Since the Tower of Babel, translators have been indispensable for human understanding. One of the busiest workers in the field is Dr. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, whose goal is to make more Arabic literature accessible to the English-speaking world.
Jayyusi grew up in Acre and Jerusalem. "My father fought incessantly for our national rights under the [British] Mandate and my mother was a great lover of literature," she remembers. "That's perhaps where I get my own inspiration."
Jayyusi, one of the first Arab women to earn a doctorate in modern Arabic literature from a Western university, first saw the need for more and better literary translations into English while lecturing at American universities; from this came the idea of the Project for Translation from Arabic, known as PROTA, which has since become her most forward-looking achievement. PROTA is a loose network of translators and advisors; as its founder and director, Jayyusi has overseen the translation of ten novels, seven single-author collections of short stories and poems and five important anthologies of poetry, fiction, and drama from all over the Arab world. The fact that her main publishers in the United States have been university presses is testimony to the high standards she sets.
"Besides being a fine poet and critic in her own right," says PROTA board member Dr. Ernest McCarus of the University of Michigan, "her genius lies in selecting the right people for the various stages of translation." PROTA's standard procedure is to team two translators on each text, one bilingual and the other a poet or writer whose native language is English, in order to balance the demanding - often conflicting - linguistic and literary requirements of good translation. Jayyusi's most recent triumph was the US publication last year of The Literature of Modern Arabia: An Anthology, the first collection of its kind from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Yemen. Jayyusi selected and edited the contents and supervised publication with the assistance of a distinguished editorial board in Saudi Arabia.
The anthology originated with an invitation from scholars at King Sa'ud University in Riyadh when she was lecturing at the Women's College there in 1983. "King Sa'ud is a pioneering university. Why, then, shouldn't it also pioneer in the literature of the Peninsula, especially when that literature is relatively unknown in the rest of the Arab world - and even less known in the West?" she asks. "Not many years ago, Peninsular literature was too shy to enter the mainstream. But now I think it has.
"The anthology was a voyage of discovery for everyone involved in the project, and for no one more than the writers themselves. It is an energizing experience to know your readers come from all over the world," Jayyusi says.
She is now editing a collection of essays on Islamic civilization in medieval Spain, to be published next year to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the end of Muslim rule in al-Andalus. She also hopes to edit a companion volume of the poetry and belles-lettres of the period. "There is so much literary greatness from Islamic Spain that by necessity this can be only the beginning," she says, glancing at tall stacks of manuscripts already piled high in her living room. But the same is true of the Arab world in general, and Salma Jayyusi has made a good beginning.
Author and filmmaker Louis Werner studied at Princeton and Johns Hopkins SAIS, and lives in New York.