Some readers may remember – why they would, I do not know, but we live in an age of miracles – that a few months ago I jotted down some notes about the first volume (of four) of an Arabic novel written in 1855, Leg over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree concerning The Fāriyāq What Manner of Creature Might He Be by Fāris al-Shidyāq, “a Lebanese Maronite of great learning and greater smartassery.” I am quoting myself, since I cannot improve on that.
I recommend going back to that post for its many links to excerpts, reviews, and an instructive interview with the translator, to use the inadequate ordinary designation, Humphrey Davies.
I have now read the second volume of the novel, which is a lot like the first, only moreso. The protagonist leaves Lebanon for Egypt and Malta, allowing opportunities for extended mockery of Egyptians and “Franks” but even more for the deployment and elaboration of long lists of words, words with their definitions, words that are inventions, words that rhyme, words in lists.
(Note: women who are dirty crockadillapigs, shorties, runts, trolls, long-necked pinheads, midgets, wide-wooed woofers, waddlers, bitty-butted beasts, scrawnies, and spindle-legs are more coquettish than any of the above.) (207)
Leg over Leg is published with the Arabic, so here I could look longingly at the original wondering what on earth was actually in it. The “above” including many dictionary-like pages of Arabic words describing kinds of women:
or a zahrā’, “a woman of radiant face”
or a masbūrah, a female “of comely form”
I mean, pages and pages like this, meaning that in places the 200 page book zipped right by as I gave the lists of definitions the concentration I could – very little, except when the lists turned to food (dalik, “a dish made of butter and milk, or of butter and dates, or a plant to which red rose hips may be admixed, in which case it becomes as sweet as moist fresh dates,” 265). Otherwise, the clothes, perfumes, woods, fish, utensils, gems (“Chinese beads from Yemen,” “a kind of carnelian,” “a kind of seashell”) will have to wait for a student of Arabic.
All of this is part of what is strictly speaking a single sentence that is thirty pages long. Someone should do an Arabic wordcount and add it to the appropriate “world’s longest” lists.
Early in the book I realized that what Davies was often doing was not so much translating as describing the Arabic text. For example, at one point a couple of pages are given to a paragraph about how a woman moves, a list of verbs: “her staggering and swaying, her tottering and strutting, her bending and bowing.” Davies is capturing the alliteration; who knows or cares exactly what substitutions he has made. The verbs become more complicated:
her skelping and her stepping quick, her tripping quickly along with short steps and three other ways of walking, each with a difference of one letter, and her walking nicely, her limping and a fourth way of walking with yet another letter changed (43)
And, yes, there in the Arabic I can see what he means, word after word with one letter changed, all of which, Davies insists, are treated as exact synonyms in every dictionary, and whose fault is it that the Arabic vocabulary overwhelms and exhausts the English?
There is no novel in English like Leg over Leg. Arabic! 1855!