Music, Math, Religion, and Naming

Music, Math, Religion, and Naming: Some Notes on the Translation of Ryad Girod’s Mansour’s Eyes

by Chris Clarke

You can feel the outline of the dunes in the sentences themselves, I hope, as they trudge up the sandy slope, plodding and plugging, reaching higher and attaining the crest only to slow, to crumble, to fall back on themselves and then tumble plummet plunge and slump…

We often use language tied to one art form when we talk about another. In the 1950s and ‘60s, authors of the nouveau roman spoke of cinécriture (literally translated, “cinewriting”) to help them explain their attempts to develop a visual writing that flowed, jumped, and cut its way through time like film. In the same period, the directors of the French New Wave regularly turned to terminology from literary criticism to better describe their cinematic strategies. And of course, when we speak of literature, especially of poetry, we often employ terms borrowed from the lexicon of music, speaking of melody and rhythm, sound, timbre, and cadence. When we translate poetry, we often struggle against the conundrum that stems from a disconnect between sound, meaning, and visual appearance. In such situations, we as translators do our best to recreate the sonic play of the source poem, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of other signifying elements.

Although it doesn’t garner the same amount of attention or commentary, there is an undefinable music to long-form prose as well. A translator rarely engages with this music on the same scale; where in translating poetry, we might work and rework our translation right down to the syllable or even further, to the individual sounds, searching for a way to keep that crackling plosive or that abrupt stop, trying to retain the fluidity of those liquids, to let them really and truly flow. But when it comes to the music of prose, which is typically drawn out over a much greater scale, it becomes more a question of syntax and rhythm, of timing and momentum, even of variable tempo or rubato.

Algerian writer Ryad Girod’s third novel, Mansour’s Eyes, tells the story of Mansour al-Jazaïri, a Syrian living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Without warning, he finds himself afflicted by a progressive, debilitating neurological disorder. A chain of events ends with the Saudi courts finding him guilty of blasphemy, the punishment for his crime being public execution. In translating Mansour’s Eyes, I found recreating the syntactic music of certain passages to be an interesting challenge. Girod makes use of a technique that reminded me of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writing in works such as La Jalousie (1957), although in Girod’s work, the procedure produces an entirely different effect. In La Jalousie, Robbe-Grillet uses progressively expanding repetition to gradually release information. The same passages reappear time and time again, but each time in slightly expanded iterations. From a formal and compositional point of view, La Jalousie is a remarkable reading experience. When it comes to readerly enjoyment, however, the resulting text can be rather flat and dry. In Mansour’s Eyes, Girod uses a similar formal construction for these scenes, but manages to create passages of lyrical and emotional beauty. Instead of simply employing them to incorporate additional details during each iteration, in Girod’s passages, these expanding echo waves seem to add even more intensity and emotion at each occurrence. Interestingly enough, while this method reminded me of Robbe-Grillet, Girod attributes it more to his fascination with one of Robbe-Grillet’s contemporaries, Claude Simon. This leads me to believe that perhaps I was reading the wrong nouveau romancier all those years ago.

Girod uses this “repeat-and-expand” technique very effectively in his novel. I had to keep track of what was added or modified each time, and consider the music of each proliferating passage. As an example, consider Girod’s description of the Najd valley and its dunes, which repeats at intervals throughout the novel, progressively stretched and expanded each time. As Mansour sits at the precise center of the crest of his dune and looks out onto the desert, the winds pick up, the sandstorm sets in, and he seeks out an inner comprehension that has otherwise been eluding him. Girod explained that much of the novel was written in his car while he waited for his daughter to complete her swimming lessons. As he waited, and as he wrote, he listened to music, much of it Sufi music. In these Dervish songs, he explained, repetition is crucial, with gradual changes in rhythm modifying a repeated phrase or prayer. By increasing the frequency and changing the rhythm of a set phrase, the resulting modulation is believed to lead toward a fusion with the divine (“fana”). For Girod, these passages in the novel and their progressively modified rhythms function as a literary manifestation of a music of the desert wind, which reflects both Mansour’s internal state and the chaos of the world around him. I found this admission very interesting, since I had experienced these passages somewhat differently. In my reading, the syntax and rhythm of these passages came to represent a topographical tracing of the shape of the dunes themselves, with speed and duration taking the place of horizontal and vertical distance. And yet, the interplay of our two readings is undeniable. The wind shapes the dunes even as the dunes shape the wind. As the wind moves along the sand, it is forced to take the shape of the dunes that precede its arrival, but it also shifts and stretches these sandy curves, reshaping them as it hurls about their very foundation.

