Dear God, Your Message Was Received in Error

Fady Joudah

Illustration by Guillaume Gilbert

In Borges' story, "Averroës' Search," Averroës interrupts his long day of contemplating the problem that confronts him in Aristotle's Poetics (how to translate 'tragedy' and 'comedy' into Arabic) and joins friends for dinner. The Andalusian philosopher seems to be listening (against hope or "without conviction" as Borges put it) for a solution to his problem in something that any of his guests might say. Maybe the answer is "near at hand" or, as in Lydia Davis' "The Walk," right "across the street."

As the conversation meanders through various subjects about writing, God, and art, one of Averroës' guests brings up the account of the seven sleepers:

Let us imagine that someone shows a story instead of telling it—the story of the seven sleepers of Ephesus, say.* We see them retire into the cavern, we see them pray and sleep, we see them sleep with their eyes open, we see them grow while they are asleep, we see them awaken after three hundred nine years, we see them hand the merchant an ancient coin, we see them awaken with the dog.
Borges' mention of the seven sleepers comforts me, perhaps because I know the story from the Koran. Or perhaps because it serves as yet another cornerstone of what translation work can perform: transforming telling into seeing. Telling a story through seeing is also a gesture at what Averroës could not grasp when he encountered Aristotle's 'tragedy' and 'comedy': theatre.

Did Ibn Rushd really not know what a play was? Or was he trying to translate the genre of theatre into that of poetry when he decided that 'tragedy' and 'comedy' would parallel 'panegyric' and 'satire,' respectively? Was this his early idea of "cultural translation"? Are these even important questions to ask here? What interests me most is the asterisk that the translator Andrew Hurly introduces above. It leads to his "Notes to the Fictions" at the end of the book, where he writes:

"The seven sleepers of Ephesus": This is a very peculiar story to put in the minds of these Islamic luminaries, for the story of the seven sleepers of Ephesus is a Christian story, told by Gregory of Tours. Clearly the breadth of culture of these gentlemen is great, but it is difficult (at least for this translator) to see the relationship of this particular tale (unlike the other "stories," such as the children playing or "representing" life and the "if it had been a snake it would have bitten him" story told by abu-al-Hasan) to Averroës' quest.
Clearly, Hurly is unaware the seven sleepers is also an Islamic narrative. The "three hundred nine" years is an Islamic chronology, not a Christian one, for example. The original story of the seven sleepers, which is an incomplete and fantastic narrative, was originally written down in Syriac, the language from which Ibn Rushd translated Aristotle's also incomplete Poetics into Arabic. I'd like to think of the smile that formed on my face when I first read Hurly's commentary—on a text (Borges') of a text (Ibn Rushd's) that has become paradigmatic of tragicomic error and the incomprehensibility of the circumstances under which a text is composed, originally, in translation, or in translation of translation—as affirmation of Averroës and "Averroës' Search."

The translator's note to Borges' "Averroës" is now inseparable from the story itself in English, in the translator's English. Hurly (as the translator of a translator) captures perfectly Borges' sentiment when the latter writes at the end of the "Search:" "I felt that the work mocked me, foiled me, thwarted me [...] (And just when I stop believing in him, 'Averroës' disappears)."

So far as his Middle Commentary on Aristotle's Poetics is concerned, the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd reappears primarily as faith.


Let's say that translation is at its best when it performs an act of "minor literature."

Or, away from the troubled field of power, let's say that translation par excellence is the stereoisomerization of an original compound. The components don't change, the molecular constituents remain the same, but their properties noticeably differ as their spatial arrangement and polarity of and to light are altered. Or let's say that translation is an imaginative act of chirality: two compounds that are non-superposable mirror images of each other. And the untranslatable, or what is deemed as such, as inaccessible sensibility by organ donor and recipient alike, forms a racemic mixture, where the sum of multiple products results in an optically inactive new product. I know "optically inactive" sounds unaesthetic, that something essential and luminous is lost. But if seen in its pure elemental capacity, a racemic mixture is a new creation, and can be life-sustaining. For example, epinephrine is a racemic compound.

Or, away from obsession with symmetry, translation can be simply structural, not spatial, isomerization. In other words: an anagram. A translation is original because it produces a new product that acquires new attributes, configuration, and name.


The question of translation lies not in equating what is original to what is not, but in defining what is original writing in the first place.

How would much of Shakespeare's work be received if it were written today? Has the world known a better translator than Shakespeare? It probably has known his equal, but for complex reasons their fame pales in comparison to his.


Against a sea of knowing, originality today seems reduced to a mistake. Today's pardonable offence, however, is perhaps the desire for uniqueness that paradoxically intensifies to the point of "overcoming each thing's uniqueness," as Walter Benjamin wrote. It is style as the molecularization of voice. Or it is what Jodi Dean calls "communicative capitalism," a jargon of authenticity that Adorno described as "that shadow of a condition in which everyone is literally his own best friend." That's fine. This globalized democratic moment is unheralded in human history. Science too is struggling to cope with it as it simultaneously contributes to it. Our new and evolving self has never gazed at itself in the manner it does today: a ceaseless multifarious gaze.


Medicine, behavioral science, and neuroscience collect data, conduct studies to reveal and visualize the brain grid, the cerebral matrix that activates and is activated in endless scenarios: while reading for pleasure, for news, for both, for research and contemplation; while listening, while observing, and while writing; how does memory work as visualized knowledge (and reading is, in large part, visualization, in the same manner that listening is a "seeing without telling"); how does consciousness and the cognitive unconscious interact; how do the feeling of knowing and unknowing cooperate.


Henry James' The Aspern Papers seems a crude attempt now at the psychology of originality and fame. T.S. Eliot's advice to become a master thief honors the essence of translation in any work of presumed originality. Perhaps the most masterful literary thief is one who's endowed with a superb auto-isomerizing photographic-auditory memory. Image in vivo a translator's brain and an original author's brain, what will you learn? There will be distinct differences, remarkable similarities. There will be immeasurable similarities masked as irreconcilable differences. Will a tabula rasa, or a neural lingua franca common to all of us be identified, mapped? That would hardly be a surprise, genome sequence and all. Will a coefficient of décalage determine the partition between original work and that of translation? We are headlong into computational linguistics and computerized translation. Maybe technology will eventually alter why and how we write and translate: a continuation of our resistance to market-shaped realities (and within each resistance a partial surrender looms), an economy of plurality, of what constitutes an author, and what are the politics of self.


The question "Who Am I?" is at grave risk of becoming interchangeable with, or the masquerade of, "Aren't I?" "Who am I?" is unanswerable because, in part, it is also the perpetual search for "Who are my others?" Translation as poetry is a contrapuntal reading, a fugue lab(yrinth) perhaps: a whirling music of a self that admits itself to others and others to itself.