Born in 1948 in Ghadames Oasis, Ibrahim al-Koni was brought up on the tradition of the Tuaregs, popularly known as “the veiled men” or “the blue men.” Mythological elements, spiritual quest, and existential questions mingle in the writings of al-Koni, who has been hailed as magical realist, Sufi fabulist, and poetic novelist.
Words without Borders: For those who will read you in the English translation, what advice would you give?
Ibrahim al-Koni: I advise my English readers not to disparage the English text, even though I lack confidence in the ability of a translation to succeed, especially when the original text has a message in addition to its aesthetic and existential qualities. My text is a statement that becomes more complex when it migrates, because it was originally written in a language that is not my native tongue—in Arabic—and expresses the spirit of a non-Arab people, who speak a different language, embrace a different culture, trace their heritage to different ages, and whose reality and spirit differ entirely from those of the Arabs.
Thus, what reaches a foreign reader of the original text that I attempted to express through my works is actually a copy from a copy. The dilemma is compounded because the copy—Arabic—that I use in my works is a complicated language. It is divided into various languages for which their diverse dialects are not their sole difficulty. Literary Arabic is also composed of several languages; its classical version is still read with help from dictionaries, but I can say it differs from the literary Arabic used today much more than Italian, for example, does from its mother tongue, Latin. This complication seems to be an obstacle that has discouraged the translation of literary works that deserve translation as a whole, because translation in such a situation, becomes a type of adventure that frequently damages the original text; linguistic mastery, even when present, does not suffice here. Cultural literacy is also required. Many translators’ ignorance of the culture associated with this language has resulted in inexcusable errors in translations of my works into Italian, Russian, French, or English. This misfortune has not been the exception rather than the rule and has affected the work’s meaning—not to mention the loss of aesthetic qualities like the work’s poetic spirit or Sufi imagery, for example.
I believe that the pundit who compared reading a translation to looking at a rose through a glass window was too lenient and too biased in favor of translation. I feel compelled to add a significant change to this maxim. I say that a translated text is indeed a rose behind glass but an artificial rose at that. It may have retained the rose’s color but certainly not its scent!
All the same, we must not censure the role of the knights-errant of translation, because they are the unknown soldiers who have created what we call World Literature, despite all their blunders. If not for them, I would not have been able to devour the texts of the cultures of peoples from around the world. I have read these thanks to one of the major languages—Russian, for example, which has a distinguished record in this field—especially the literatures of the ancient world or of human religious and mythological heritage.
What many people do not appreciate is the existence of a second, deep language that lies inside any language. We might call it the language’s spirit. We could call it the language that speaks us, not the language that we speak—as Heidegger put it.
As authors, we depend on this language, which is concealed within the folds of the public language. The knights-errant of translation should perfect their skill with this deep language, if they wish to bring this artificial flower to life and restore its lost scent!
So I am the last person to allow myself to censure the mission of translators, because even when they fail to convey technical, stylistic, expressive, or aesthetic qualities of a text, they can still pride themselves on having called attention to the existence of a rich and unknown culture—that of the Tuareg people, who are threatened with extinction. If Claude Lévi-Strauss considered the death of a tribal elder in Africa equivalent culturally to the death of an entire human tribe, what should we say of the threatened annihilation of an entire people who for many millennia have been confined to the Great Desert? Does not such a loss portend the annihilation of humanity as a whole?
In other words, my mission has a compound identity that is anthropological as well as free in an existential sense, and even a metaphysical one—but not in the political sense that my fellow Arab authors try to give it. Anthropological distance presupposes the existence of a cultural identity for a people (the Tuaregs) who today are a deep-rooted minority but who once enjoyed a trailblazing civilization that remains little known because of policies adopted by neighboring powers. Experience has shown that anyone with an authentic identity will always be perceived as an enemy by those people with newly minted identities who dominate political reality.
In addition to the challenge posed by writing in a language that is dead or almost dead—like Classical Arabic—there is the further challenge posed by the Libyan identity during an era when the reigning regime has made writing an offense punishable by incarceration—not to mention having books translated to a foreign language—especially to a European language!
WWB: Could you talk about the writers who influenced you?
IK: I believe that the word “influence” is not appropriate when referring to a human being who has been content to accept creation as his destiny. Being influenced does not make writers of us. It is the spirit of having a mission that makes us do what we do, whether we want to or not. This is what always makes me refer to creativity as a destiny that chooses us—not something we choose!
The mission of those who have preceded us is to serve as lighthouses by which we can illuminate a trip that will certainly be nocturnal. They are as much our guides as Virgil was for Dante in the inferno and Cato in purgatory. In fact, they are our prophets, and we could not conceive of existence without them. How miserable we would be as writers, if the world lacked Ecclesiastes, the Epistles of Saint Paul, the Upanishads, Laozi, the Egyptian priest Anhi, the Sumerian Gilgamesh, Homer, Herodotus, Plato, Seneca, Plutarch, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Faulkner, Somerset Maugham, Thomas Mann, Kant, Schopenhauer, Kafka, Knut Hamsun, Laxness, Camus, Asturias, Kawabata, Marquez, or Llosa, etc. Our treasure, actually, is not limited to writers, because during the ordeal of existence we must search for those we cherish in all the fields of human knowledge; without existential curiosity, we will remain prisoners of our poverty and captives of our suffering. The branches of knowledge do not merely enrich us; they carve deep psychic furrows into us, because merely reading these authors does not suffice. We will never learn from them until we endure their pains, embrace their experiences, and contemplate their manner of working. We will never understand how lethal that was for them unless we realize, for example, how Dostoyevsky would fill an entire book with observations in order to clarify the characters of a single novel–like The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, or The Possessed—before he began to breathe spirit into the characters with these previous ideas.
WWB: What writers would you recommend English-language readers pay attention to?
IK: Ethical qualms preclude me from assuming literary responsibility for nominating individuals who may not prove worthy enough ambassadors to win the approval of readers of English when it comes to contemporary Arabic literature. There are various reasons for this reluctance, and the most important is the tyranny of the ideological element that crouches like a nightmare on the breast of this literature. Another unfortunate tendency is the abridgment of all of existence to a pathetic word like politics. On the other hand, we find an almost total absence of two of the most important elements that nourish the literatures of the world; they are mythology and nature or specifically the environmental element. The novels that win the Arabic Booker Prize are the best guide to what I am saying and the reader may judge by them the criteria relied on for the establishment of this prize and other Arab prizes.
If you attach any importance to my recommendations, my conscience will only allow me to recommend classic examples of Arabic literature to readers of English, because they appear much more modern when they travel to new languages than present-day examples. I am thinking especially of Sufi authors like al-Niffari and Ibn Arabi, or the poetry of al-Ma‘arri or al-Mutanabbi and those who resemble them.