Posts filed under 'classics'

Classic Philosophy Meets Arabic Language: A Dialogue with Professor Peter Adamson

A tenth-century resident of Baghdad could read Arabic versions of just about everything by Aristotle that we can read today.

The great Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries changed the Near East and beyond politically, culturally, and, in a particularly profound and lasting way, linguistically, resulting in the near hegemony of the Arabic language. This new Islamic world took shape around an original and powerful new religion, but the consolidation of an Islamic civilisation was also a period of immense cultural exchange and mutual influence, not only from fellow Abrahamic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity, but also from the world of classical Mediterranean antiquity. Indeed, while knowledge of classical Greek science and philosophy fell into virtual oblivion in the Christian West, Islamic scholars kept the tradition alive by means of large scale translation projects and sophisticated philosophical works, from the Persian Avicenna to Baghdad’s legendary house of learning and the Andalusian polymath Averroes. In this interview, Professor Peter Adamson of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München talks us through this fascinating and often overlooked period in philosophical history by exploring the works of translation that made it possible.

Jonathan Egid (JE): By the time the grand translation projects of the early Islamic world began, the wonders of classical Greek philosophy had attained the status of ancient wisdom, almost one thousand years old and already much discussed and much translated. How did the works of Greek thinkers come to be translated into Arabic, and what was the interest in these ancient and foreign ideas?

Peter Adamson (PA): This was a process that unfolded over the course of centuries. The translation movement begins already in the eighth century CE and continues well into the tenth century. It was basically an initiative of the elites under the Abbasid caliphate, including even caliphs themselves and the caliphal family, who also had philosophers as court scholars. For instance, al-Kindī, the first philosopher to make explicit use of Hellenic materials in his own writing, was tutor to a caliph’s son and dedicated his most important work to the caliph himself. The translators were well paid experts, so this was a very deliberate and expensive undertaking managed from the top down. It should, however, be said that it was not something that was undertaken in a vacuum. For quite a long time there had already been translations made from Greek into Syriac and other Semitic languages, and these were a model for the Arabic translations (sometimes literally: it was known for works to be translated first into Syriac for the purpose of making an Arabic version on that basis). Also I would say the translation movement had a kind of momentum of its own: whereas at first the texts to be translated were really selected by the elite and for a variety of practical or political motives, eventually they get to the stage where they are translating the entire output of certain thinkers, or at least everything they can get their hands on, in a kind of completist project. So for instance, one of the greatest translators, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, was clearly trying to translate whatever he could by Galen, the most important Greek medical authority, while his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn worked his way through Aristotle.

READ MORE…

Winter 2018: A Treasure Hunt Without A Map

That viewer is me, is you, is us: readers of Asymptote, a journal offering the freedom of infinite interpretations.

