16 Jun 2014

How one Iraqi poet translated Joyce’s Ulysses into Arabic

On Bloomsday, 16 June, readers celebrate Ulysses, one of the greatest – and most demanding – novels in English. How much more challenging is it to translate James Joyce’s masterpiece into Arabic?

James Joyce’s Ulysses is not just a large book. It is a dense narrative packed with literary, linguistic, religious and geographical plays and allusions which challenge the reader and which still, 100 years on from the work’s inception, confound our expectations of what a novel should be.

Of course, Joyce’s masterpiece also places a huge demand on translators. They have to convey its poetry, its verbal richness, and its many references to cultural events which may have no obvious equivalent outside the English language and to Anglo-Irish culture in the early years of the last century.

How much more demanding, then, when the translator is converting Joyce’s prose not into another European language that is part of the western classical tradition, but into Arabic, a language whose founding cultural, religious and geographical reference points derive from a completely different time and place to those of English?

‘Protecting my health’

It was precisely the difficulty of realising an Arabic version of Ulysses that appealed to Salah Niazi, the Iraqi poet, when he began the project in 1984.

Niazi’s exile in the UK had started in the 1960s, with the rise of the Ba’athist party in Iraq. By 1984, the Iran-Iraq war was four years underway.

Your mood, your relationship with your wife, your house, your friends – all will differ when you go fully to read Ulysses. Salah Niazi

He decided to translate Joyce as a way of distracting himself from the horror of what was happening to the country of his birth, by then under the rule of Saddam Hussein.

“I was protecting my health from the news of wars in Iraq,” Salah Niazi told Channel 4 News. “I couldn’t bear to watch day and night on television. Many a friend, Iraqi friends in Europe whom I knew, had heart attacks.

“So to protect my health, I said let me go and do something very difficult and forget about all the wars and killings. (…) I decided to go for Ulysses.”

Elevated prose

Ulysses was recognised immediately as a modern masterpiece when it was published in its entirety in Paris in 1922.

By then, though, an American literary journal had been prosecuted for obscenity for publishing an episode from the novel depicting masturbation. In the US the book’s publication was banned until 1933, and a UK ban was not lifted until 1937.

So does Niazi think the “obscenity” question is still an issue for readers in culturally conservative Arabic countries? No, because Joyce is not depicting sex for pornographic reasons.

“His prose is so elevated, it is up to the plane of poetry,” he says. “His prose is full of poetry because he is a poet himself. He is a musician. And besides, he is a medical student.”

Niazi compares Ulysses to Greek nude sculptures or the prostitutes depicted in some of Picasso’s paintings.

“They are nude in front of you, but you don’t think of that. You think about the beauty (…) So when you are involved greatly in Ulysses, you do not think of these things.”

In small doses

Despite its status as a masterpiece of modernist literature, Ulysses remains a difficult work.

So how, on 16 June 2014 – Bloomsday – should the new reader come to Joyce’s novel? Niazi‚Äôs advice is that you cannot simply read Ulysses – you have to study it.

“Take it by small doses. Every day, five pages. Assimilate everything in it. When you are satisfied with what you have read, you go to the other five.

“In six months – it’s only 640 pages, the whole novel – you will find yourself on a different plane.”

In six months – it’s only 640 pages, the whole of Ulysses – you will find yourself on a different plane. Salah Niazi

Niazi’s project is now nearing its end. The first volume of his complete translation of Ulysses was published in Damascus in 2001 and has been through two subsequent editions. The second volume appeared in 2010, with a second edition in 2013.

The third, penultimate volume came out in May 2014, although the civil war in Syria meant publication had to be transferred to Beirut. The final volume, comprising the famous Molly Bloom soliloquy, is now all that remains.

And just as translating Joyce 30 years ago offered a distraction from the tragedy of events in Iraq at that time, so Salah Niazi is convinced reading Ulysses in 2014 can still be a truly transformative experience.

“You are a different person. You have the right to change your name, your country, your status – anything! Really. It’s that impact of the book on any reader.”

Interview with Salah Niazi filmed and produced by Kamali Melbourne