In the year of grace 1876 some amateurs who were passionately fond of Arabian literature combined for the purpose of reproducing, by autographic process, a number of copies of a French translation of a work written by the Cheikh Nefzaoui, which book had, by a lucky chance, fallen into their hands. Each brought to the undertaking such assistance as his special knowledge allowed, and it was thus that a tedious work was achieved by amateurs, amidst obstacles which were calculated to abate the ardour of their enthusiasm.
Thus, as the reader has doubtless already divined, it was not an individual, but a concourse of individuals, who, taking advantage of a union of favourable circumstances and facilities, not of common occurrence, offered to their friends the first fruit of a work, interesting, and of such rarity that to the present time very few have had the opportunity of reading it, while they could only gather their knowledge from incorrect manuscripts, sophisticated copies, and incomplete translations! It is to this association of efforts, guided by the principle of the division of labour for the carrying out of a great undertaking, that the appearance of this book is due.
The Editor (it is under this name that the Society J. M. P. Q. has been, is, and will be designated, is assured before hand, notwithstanding the imperfection of his production, of the sympathies of his readers, who are all friends of his, or friends of his friends, and for whose benefit he has worked. For this reason he is not going to claim an indulgence which has been already extended to him, his wish only to make clear to everybody the exact value and nature of the book which he is offering, and to make known on what foundations the work has been done, in how far the remarkable translations of M—— has been respected, and, in short, what reliance may be placed in the title, “Translated from the Arabic by H—— Staff Officer.”
It is, in fact, important that there should be no misunderstanding on this point, and that the reader should not imagine that he holds an exact copy of that translation in his hands; for we confess that we have modified it, and we give these explanations in order to justify the alterations which were imposed by the attending circumstances.
As far as we are aware, there have been made until now only two proper translations of the work of the Cheikh Nefzaoui. One, of which we have availed ourselves, is due, as is well known, to M——a fanatical and distinguished Arabophile; the other is the work of Doctor L——; the latter we have never seen.
A learned expounder commenced a translation which promised to leave the others far behind. Unfortunately, death interrupted the accomplishment of this work, and there was no one to continue it.
Our intention, at the outset, was to reproduce simply the first of the aforenamed translations, making, however; such rectifications as were necessitated by gross mistakes in the orthography, and in the French idiom, by which the manuscript in our possession was disfigured Our views did not go beyond that; but we had scarcely made any progress with the book when we found that it was impossible to keep the translation as it stood. Obvious omissions, mistaken renderings of the sense, originating, no doubt, with the faulty Arab text which the translator had at his disposal, and which were patent at first sight, imposed upon the necessity of consulting other sources. We were thus induced to examine all the Arab manuscripts of the work which we could by any possibility obtain.
Three texts were to this end put under contribution. These treated of the same subjects in the same order, and presented the same succession of chapters, corresponding, however, in this respect, point by point, with the manuscript upon which our translator had to work, but while two of them gave a kind of abstract of the questions treated, the third, on the contrary, seemed to enlarge at pleasure upon every subject.
We shall expatiate to some slight extent upon this last named text, since the study of it has enabled us to clear up a certain number of points upon which M—— notwithstanding his conscientious researches, has been unable to throw sufficient light.
The principal characteristic of this text which, is not exempt from gross mistakes, is the affectation of more care as to style and choice of expressions; it enters more into fastidious, and frequently technical particulars, contains more quotations of verses — often, be it remarked, inapplicable ones — and uses, in certain circumstances, filthy images, which seem to have had a particular attraction for the author; but as a compensation for these faults, it gives, instead of cold, dry explications, pictures which are often charming, wanting neither in poetry nor originality, nor in descriptive talent, not even in a certain elevation of thought, and bearing an undeniable stamp of originality. We may cite as an example the “Chapter of Kisses,” which is found neither in our translation nor in the other two texts which we have examined, and which we have borrowed.
In our character of Gauls, we must not complain about the obscenities which are scattered about, as if on purpose to excite grosser passions; but what we must deprecate are the tedious expansions, whole pages full of verbiage, which disfigure the work, and are like the reverse of the medal. The author has felt this himself, as at the conclusion of his work he requests the reader to pardon him in consideration of the good intention which has guided his pen. In presence of the qualities of first rank, which must be acknowledged to exist in the book, we should have preferred that it had not contained these defects; we should have liked, in one word, to see it more homogeneous and more earnest, and more particularly so if one considers that the circumstances which we are pointing out raises doubts as to the veritable origin of the new matters which have been discovered, and which might easily be taken for interpolations due to the fancy of one or more of the copyists through whose hands the work passed before we received it.
Everyone knows, in fact, the grave inconveniences attaching to manuscripts, and the services rendered by the art of printing to science and literature by disposing of them. No copy leaves the hands of the copyist complete and perfect, particularly if the writer is an Arab, the least scrupulous of all. The Arab copyist not only involuntary scatters about mistakes which are due to his ignorance and carelessness, but will not shrink from making corrections, modifications, and even additions according to his fancy. The literary reader himself, carried way by the charm of the subject, often annotates the text in margin, inserts an anecdote or idea which is just current, or some puffed-up medical recipe; and all this, to the great detriment of its purity, finds its way into the body of the work through the hands of the next copyist.
