of the original language. When I reviewed Albanian national Ismail Kadare’s The Successor in 2005 for the New York Times, I read all of his previous works in English—about a dozen out of a total output of fifty works written in his native Albanian. Because The Successor was about tyranny I read and reread Milan Kundera and Mario Vargas Llosa. Kadare is instructive for one other reason. His novels are often double translated. He writes in his native Albanian, but the number of English speakers who speak Albanian is miniscule. As a result, most of his works are translated into French first, and that French text is then translated into English. If you want to learn more about Kadare, I highly recommend Michael Orthofer’s extensive set of links and reviews on The Complete Review at http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/kadarei/success.htm#author. Oh, and I gave the Kadare a rave. It was a brilliant example of one of world literature’s finest traditions—singing of arms and a man (arma virumque cano), as Vergil did in The Aeneid. The man may be Albanian, and the arms may belong to a Communist dictator, but the human drama that unfolds is singular and brilliantly told.