Thanks to the hard work of Duncan Lewis, Jacob Silkstone, József Szabo, Marina Sofia, Emma Page, Kyrstin Rodriguez, Giorgos Kassiteridis, Tiffany Tsao, Alexander Dickow, and myself, November 2017 sees the launch of the Asymptote Book Club, a sustainability initiative meant to support independent publishers of world literature while also helping Asymptote stay afloat. By January 2018, after an intensive marketing campaign (e.g., I answer some questions about the Book Club here), we succeed in attracting more than 120 subscribers. In addition, our seventh anniversary is greeted by two important milestones, both to do with the number 100: We cross the 100 mark for number of team members on our masthead, and, with the addition of Amharic and Montenegrin in the Winter 2018 edition, we have gathered work from exactly 100 languages in our archive of world literature! In his interview with Asymptote that we ran in this issue, Lithuanian editor Marius Burokas laments that, as with many peripheral literatures, Lithuanian writing “can only speak of a one-way influence” from English at the moment; that said, Lithuanian literature is by no means a “small [one].” “There are only writers who are not good enough,” he observes wryly, “or writers who are not publicized enough.” This speaks to the very heart of Asymptote’s mission, which is why we have whole teams (from social media to graphic design) set up for the purpose of marketing the work that we’ve been entrusted with, as detailed in an earlier post where I released this publicity report. Where we direct our efforts applies to where we direct our funds as well: For instance, by January 2018, the money we’ve cumulatively thrown at Facebook promotion alone has exceeded $10,000 USD. It’s not only money that I’ve staked personally; in our eight years, I’ve supported almost every single Facebook post in order to encourage other team members as well as our own readers to engage with Asymptote’s feed, all so that we can be a more powerful advocate for so-called “small literatures.” Cruelly, then, around this time, because of the backlash from Russian interference of the 2016 US elections, Facebook deprioritizes social media pages like ours, hurting our ability to connect authors with new readers. I know because I was still supervising the new English Social Media Managers (as well as the Assistant Director of Outreach—whose day job was in social media analytics—I was hoping to install as a permanent team member) from the hospital ward where I was quarantined after radioactive treatment, anxious as much about our falling social media engagement as my own Geiger counter reading (which on the other hand refused to fall as quickly as the doctor and I had hoped, thereby prolonging my hospitalization and resulting in a larger medical bill). Here to introduce the Winter 2018 issue is Brazil editor-at-large Lara Norgaard.

Two parallel snapshots of everyday scenes spliced by double-circle frames form the cover image of Asymptote’s Winter 2018 issue. A woman calmly pushes a stroller on the left, mirroring a different woman on the right who wears dark sunglasses and stares directly into the camera, allowing us to only guess at her penetrating gaze. In these cover photographs, the edition’s guest artist, Elephnt, captures one of its central components: the way each contribution takes a powerful approach to perspective. The authors in this issue all write with a particular and intense gaze that confronts or perhaps commiserates with the reader.

I decided to look back at the woman on the right as I prepared to write this reflection. It is not just her staring back at me that catches my eye; she seems to recognize the camera, to acknowledge how the image representing her was created. The Winter 2018 issue of Asymptote was my first as part of the magazine’s team. I witnessed—and participated in—the compilation of so many voices into one unified whole. READ MORE…

What’s New In Translation: February 2018

The books from Albania and Latin and Central America hitting shelves this month.

For many of us, this month will be either the coldest or the hottest of the year; luckily, the books we’re focusing on this February are resilient and long-lasting—featuring new titles from Albania all the way to Latin and Central America. 

F-1510798924-Blood-Barrios

Blood Barrios by Alberto Arce, translated from the Spanish by John Washington and Daniela Ugaz, Zed Books

Reviewed by Jessie Stoolman, Editor-at-Large for Tunisia

Blood Barrios, Alberto Arce’s account of his diverse experiences as the only foreign journalist inside Honduras between 2012 and 2014, gives a platform to voices inside this small Central American country that are seldom heard. From deep within the Mosquitia jungle, where Arce investigated possible American involvement in massacring innocent civilians, to an overcrowded prison farm where over 350 people died in a fire, he makes “[t]he privileges of a foreigner” in Honduras “his obligations,” asking questions that others cannot.

READ MORE…

A Conversation with Norwegian-to-Azerbaijani Translator Anar Rahimov

There was not a single moment when I said to myself, “Stop”—even when I spent 10 to 15 minutes on one sentence!

As a translator of Norwegian, I travelled to the Gothenburg Book Fair in September to meet with Scandinavian authors, publishers, and fellow translators. One of the translators I met there was Anar Rahimov, a translator of contemporary Norwegian prose into Azerbaijani.

I was intrigued by Anar’s story as one of only two translators of Norwegian in Azerbaijan. I translate into English, probably the world’s most dominant language, and I was curious about the exchange between two relatively small languages, Norwegian and Azerbaijani. I wanted to ask Anar a little more about his work as a translator and how it fits into the literary culture of Azerbaijan. 

David Smith (DS): How did you come to learn Norwegian and what inspired you to translate literature?

