One of the unexpected benefits of preparing an anthology is the chance to read through enough mediocre literature to begin to ask yourself what “mediocre” actually means. While co-editing a book of Sudanese short stories in English translation with Raph Cormack, I’ve learned that distinguishing the great stories from the mediocre raises questions about competing literary aesthetics. Figuring out which stories to include and how to justify our selections to the publisher has been a hands-on lesson in how a literary canon, even a marginal canon such as Sudanese Arabic literature in English translation, is formed.
In our work, the basic tension is that some stories generally regarded among Sudanese readers as “good” do not translate into “good” literature by Anglo-American standards. It’s not that Anglo-American standards are superior to the Sudanese, largely because that way of speaking presumes we have some outside standard by which these two literary aesthetics could be properly compared. We don’t. But we do know that some of what is written, printed, appraised, and ultimately bought and sold in the Arabic speaking parts of Sudan is quite different than what is appealing to English readers.
As translators, we must either conceal or explain that difference to our imagined English readers. This is a first attempt to do the latter: to explain those aspects of my encounter with Sudanese Arabic literature that I cannot properly translate. I’m especially curious about the marvelously complex relationship between the two literary critical traditions, call them for the sake of convenience “Sudanese” and “English”, brought together by global trade relations, colonial dominance, educational and cultural exchanges, and the emergence of specific technologies and revolutions in literary form that they entail.
Raph and I are constantly shuttling between these two aesthetics as we weigh which stories will faithfully represent the Sudanese literary scene while also appealing to a small, self-selecting English readership. On the one hand, we can appreciate the Arabic literary context in which these stories were first imagined and now circulated and consumed. We pick up on stylistic nods to Classical Arabic, the use of characters and imagery from modern Sudanese folklore, Qur’anic allusions, political jokes, jabs at other writers and schools of thought, and so forth. We have both spent time in Sudan and the wider Arabic speaking world, and recognize some of the broader societal and historical factors that continue to influence the development of Sudanese literature. The current atmosphere of political repression, for instance, has transformed protest literature from the category of kitsch and sentiment to a powerful act of witnessing, and implicitly objecting to, moral wrongdoing. The writer as social critic and moral voice is a vital element of the Sudanese literary aesthetic, one that helps to explain the preponderance of political satire and critique in the short stories we’re reviewing. For us, the question is how to translate such works to an English reader for whom “literature” is about beauty and nuance, not the grotesque and the polemical.
As far as the publisher, a small, progressive press in the UK, is concerned, the ultimate aim of the book is to give voice (an English voice), to “good” writing from Sudan. Their idea of “good” involves notions of novelty, of subversion and resistance, perhaps of great beauty and certainly of extraordinary creativity. This is the bar―and I must admit it is one I admire, in principle at least, insofar as it treats Sudanese writers as equal contenders in the arena of literary excellence. In practice, however, it is an arena in which creativity trumps the emulation of past literary forms, individual characters with complex psychologies are valued over idealized character types, and those images which conform to the liberal desire for individual freedom of expression, human dignity, and the inherent value of subversion are affirmed. In other words, some aspects of what Sudanese literary critics and writers praise is incongruent with the desires of our imagined English reader.
Part of the difficulty in translating the political significance of the act of writing in Sudan to an English reader is the enormous differential of wealth and institutional support for literature. In the Anglophonic world, both contemporary and historical literature is studied, preserved, and proudly displayed in beautifully rendered museum exhibits and anthologies. Reprints are common. Critical editions of canonical works are readily available. Humanities departments generate tomes of scholarship on English literature, from undergraduate research papers to PhD dissertations. Because they are ubiquitous, such affirmations of self and country, culture and history, often go unnoticed―until, that is, one tries to translate texts that were written within a very different institutional environment into English.
Without strong institutions to support the production, circulation, and preservation of literary texts in Sudan, the literary corpus remains relatively amorphous. Only a few major texts are promoted, reprinted, studied, and curated to the point that they reach canonical status—in the Sudanese literary critical world, the broader Arabic speaking world, or the arena of world literature in English translation. The absence of robust cultural centers, uncensored book markets, extensive libraries, and well-maintained archives is a major material impediment to the formation of a stable, accessible canon of national literature. For Raph and I, this has been a major dimension of our experience as co-editors. Without an archive, we have had to cull short stories from hard-to-find publications, underground literary journals we acquired in Khartoum, personal blogs, Facebook posts, and unpublished manuscripts authors have emailed us over the course of the past six months.
Economic challenges are aggravated by political circumstances, especially censorship. Inside Sudan, it is difficult to obtain the works of writers, such as Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin, who are critical of the government. The ironic result is that much contemporary “national” literature is more accessible outside the country than inside. While much contemporary fiction is difficult to find, the government has erratically reprinted the poems and polemics of earlier generations of Sudanese intellectuals such as Al-Tijani Yusuf Bashir and Hamza al-Malik Tambal. The result is the lingering impression that the work of every Sudanese writer―with the exception of Tayyib Salih―is “rare” in comparison to the ubiquitous availability of English literature, or even the relatively substantial collection of modern Egyptian literature.
Much like literature, literary aesthetics have a history and emerge out of particular circumstances and material conditions. Every aesthetic shapes the ambitions of its author, the tastes of its audience, and the debate over good literature in its particular place and time. Vital, transparent, and evasive, rendering the aesthetic along with the text is the task of the translator.
Max Shmookler is a PhD student in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia, where his work focuses on 20th century Sudanese literary history. He is the managing editor of Baraza and the co-editor of “The Book of Khartoum”, an anthology of Sudanese short stories in translation, which is forthcoming from Comma Press (2015).
Image via Library Accessories.