In my attempt to convey this music, syntax and rhythm are key. Punctuation plays a great part as well. I considered trying to note these rhythms down on paper like a musical score, at one point even trying to trace the shape of the dunes on paper, drawing their rise and fall, crests and valleys, the acceleration and deceleration, the eddies and sudden abatements. It turns out that my illustration skills haven’t improved since ninth grade art class. Instead, I settled for visualization, and for relying heavily on the orality of these descriptive chains of sentences, clauses, and stacked adjectives, reading and rereading the source text aloud, and alternating between Girod’s rhythms and those I was working to bring to life. You can feel the outline of the dunes in the sentences themselves, I hope, as they trudge up the sandy slope, plodding and plugging, reaching higher and attaining the crest only to slow, to crumble, to fall back on themselves and then tumble plummet plunge and slump… to gather a flicker a spark a new gust of life with which to advance, struggling, clambering their way back up though the sand the grains the millions upon millions of grains in search of the next ridge… And, much as with the next storm to snake its way through the dunes, the next time the narrator describes the scene, he will notice that it has changed, that the current winding its way through this labyrinthine sinuosity has forged new paths, has transformed the ephemeral shape of the dunes much in the way the dunes themselves have modified the storm’s own shape, intensity, and trajectory.

Readers of Mansour’s Eyes will also notice that the novel has a mathematical side to it. Translating literature that involves some mathematical component is something very familiar for me, as I have for years now been involved, with varying degrees of success, in the translation of texts by members of the French literary group Oulipo. The mathematics found in Mansour’s Eyes, however, do not take the form of constraints intended to produce writing that wouldn’t otherwise occur, but instead play a thematic role in Girod’s narrative. When I asked him about this integration of math into literature, drawing on the fact that he is a math teacher in Algiers, he informed me that this theme wasn’t initially the intention: he did not set out to write with or about mathematics. Instead, the process of writing Mansour’s Eyes was undertaken as an interrogation of the possibility of comprehension, and lengthy reflection and reading on the question brought math into the picture of its own accord. His previous novels, he pointed out, have no connection to mathematics, but the subject matter in this story naturally led him in this direction. His research on this philosophical theme of comprehension led him to a number of captivating thinkers, among them philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, and statesmen. The Emir Abdelkader plays a pivotal role in the narrative, as Mansour’s great-grandfather; Henri Bergson appears in the shadows, as does his near-contemporary, the mathematician Henri Poincaré. The latter, Girod affirms, is the last mathematician to have mastered all of the branches of math, and thus represents the final great mathematical mind before we as a species began a long and diverging slide into hyper-specialization.

The narrator of Mansour’s Eyes is Hussein, Mansour’s closest friend. As Hussein struggles to understand what his friend is going through and how it could be possible he is soon to be executed, he ponders the very notion of what it means to understand. Eventually, he comes to an acute awareness of the impossibility of true understanding, realizing that the difficulty in truly comprehending even the simplest notion stretches toward exponential and even infinite complexity when one factors in all the variables. Looking at the image of the Hubble Deep Field is a similar experience for me, one that has an almost spiritual resonance. This notion of the implications of infinite scale is repeatedly examined in Mansour’s Eyes, whether in the form of the grains of sand in the desert or Zeno’s “dichotomy” paradox. Girod points out that there are so many different ways to understand something, anything at all, that there can be no true way to understand it. This also ties into the sacred geometry of Islamic art, such as the patterns found in the extensive mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus: this geometry stems from a spiritual mathematics based on nature and what Girod refers to as the exhilaration of contemplation. I might further liken this to the seemingly infinite number of choices a translator makes in a translation, an undertaking for which there are no perfect results, only a near-infinite number of possibilities.