Anar Rahimov (AR): Well . . . it was quite accidental, I have to admit. I was working at the University of Languages in Baku as an English language teacher. Then an event took place that changed my whole career, priorities, and future standing in life. In 2010, I heard about an interview that included financing two and half years’ study in Oslo. Ever since childhood, Norway has appealed to me as a northern, far away, and very cold land. Besides, studying in the prestigious universities of Europe was tempting in itself. After a little hesitation, I applied and was selected.

READ MORE…

In Conversation: Daniel Mendelsohn on his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic

What I’m interested in creating is something that combines all the things that I do in my life as a reader and writer and teacher

Memoirist, critic, and translator Daniel Mendelsohn is perhaps best known for the application of mythic paradigms from the Western classics to the analysis of popular and literary culture. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006 for The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, and finalist again in 2012 for his essay collection Waiting for the Barbarians, his criticism frequently graces the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. The forthcoming release (Knopf, September 12) of his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic—about his octogenarian father’s experience auditing his Odyssey freshman seminar at Bard College and their subsequent voyage aboard an Odyssey-themed cruise—occasioned this conversation with Asymptote Interviews Editor Henry Ace Knight.

Can you tell me about the genesis of the book? Was it taking shape in your mind as early as your dad’s request to sit in on the Odyssey course?

No, not at all. The sequence was that early in 2011, before the semester began, he approached me about taking my course; I knew that he was interested in rereading the classics in his old age, and I said, “Well, I’m doing this Odyssey course in the spring…” And he said, “Oh, can I take it?” It didn’t occur to me at the time that it might be something that I would write about. Then, about halfway through the course, at which point so many interesting and funny things were happening, I started taking notes—his interactions with the kids, the things he said about the text. Much of the book is based on the notes I took right after class, memorable exchanges I recorded. Around the midterm, I thought, “OK, somehow I’ve got to write about this,” although I hardly envisioned a book at that point. In fact, at the end of the semester, when Froma [Zeitlin, a Classics professor at Princeton and Mendelsohn’s mentor] told me about the “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise, I called a friend of mine who was the editor of a travel magazine, and I said, “My dad and I are going on this Odyssey cruise and I think I want to write about it.” But I only thought I was going to write a magazine article! Then, when my dad fell ill, I started thinking all of this was…suddenly it took on a shape, you know: the class and the cruise and his illness. And so I started thinking, in a sort of inchoate way, of how all of this could add up to something: him taking the class, us going on the cruise, and him suddenly having a stroke and thereby raising the question of whether he could be his old ‘self’—a very Odyssean question indeed. I started to see it all as one event moving along an arc and that that arc was the arc of the Odyssey.

Did you start to draw more and more parallels between the Odyssey and your relationship to your father as the semester progressed?

I’ve done this with several books now, this entwining ancient texts and personal narratives. I did it in my first memoir, The Elusive Embrace, in which I wrapped exegeses of various classical texts around a story about me and my family and being a gay man who decided to become a father—my story was interwoven with musings on classical texts about desire and parenting and so on. And then I did it in The Lost, in which the intertext is not a classical text but a biblical text: I used Genesis, with its memorable narratives about fratricide and global destruction and wandering and miraculous survivals, as a kind of foil for this family story about the Holocaust. Once you start thinking about a text, these parallels to your life start to present themselves. So in this case, because my mind was on the Odyssey, everything about what happened to Dad and me, the course, the cruise, started presenting itself as “odyssean,” as potential material, and the parallels between the personal narrative and the text started to make themselves felt. So, for instance, the first major section of my book, which recreates the first weeks of the Odyssey course and our discussions of the first four books of the Odyssey, which are about Odysseus’s son Telemachus going on a sort of fact-finding mission to learn what happened to his absent father, twines around flashbacks to my childhood in which I too am a boy searching for his father, trying to understand who he is. And so on.

