A Gatherer of Arab Voices

Poet Salma Jayyusi shepherds Mideast literature to a Western audience. INTERVIEW: LITERARY TRANSLATOR

`ONE of the most effective and humanizing ways that people of different cultures can have access to each other's experiences and concerns is through works of literary merit.'' This credo lies behind the lifework of Salma Khadra Jayyusi, a Palestinian poet, editor, and tireless impresario of Arabic literature in translation. Dr. Jayyusi is founder and director of the Project for Translation from Arabic (PROTA), and it is difficult to pick up any recently translated work of contemporary Arabic literature without finding her mark on it.

In eight years she has shepherded into print three novels and two lengthy collections of poetry and short prose. Three new translations that she edited are forthcoming, and her anthologies of contemporary Arab drama, fiction, and Palestinian literature will soon be sent to university presses. Many more novels and poetry collections have been translated and edited and now await publishers.

A visit to Jayyusi's Cambridge, Mass., apartment, piled high with manuscripts in preparation, is like gaining entry to an Ali Baba's cave of Arabic literature.

``It's not the best way to earn a living, in fact it's probably the worst,'' she admits. ``But I wouldn't exchange the satisfaction I get from this work for anything.''

And her motivation is not strictly literary. Recalling her upbringing in Jerusalem under the British Mandate, Jayyusi notes that her family fought for Palestinian rights. ``My relatives sacrificed a lot. My father was either jailed or in exile 90 percent of my childhood, and my uncle fell in battle against the French in 1926. This is my heritage,'' she says.

``The problem with me is that I hate war, but I still wanted to serve my culture. I soon discovered that our literature was unknown in the rest of the world. They thought we didn't have anything to offer.''

In 1980, she decided that she had to do something. ``So the work of translating Arabic literature has become my war - a war against the ignorance of who we are as Arabs,'' she says.

Jayyusi is unusual for an Arab woman of her age: She did not have to fight a war against her own ignorance. She is the fourth generation of educated women in her family. ``My grandmother could read the Koran and my mother taught me the pre-Islamic odes when I was still little,'' she remembers. ``We had a huge library at home, and I read so much poetry there that I wrote my first poems without having studied Arabic metrics. I had already internalized them just from reading.''

In the late 1970s, when Jayyusi was beginning to shape her ideas for a literary translation program, everyone thought she was dreaming. ``My Arab friends said to me, `Why don't you let the Americans translate our literature? If they want to know us, let them do it.' But it doesn't work that way.''

The Franklin Institute has translated many works of American thought and literature into Arabic. Jayyusi herself translated Louise Bogan's ``Fifty Years of American Poetry'' and Archibald MacLeish's ``Poetry and Experience'' for the institute. ``And now the MacLeish book is quoted all over the Arab world,'' she says.

Jayyusi is quick to point out that she has not been working completely without help. PROTA has an advisory board and an editorial committee made up of Arab intellectuals and scholars of Arabic literature that provide essential input. An anthology of Andalusian literature to commemorate the Arabs' expulsion from Spain is her next large project.

THE roster of contributing translators runs to more than 50 names. Some work as first translators, responsible for the literal rendering from the original. Others, mostly well-known creative writers, polish the text as second translators. Christopher Middleton, W.S. Herwin, and Richard Wilbur are among the poets on this second list. Jayyusi's guiding philosophy is that ``only one creative writer can translate another.''

Jayyusi ``herself is an established poet and an established critic of Arabic literature,'' says Ernest McCarus, a PROTA board member and director of the Center for Near Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan. Not only is her knowledge of Arabic, English, and European literature ``first rate,'' he says, she is particularly talented ``in selecting people who are competent to do the various stages of translation.''

Financial support for PROTA first came from the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, which stopped contributing after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. ``The Iraqis know about translation and why it's so important, and like me they are very proud of their culture,'' Jayyusi says.

King Saud University in Saudi Arabia and the Emir of Sharjah also made important contributions, and the Arab ambassadors in Washington bought the equipment that has turned her kitchen into a word-processing center.

Jayyusi's mission requires a lot of reading and even more legwork. She constantly travels throughout the Arab world to attend book fairs, poetry symposia, and meetings with literary circles. As a student and Arab diplomat's wife, she lived in almost all the Arab capitals and was able to meet the established as well as the younger writers. These contacts now serve her well. when she returns in search of new Arab voices. ``My suitcase is always full of books when I return from a trip,'' she says.

And she is pleased to talk about the emerging trends she finds on the Arab literary scene. ``Before, there was too much heroism, our poets all trying to redeem the world. But recent work is more down-to-earth. It doesn't celebrate the hero as much, even though we still need some heroism in our literature, especially because of the Palestinian situation.

``That's why I admire the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish so much, because he has found the right m'elange of the victim and the hero,'' she continues. ``He's for a resistance that also recognizes man's vulnerability.''

Even though she is an accomplished poet and author of a major study on modern Arabic poetry, Jayyusi says she takes personal pleasure in discovering young novelists and short-story writers. She thinks that stories set in times before the oil boom can have particular resonance for Western readers, and she is happy that Hanna Mina's autobiographical novel ``Fragments of Memory'' about life in a traditional Syrian village will soon be published in the United States by the University of Texas Press.

BUT Jayyusi notes that Arab novelists also write beautifully about change in their society. ``Prairies of Fever'' by Ibrahim Nasrallah, about expatriate Arabs and Europeans working together in a small village in the Arabian Peninsula, she finds especially touching. ``Both the Arabs and the Europeans are miserable; both are completely out of place there. Nasrallah shows just how alike the 20th century has made us all.'' She has not placed the manuscript with a publisher.

Screening, selecting, and supervising the translation of the finest in contemporary Arabic literature is the easy part of Jayyusi's job. Finding commercial publishers willing to accept her manuscripts has been difficult. ``One still has to demolish the wall that publishers and reviewers have built against our literature,'' she says. ``Maybe they are afraid of giving offense to someone if they bring it out, but they should also not offend us by ignoring it.''

Noting the Nobel Prize given this year to the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, Jayyusi hopes that the reluctance of publishers might lessen in the future. Random House has just issued Abdelrahman Munif's epic novel ``Cities of Salt'' in paperback, which they first published in 1987. The acclaim given the Israeli Arab writer Anton Shammas for his novel ``Arabesques,'' originally written in Hebrew, she thinks should now focus critical attention on an earlier collection of his Arabic poetry.

Jayyusi takes the long view, confident of Arabic literature's value. ``Sooner or later, with good books selected and with help from first-rate translators, more will be published. For the time being, however, I'm still working alone.''

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