It isn’t always the case, but it seems to me that more often than not, in the Anglophone publishing world, literature about Islam and books that describe life in Muslim countries fall very neatly in line with what many “Western” readers are used to hearing. Novels that illustrate how difficult conditions can be under an Islamic regime. Severe punishments, beheadings, mistreatment of women, homophobia, intolerance, a lack of freedom of expression, and any other number of realities that don’t line up with what some see as contemporary Western (Christian?) values. While I certainly agree that it is important for us to be aware of these realities, and for publishers to make space for these writers, I also find that this relatively safe editorial choice can mollify the reader through confirmation bias. Often, these readings risk conferring upon the Western reader a feeling of social, moral, ethical, or religious superiority. As ArabLit Quarterly founder Marcia Lynx Qualey so neatly put it, many such tales can be seen as East-to-West narratives, where “the success of the journey” is predicated on the character’s ability to “become more Western.” And, while the angry crowd screaming for Mansour’s head in Al-Safat Square was an affront to my own personal convictions, Mansour’s Eyes offers some possible balance through its presentation of earlier incarnations of Islamic and Sufi thought. As I consider my role as a translator, it seems that one way for me to address this long-established East-West dichotomy in Anglophone publishing is by pitching and translating a book that I feel presents a more counterbalanced point of view.

Ryad Girod makes no claim of being a historian. In fact, he indicated to me that much of the historical material woven into his narrative was newly encountered during his inquiry into comprehension. Still, by incorporating into his tale some of the more revered men, women, and ideals from the history of Islamic and Sufi thought, he establishes a solid opposition to the decadence, rampant consumerism, and extremist thought he sees as being so problematic in the region. As Mansour’s plight becomes more dire, he and his friend Hussein both seek solace in the glories of the Islamic world’s past: its wisdom and faith, its open and worldly interaction with the great thinkers of other traditions, its pursuit of a circular learning that encompasses spirit and mind, balancing religion with science, politics with humanism, the center of the circle with its circumference. Mansour’s decline leads him further and further away from Saudi society and its rules, but also carries him toward an introspective form of comprehension that may lead some readers to find in Mansour’s public execution a certain kind of spiritual optimism. This talented balancing of two sides of the coin, the one a hate-filled public square clamoring for blood, the other fourteen hundred years of wisdom, beauty, belief, and art, this balanced approach offers curious readers of Mansour’s Eyes a philosophical journey that is not simply East to West, but also within and without, back in time and forward into the unknown. All the same, when I asked Girod if he himself felt a similar sense of optimism toward the state of things, he admitted that he does not; for him, the Islamic world has long been falling into ruin, and he believes we are soon to arrive, if we have not already, at the “utter and absolute end of that glorious Arab world.” Admittedly, he told me this during the confusion of the global pandemic that had thrown the world into a chaos it hadn’t experienced in a century. Perhaps if I’m feeling optimistic myself, months or years down the road, I’ll ask him if his feelings have changed.

My expertise as a writer and translator lies primarily with two languages: French and English. And yet, while it is easy for many to accept as concrete the lines that have been drawn onto a map to delimit one nation from another, linguistic barriers have long tended to ignore such topographical boundaries. Ryad Girod lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for four years, like his characters Mansour and Hussein. Also like them, he was educated in the French-language school system, although for him this was in Algeria and not, like Mansour, in Syria. Beyond French and some English, Girod also reads and speaks Arabic, although his Arabic is more accurately Darja, a dialectal form that differs considerably from Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). In any case, due to the historical subject matter, Mansour’s Eyes is populated with many proper names drawn from the pre-modern period of the Arabic literary tradition, as well as the names of Arabic men and women from more contemporary pre- and post-colonial Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, and so on. This complicated matters for my translation to some extent, as different target languages such as French and English have their own ways of dealing with the writing of Arabic words and names.