What happens when I start thinking about a memoir is that I’ll have an intuition about how a certain text is going to structure the memoir, and then once I’m thinking that way it just takes off. But of course it’s only in the writing that you can really carefully work out the parallels and draw attention to them in a rather purposeful, literary way; so in this sense I’m also creating the parallels, I’m establishing them in my text for the reader. I know the Odyssey intimately, so as things were happening in real life I would think, “Oh my God, this is so Odyssean!”—like the guy on the boat with the scar. [A major revelation in An Odyssey turns on an encounter between Mendelsohn and an elderly fellow passenger who had a scar on his thigh dating to an incident in World War II. In Homer’s Odyssey, a climactic moment is linked to the history of a scar on Odysseus’s thigh.] When I met that old gentleman with the scar I thought, “You cannot make this stuff up!”—as it was happening, I was thinking that no one was going to believe this, it was just too good to be true. But it really happened!

READ MORE…

In Review: Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man by U.R. Ananthamurthy

Asif he had become a stranger to himself, the Acharya opened his eyes and asked himself: Where am I?

NYRB Classics’ reissue of this book comes at an opportune moment, as societies around the world face the dangers of religious extremism and its focus on ritual and regulation rather than humanity. U.R. Ananthamurthy, in A.K Ramanujan’s translation from the Kannada, tries to teach Indian society a lesson in this story about the trouble with prioritizing tradition over compassion.

Samskara begins with one of the central cleansing and purification rituals in the rites of Hindu worship. Praneshacharya, the most respected Brahmin in his traditional and conservative agrahara, begins each day by bathing the sickly and desiccated body of his infirm wife.  Praneschacharya has faithfully carried out this ritual for more than twenty years. He views sexless marriage as a penance and a sacrifice that will deliver salvation in this life and in the next.  But the death of an impious and sinful Brahmin, Naranappa, in the agrahara brings Praneshacharya to a spiritual crisis of his own that makes him question his long-practiced rituals and beliefs. The cleansing ritual that he performs on his wife at the beginning of the story is the last time that he will perform this expiating routine; this is the beginning of the end for Praneshacharya’s spiritual cleanliness and purity.

Samskara—the compulsory rite given to Brahmins at their passing—becomes the central controversy of the novel. Naranappa has renounced the Brahmin rituals of the agrahara and has carried out the most outrageous and offensive acts to show his disapproval of his fellow worshippers and neighbors. He’s taken up excessive drinking, spent time with Muslims and ate meat with them, and caught fish from the sacred temple pond. The most impious of his actions, however, was casting off his lawful wife and his choosing to live with a lower class, outcast woman named Chandri.  Despite his hedonistic behavior, the Brahmins never excommunicated Naranappa from their small, conservative village.

It is Chandri, Narranappa’s low-born lover, who delivers the news of his death to the agrahara.  This announcement causes an immediate conflict over the performance of the death rites for this blasphemous man whom they continued to allow to live among them. The Brahmins’ failure to act in the face of Naranappa’s sacrilege can be viewed as the first of Ananthamurthy’s many criticisms of the Brahmins way of life; their laziness or fear or lack of conviction, or a combination of all three, prevent them from expelling Narranappa from the agrahara.  Now that he has died, none of them want to be responsible for performing the death rites for his body.

READ MORE…

The Tiff: How Often Should We Re-translate the Classics?

Two literary voices sound off in Asymptote blog’s newest regular column

Antony Shugaar, translator, writer, Asymptote contributing editor

I remember reading a science fiction short story many years ago in which a disgruntled author of historical novels gets his wish to witness the crucifixion of Christ. The plot’s twists and turns escape me now, but I know the final outcome is that he winds up crucified on a secondary cross, an all-too-eager witness to the truth behind the familiar version.

Historians are constantly pawing through the rubble of memory, language, and inference in search of an unproven and unprovable truth. Death—of course—intervenes, as does the slow grind of time, but memory and perception get in the way, too. So does institutionalized meaning: once you’ve heard “By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water,” you can never unhear it. READ MORE…