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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation / literary history



Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language

by
Abdelfattah Kilito


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language



Title: Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language
Author: Abdelfattah Kilito
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 117 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language - US
Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language - UK
Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language - Canada
Tu ne parleras pas ma langue - France
  • Arabic title: لن تتكلم لغتي
  • Translated by Waïl S. Hassan

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting ideas, appealing style

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Humanité . 3/4/2008 Frédéric François
The National . 2/1/2009 Kanishk Tharoor


  From the Reviews:
  • "Mais le livre est surtout, à travers un ensemble de courts chapitres d’une lecture aisée, un voyage dans le temps, plein à la fois de sérieux et d’humour, une interrogation sur la relation des cultures et des langues et bien d’autres questionnements." - Frédéric François, L'Humanité

  • "The book, itself translated from Arabic, privileges anecdote over argument, drifting playfully through the centuries to explore the relationship between the Arab and the foreign. Kilito indulges in a wide panoramic view, taking into account writings of numerous periods and styles (.....) However poignant within their own context, Kilito’s doubts about multilingualism carry a whiff of the parochial about them." - Kanishk Tharoor, The National

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language offers a fascinating brief overview of Arabic translation, from Arab attitudes towards foreign languages to various aspects of the difficulties of translation. It is a short book, with Kilito's style truly engaging -- though as he constantly throws out questions and suggests only some answers it is more a starting point than definitive summing-up. It is also somewhat limited in scope, with little mention of contemporary fiction, for example. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be found here.
       Kilito introduces Arabic as a language that, more than most, separates itself from all others. In part, this is due to the primacy of the language of the Qu'ran, classical Arabic that has remained essentially unchanged since that time -- which, in turn, makes for the unusual situation that practically all Arabic literature is still readily accessible (or as readily accessible as it ever was), while in the European tongues anything more than a few centuries old requires at least some annotation, if not already outright translation, in order to be comprehensible.
       Kilito also notes what is almost a disdain for translation, especially as regards poetry: Arabic poetry was seen not so much as the highest form of poetry, but rather the only form, with little interest either in translating it into other languages or in translating foreign poetry into Arabic. He makes a good argument that the early golden age of Arabic poetry was a period when there also was no real competition: unlike today -- a period of intense international cross-fertilization in poetry -- there was little else being written of similar quality (a slightly debatable point) -- which almost obviated the need for translation. More than that, however, he suggests:

     The ancients not only disdained and ignored translation, it seems that they unconsciously endeavored to make their works untranslatable.
       There are good examples of Arabic poetry of the time that reinforced this separateness of Arabic, such as:
al-Hariri's maqamat, a book in which every sentence seems to say, "No one can possibly translate me !"
       (Al-Hariri would have been right at home in the Oulipo, as he: "certainly aimed at exhausting the hidden reserves of the Arabic language and realizing its full potential"; writing texts that can be read front-to-back and vice versa was just one of his many experiments -- but note that, despite it's essential untranslatability, there are English (and other foreign) versions of the maqamat).
       The disconnect with foreign languages extends to translation into the Arabic: Kilito begins the book with the marvellous example of still-popular author Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti, most of whose Arabic works were renderings of French classics such as Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie. However, he proudly spoke no foreign language, relying on translations by others, and then re-writing (and often fundamentally changing) the stories for his Arabic audience.
       With poetry Kilito argues the Arabs found:
The defining characteristic of poetry is its untranslatability.
       Hence, for example, the failure of the Arabs to bother translating Homer and Sophocles, even as they did translate philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Kilito sees this closing-off as pervasive in Arabic literature, making for a bubble that leaves it isolated and unconnected.
       More recently, however, -- and especially with regards to prose -- he finds authors concerned with foreign reception, as when Western Arabists began to study Arabic literature they -- drawn to the familiar -- found it: "is boring unless it bears a family resemblance to European literature". Yet this also reinforces the idea that:
Arabic literature is untranslatable, and on the whole it matters only to Arabs.
       As a consequence:
     Since that time, the Arab writer, whether consciously or not, takes translation into account, that is, translation as comparison, evaluation, transformation of one literature into another. Every study of a modern Arab writer is, in effect, a comparative study. Who can read an Arab poet or novelist today without establishing a relationship between him and his European peers ?
       With his personal and anecdotal style -- while also providing references to a wide array of authors --, Kilito provides a good sense of Arab attitudes and the history behind them (along with some more general observations about the possessiveness people feel about language). Written by a man who seems ideally suited to be a teacher, the book is, more than anything, thought-provoking, full of suggestions but acknowledging uncertainty about many of the points he makes.
       Only occasionally does he go too far in his over-simplifications -- as when he generalizes:
whenever Arabs listen to a line of poetry, they are enraptured, moved to liberality, and transported with joy, just like their ancestors. They may sacrifice everything except their poetry; they regard themselves as poets, above all. Nevertheless, their poetry has not found its way to Europe; apart from specialists, no European could name an Arab poet today.
       (Arab poets surely aren't that unknown -- Adonis and Darwish would be two that most poetry-reading Europeans likely have at least heard of. But note also Kilito's frame of reference: always Europe, even as there's a whole lot of world out there (including ... America).)
       Translator Waïl S. Hassan's Introduction is also useful, and though the text jumps about a bit -- and refers to many works and authors that likely will be unfamiliar to readers -- Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language is an enjoyable and engaging read.
       Recommended, especially for anyone interested in translation and/or Arab culture.

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Links:

Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Moroccan author Abdelfattah Kilito (عبد الفتاح كيليطو) was born in 1947. He teaches at Muhammad V University in Rabat.

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© 2009 the complete review

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