"We Orientalists are used to behaving like an exotic, esoteric clan. We think that the outside world does not and is not qualified to understand us. Our activity goes on within the polished cylindrical walls of our gremial ivory tower. We cannot climb those slippery walls to the top of the tower, to the very battlements, in order to cast a broad look at the outside world. Inside, we work with remarkable patience and dedication, but we are not quite sure for what and for whom we work. For example, those of us who deal with Arabic literature: for whom are meant the results of our studies?
I sincerely admire the romantic generation of Arabists. They were possessed by the fever of discovery, by a great, soul-filling illusion, by a delightful, redeeming impatience. They were brilliant scholars, too, but their brilliance did not owe everything to professional competence. In literature they were mostly translators-remarkable, still unsurpassed translators. I am thinking of Rückert mainly, but also of Jones, Carlyle, Lyall. The not-necessarily confessed aim of their work was to enrich their own national literatures: a sound, legitimate aim that was amply rewarded by the echo their work found among their contemporaries. From Goethe to Baudelaire and beyond, romantic Orientalism received the most enviable homage. If I may add my own grain of praise andindebtedness to the romantics, I should confess that, if it had not been for Rückert's Hamasah translation and for some delightful poetic variations on Arabic themes by the Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko, I would most certainly not be here to-day. Actually, my first, still half-adolescent ambition had once been to become a translator of Arabic literature into my own language. After the innocent romantics there came the Orientalists as cultural historians, swept on the last, ebbing waves of German idealism. They did much good and they possessed an enviable certainty about their purpose and intellectual mission: they were integrating the Orient into universal culture-if only by means of the western catalyst.
Now it is our turn and we are not so sure of ourselves. We have lost the romantic innocence, and our own national literatures do not seem to want us any more. Neither are we idealists, having become skeptical about universal culture. What seems to be left to us is knowledge for knowledge's sake. If I were a mathematician I would be perfectly happy with such a solution. But being a student of literature I hesitate. Of course, there is something to be said for "art for art's sake," but "scholarly work on art for scholarly work on art's sake" is, besides being a tongue-twister, utterly absurd. Enjoyment of art for enjoyment's sake would be a different story, were it not such a private matter and such a public luxury.
In view of this perplexity we should quite earnestly ask ourselves some of the fundamental questions again: Do we still believe that by conveying our experiences with Arabic literature to our own readers we shall be making a contribution to the creative literary processes that are going on in our native literatures? Can we in any way stimulate a nascent poet in the English language, for example, to find some creative affinity with Imru' al-Qays or al-Mutanabbi? And if we feel that this is possible, what approach shall we adopt? Will translations, simply more translations, be enough?
I cannot help but have the uneasy impression that no matter how large an amount of translations from Arabic literature we produce as we are used to produce them, our problem of purpose and self-justification will not be solved. To begin with, our translations are of the scholarly kind. Who needs scholarly translations? Other scholars, maybe. But should they need them? Do Hispanists or Germanists need such translations in their fields? Of course, our students of Arabic can profit from translations of Arabic verse, but this would constitute a limited purpose, entering in the realm of textbooks. Otherwise, translations should either be made with a more ambitious literary aim in mind or else they should not even be mentioned in a discussion of literary problems."
-Jaroslav Stetkevych,I'm not sure where exactly I see myself in this half-century-old address by a then-young Arabist. Somewhere downstream of it, to be sure, yet in many ways I have more in common with the Romantic generation of orientalist poet-translators than I do with the audience Stetkevych was addressing. Apart from the traductomania that induces verse-translation, I also have more universal aims, having grown skeptical of the "skeptical [attitude] about universal culture", and am ill at ease with the disciplinarian confinement to a single field - the barriers, cognitive and institutional, that wall off the Arabist from the Sinologist and the Hellenist, the Islamicist from the Classicist, and Literature from Anthropology. Though maybe that's lead me to spread myself too thin. Moreover, the "democratization" of knowledge-production enabled above all else by the internet means that my activity need not be linked to an institutional, let alone imperial, project. Certainly some of the educational resources and programs that allowed me to study Arabic as intensively as I did for as long as I did were intended at least in part to produce either qualified academics or regionally competent government functionaries. But it is thanks to the Internet that I am able to exist as neither.
Address delivered in February 1967 at St. Antony's College, Oxford.
But enough about me. Today, nearly 50 years later, it seems that with a few notable and brilliant exceptions such as Michael Sells, Stetkevych's call for "a more ambitious literary aim" for translations from Classical Arabic, has fallen on largely deaf ears, including those of his own wife Suzanne (much as I hate to say it) though Classical Persian literature has fared far better, as it always seems to have done. We've seen a profusion of theory and paradigm, some revelatory and some questionable, but little resurgence of actual literary energy in scholars' interaction with Classical Arabic. I note that Stetkevych's own "half-adolescent ambition" to translate Arabic poetry into Ukrainian also never resurfaced or bore any fruit in the intervening decades. Why not? I do not know. Perhaps he was afraid nobody worthwhile in Ukraine would be paying attention. Then again, he also seems to have largely abandoned the insightful, non-literal and ambitious English translation methods he used for the Arabic selections in his Zephyrs Of The Najd (perhaps because a few reviewers took some exception to it.)
Maybe the dream simply aged out of him, as he became to some degree an upside-down version of the very thing he beheld 50 years ago. The "Chicago school" of Arabic literary study, which he and his wife almost single-handedly inaugurated, has for all its claims now become quite comfortable with contemporary western theory as a means of approaching Arabic literature, an endeavor whose extraordinary and in many ways revolutionary successes have (thankfully) undermined the notion that such literatures are somehow "impenetrable...from a Western stance."
Its failure, however, may lie in the fact that the old Orientalism has been replaced by yet another form of "scholarly work on art for scholarly work on art's sake" albeit in a more theory-savvy way than 50 years ago, and far more deprovincialized (as evidenced by the increasing number of westerners who publish articles in Arabic or have their work translated into it, though a few of the old-guard Orientalists did this too.) Maybe the phrase isn't as absurd as Stetkevych though. Or, as seems more likely, it has to do with factors beyond the control of any scholar.
The "Chicago school's" limitations, too, are apparent, in the paucity of successful literary translators from Classical Arabic it has produced, in the fact that it too can behave at times like "an esoteric clan" albeit of a rather different kind, and in the ease with which "Islamic" can still be deployed as a catch-all frame of reference even by some of the very scholars for whom protesting the essentialization of Islam seems like something of a ritual. Indeed, "Islamic" has become a rather questionable blanket adjective in some contexts, much as the term "Oriental" was a hundred years ago. There's something a little ghettoizing about it, no? Would Shakespeare, or even Dante or Donne, be best described as "Christian poets?" I can only say I'm glad Dick Davis and Franklin Lewis treat, and translate, Hafiz and Rumi as having more to offer than that, as I am glad for the work of Annemarie Schimmel, Julie Scott Meisami and others, including of course the Stetkevyches themselves, who I only wish had pushed the envelope a little bit farther in a few ways.
Or maybe I'm just being a crackpot again.