The opening of my London Magazine essay on translating Leo Damrosch’s The Club to Arabic, to appear in the upcoming June/July issue
Leo Damrosch’s 2019 collective biography, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, is a drawn-out miscellany of intellectual life in and around London in 1764-1784. Translating it to Arabic was daunting from the start.
At 473 pages it seemed impossibly long, for one thing. Stacking up anecdotes, the Harvard professor’s saga stalks back and forth along busy, bumpy paths in space and time, leading away from and circling back to its subject. It is full of eighteenth-century English, too – who knew luxurious meant ‘lascivious’, not ‘posh’ – and much of that in ‘the periodic style’, with each full stop implying a ‘whole interconnected structure of clauses that brings us to that conclusion’. How could I replicate such build-ups in a language where clauses tend to stand alone while the sentence is less clearly defined? What was something like ‘Why, Sir, that was because’ supposed to look like in the language of the Quran?
I would have to make difficult decisions about transliteration – virtually no British name is pronounced the way it is written – patiently trying out rhymes for the verses, approximating idioms filtered first through three centuries of English then across language families to Arabic. But the harder task by far was teasing clarity and coherence out of narratives and descriptions – humour, suffering, intelligence – so far removed from 2021 Cairo, Egypt they might as well be science fiction, and were.
I needed the money; that was definitely a factor. I felt my educational and literary credentials qualified me better than most for the demands of a job that would provide a certain amount of money. I also whimsically recalled my abiding interest in the English eighteenth century – the century of Laurence Sterne, Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding – a time when the English language as I knew it was being formed, along with so much else in the way of modern concepts in the humanities. But the real reason I took on The Club was that I saw it as a kind of virtual reality exercise – I wanted to be transported into an immersive parallel world like a Starfleet officer engaging a holodeck scenario – which at its best, when I had enough focus and energy, is what it was.
The one thing I never suspected was that this ‘group of extraordinary individuals, a constellation of talent in eighteenth-century London, that was known simply as the Club,’ as Damrosch’s prologue describes it, could bear resemblance to anything Arabic-speaking or Cairo-based. And yet the deeper I plunged into the book the more its opening words evoked a set very like the one they describe:
Though not a large group, its members made brilliant contributions to our culture that are still celebrated today. But there was another, perhaps even more important, requirement for Club membership: you had to be good company – ready to talk, laugh, drink, eat, and argue until late into the night…
More in The London Magazine