Monday, February 23, 2015

dirty crockadillapigs and three other ways of walking, each with a difference of one letter - Fāris al-Shidyāq's Leg over Leg, or the novelist as lexicographer

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!


  1. Amazing! I'm glad you've returned to this novel; also glad to know it's bilingual, that means 4 volumes is really just 2, which is more palatable. It is a pity when so much wordplay is lost in translation, but that's the price to pay to write about language. Nowadays I read so much written in a bland international style clearly screaming to be translated.

  2. Yes, it is a 700 or 800 page book in total, not 1,600 pages. That would be exhausting.

    The Davies books are masterpieces of translation. Anyone who doubts that translation is an art worthy of its own attention should look at Leg over Leg. Actually, those are just the people on whom it would be wasted, so never mind.

  3. You and Michael Orthover both refer to Sterne as an influence on al-Shidyāq; it's likely that Rabelais is another, given the linguistic inventiveness of the book. I can't help but wonder if Davies has followed the example of Urquhart and improved the original in its own spirit. Given that some vowels are omitted in written Arabic, perhaps "word after word with one letter changed, all of which, Davies insists, are treated as exact synonyms in every dictionary" because they are all exact synonyms- even the same word!

  4. Definitely Rabelais, definitely Urquhart. Someday I should try to read Urquhart, the whole thing, not just passages.

    You must be right about the Arabic. Thus Davies's decision to describe the Arabic text rather than "translate" it. What else can he do?

    1. Who's this Urquhart? Yahoo just returns me a castle in Scotland...?

  5. Wow. What Miguel said. I recently attended a talk by a translator who, when asked what he wanted to translate next, mentioned several books that had already been translated, but blandly.

  6. Thomas Urquhart, 17th century translator of Rabelais. A perfect match of text and translator. This is Gargantua's codpiece:

    "And, like to that horn of abundance, it was still gallant, succulent, droppy, sappy, pithy, lively, always flourishing, always fructifying, full of juice, full of flower, full of fruit, and all manner of delight. I avow God, it would have done one good to have seen him, but I will tell you more of him in the book which I have made of the dignity of codpieces. One thing I will tell you, that as it was both long and large, so was it well furnished and victualled within, nothing like unto the hypocritical codpieces of some fond wooers and wench-courtiers, which are stuffed only with wind, to the great prejudice of the female sex."

    This is Rabelais via Urquhart, but it sounds exactly like al-Shidyaq via Davies. For the English language, it has all been downhill since the 17th century.

    Scott, that translator has the right idea.

    1. Thanks. Is that the Rabelais you read?

      I am thinking of getting my Gargantua, but can't decide on the right translation. There's the modernone by M. A. Screech, a 1955 one by J. M. Cohen; and now this Urquhart fellow, although I read he didn't finish the translation. I don't know what to do do.

    2. I actually read Donald Frame's Rabelais, which is wonderful, but more worried about accuracy and similar mundane stuff than Urquhart.

      I have read a lot of Frame - his Rabelais, Montaigne, Moliere, and a few other things. One of the greats.

  7. The admirable Urquhart: selected writings, edited by Richard Boston, has a brief biography and some of Urquhart's writings, including the first account of The Admirable Crichton. Urquhart is also a character in The Laird of Cromarty by Jean-Pierre Ohl, but I've yet to read that.

  8. !!! It never occurred to me to look for any Urquhart besides his Rabelais. What a good idea. Responsible for the Admirable Crichton! Amazing.

  9. You can find Urquhart's "Logopandecteision" online. I've just glanced through it a bit, but it seems to be a burlesque proposal for an overly elaborate artificial language (it will, he promises, have eleven genders), with frequent digressions to shower invective on his creditors. It looks like fun, although rather strange fun:

    I wouldn't say that Urquhart improved on Rabelais; he did make him sound convincingly English, which would seem to be impossible.

  10. Doug, thanks for the link - that's madness, the good kind.

  11. Your longing to know what was in the Arabic rang a bell with me as I've been working on writing some very loose versions of ghazals by Ghalib- they have to be very loose because all I have apart from the beautiful-looking and unreadable script are distinctly plodding prose translations, e.g "I go/depart. taking with me the scars of my unfulfilled desire to have lived (better, longer, in a better condition or time)". The prosiness makes it clear the untranslatable nature of the thought, so yes, what can a writer do but try to reproduce the same effect using the resources of his own language.

  12. You are working in an honorable tradition, fixing up those plain prose trots. What wonderful creative work.

  13. Ghalib's poems are wonderful cribs to concoct poetry from: his sentences are bursting with meaning(s). It's a lot of fun to write variations on chosen lines from his ghazals

    I'm leaving this world. And all I get to take with me
    Is a T-Shirt that reads: I deserved a better life.

    I'm leaving this world. Like the others, I've been branded
    By the hot iron of unfulfilled desire: I deserved a better life.