I was very fortunate to have colleagues with whom to discuss this disconnect, and it was largely through fruitful conversations with my colleague Rawad Wehbe, a scholar and literary translator of Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania, that I was able to see the problem for what it was. More specifically, Ryad Girod’s French writing of Arabic names and words, and that of his protagonists, has been inflected by a French tradition of transliteration, whereas we Anglophones have our own common methods of transliterating Arabic writing into English. In addition to these, there is a more “scientific” or “technical” manner of transliterating names, one used by institutions such as the Library of Congress or the International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES), which attempt to better preserve the actual sound of an Arabic word instead of modifying it to suit the pronunciation patterns of the host language. Mansour, for example, is a fairly typical French transliteration of this given name. And yet it isn’t so simple: the Wikipedia “disambiguation” page for Mansour opens with the following: “Mansur (Arabic: منصور‎, Manṣūr); also spelled Mounsor, Monsur (Bengali), Mansoor, Manser, Mansour, Mansyur (Indonesian) or Mensur) is a male Arabic name that means ‘the one who is victorious.’” This is not solely the case for our protagonist’s name, of course. How many different spellings of Muhammad have you come across during your reading life? The Prophet is sometimes Muhammad, but on other days or in other places, he is Mohamed, Mohammed, Mohammad, Muhammed, Mohamad, Muhamed, Mohamud, Mohummad, Mohummed, Mouhamed, Mohammod, Muḥammad, or Mouhamad. What’s a writer to do? And more problematically, what’s a translator to do? I had no desire to strip Girod’s contemporary characters of their Franco-Arabic heritage, as it is a part of their place in the world. At the same time, I preferred not to burden the names of historical Arabic figures with an English or French inflection that, for all intents and purposes, had no way of impacting them in their day. Ultimately, I decided that there was a way to avoid both of these problems.

The Emir Abdelkader (or Abd al-Qadir), who, in the novel, is Mansour al-Jazaïri’s great-grandfather, was hugely impacted by the French. Born in 1808, this religious and military leader, Sufi, and Islamic scholar, was a key figure in the Algerian resistance against colonial invasion by the French, which began in 1830. After years of battles and treaties, Abdelkader surrendered to the French on 21 December 1847, but instead of a promised exile, he was imprisoned in France, spending years as a “guest” in the Chateau d’Amboise in the Touraine. Logic dictates, to me at least, that it was during his lifetime that colonization can be seen to have brought about new modes of transliteration based on how these names sounded to native French speakers, and more importantly, on the way they could be rendered with their own restrictive French alphabet. Prior to Abdelkader, during the prime of life of his father, Muhieddine al-Hasani (or Muhyi al-Din al-Hasani), the French language’s impact on Arabic would have been much less pronounced. Accordingly, I have decided to replicate this colonization-induced linguistic shift in my translation. Proper names of historical figures who lived prior to Abdelkader’s day have been transliterated in the more technical Library of Congress style, whereas the names of Abdelkader, his modern Algerian descendants, and their contemporaries have been transliterated in the French style brought about by colonization. This choice is most apparent in the short genealogy Mansour recites in the book, but it is also visible in certain oppositions: Mansour al-Jazaïri’s fate echoes that of the ninth-century Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj, for example. For convenience and familiarity’s sake, however, I have made certain exceptions to this rule, such as when I felt it might cause readers to miss a more widely known cultural reference. The names of internationally lauded poets such as Adonis, Omar Khayyám, and Hafiz have been published widely in certain recognizable forms, despite other possible transliterations, and thus I have preserved these spellings to reinforce the link between this tale and other writings. I have made similar modifications to some geographical names as well, relying mostly on Google Maps, historical texts, and even tourism brochures when deciding which transliterated version to use so that a reader may further investigate the setting if the desire strikes.

It was a pleasure to work on this charming novel, and I hope I have done it justice. It is a very timely novel; while the Arab Spring of the early 2010s did not directly affect Saudi Arabia, its impact transformed the region, and as Girod’s characters Mansour, Hussein, Nadine, and even the Emir Abdelkader show, this entire part of the world is in constant movement and flux. Mansour’s Eyes sheds light on the rapid westernization of today’s Saudi Arabia, but also on its deep and complex ties to neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, and even to global powers such as France and the United States. And should we desire, like Mansour and Hussein, to truly comprehend how we’ve ended up where we are, once we take stock of the near-infinite number of historical, political, social, cultural, economic, and religious variables that must be factored into such an equation, all that remains to us is to turn inward in search of new ways to understand anything about anything at all. And then, perhaps, to accept the sickly and idiotic smile offered up by men such as François Hollande, to whom Girod affords a brief cameo, and, like Mansour al-Jazaïri, to drunkenly mirror it back to them.

Chris Clarke is a literary translator and scholar currently based in Philadelphia, where he teaches French. His translations include work by Raymond Queneau, Ryad Girod, and Éric Chevillard. His translation of Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives was awarded the French-American Foundation Translation Prize for Fiction in 2019, and his translation of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth was a finalist for the same award in 2017.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, September 6, 2022

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