There can be no doubt that the work of the Cheikh Nefzaoui has suffered in this way. Our three texts and the one upon which the translator worked, offer striking dissimilarities, and of all kinds; although, by the way, one of the translations seems to approach more nearly in style to the extended text of which we have spoken. But a question of another sort comes before us with respect to this last, which contains more than four times as much it not be possible that a third work, still more complete Cheik Nefzaoui, always bearing in mind the modification to which manuscripts are exposed, and does it so stand by itself as a work for the perusal of voluptuaries, while the others are only abridged copies for the use of the vulgar, serving them as an elementary treatise? Or might it not be the product of numerous successive additions to the original work, by which, as we have already suggested, its bulk has been considered increased.
We have no hesitation in pronouncing in favour of the first of these hypotheses. In the record which the Cheikh gives of it, he says that this is the second work of the kind which he has composed, and that it is in fact only the first one, entitled the “Torch of the Universe,” considerably increased in pursuance of the advice given by the Vizir Mohammed ben Ouana ez Zouaoui. Might it not be possible that third work, still more complete than the second, had been the outcome of new studies of the author? Subjects of a particular specialty have certainly been treated in the work of which we speak, translation, we find reproaches addressed by the translator to the author, because he has merely hinted at two questions of more than ordinary interest, viz., tribady and paederasty. Well, then, the Chiekh would meet his critic triumphantly by appearing before him with the work in question, for the chapter which constitutes by itself more than half of its whole volume is the twenty first, and bears the superscription: “The twenty-first and last chapter of the book, treating of the utility of eggs and some other substances which favour the coitus; of tribady and the woman who first conceived this description of voluptuousness; of paederasty and matters concerned with it; of procuresses and the sundry ruses by which one may get possession of a woman; of facetiae, jokes, anecdotes and several questions concerning the coitus in general.”
What would be the surprise of the translator to find a community of views and sentiments existing between himself, a representative of modern civilization, and this Arab, who lived more than three hundred years ago. He could only express his regret for having entertained so bad an opinion of his master, for having believed for one moment in an omission on his part, and for having doubted his competency to deal with the various questions spoken of.
Does not the discovery of a text so complete authorise us to admit the existence of two works, one elementary, the other learned? And might it not be by reason of a little remnant of bashfulness, that the author has reserved for the twenty-first chapter without any previous allusion, the remarkable subjects which we do not find hinted at in any other place?
To put the question in this fashion is at the same time to solve it, and to solve it in the affirmative. That interminable chapter would not be a product of interpolations. It is too long and too serious a work to admit of such a supposition. The little that we have seen of it seems to bear the stamp of well-pronounced originality, and to be composed with too much method, not to be the work — and entirely the work — of the master.
One may be surprised that this text is so rare, but the answer is very simple. As the translator judiciously observes in his notice, the matters treated in the twenty-first chapter are of a nature to startle many people. See! an Arab, who practises in secret paederasty, affects in public rigid an austere manners, while he discusses without constraint in his conversation everything that concerns the natural coitus. Thus you will easily understand that he would not wish to be suspected of reading such a book, by which his reputation would be compromised in the eyes of his coreligionists while he would, without hesitation exhibit a book which treated of the coitus only. Another consideration, moreover, suffices to completely explain the rarity of the work; its compass makes it very expensive, and the manuscript is not attainable by everybody on account of the high price it reaches.
However it may be regards the origin of the text, having the three documents in our possession we have given careful revision to the translation of M——. Each doubtful point has been the object of minute research, and has been generally cleared up by one or the other. When there were several acceptable versions, we chose that which was the most fit for the context, and many mutilated passages were restored. Nor were we afraid to make additions in borrowing from the extended text what appeared to us worthy of reproduction, and for the omission of which we should have been blamed by the reader. We were careful, however, not to overload the work, and to introduce no new matter which would militate against the peculiar character of the original translation. It is partly for this last reason, and still more so because the work required for this undertaking surpassed our strength that we could not bring to light, to our great regret, the treasures concealed in the twenty-first chapter, as well as a certain number of new tales not less acceptable than those which we have given, and with which we have enriched the text.
We must not conceal that, leaving out of sight these alterations, we have not scrupled to refine the phrases, round off the periods, correct the phraseology, and, in short, to amend even the form of the translation which, in many instances, left much to be desired. It was a matter of necessity that the perusal of the contents of the book should be made agreeable. Now, the translator, with the most praiseworthy intentions, had been too anxious to render the Arabic text, with its short jumbled sentences as clearly as possible, and had thus made the reading painfully laborious. Looking at some passages, it may even be supposed that he had only jotted them down, particularly towards the end, and had not been able, for some reason or other, to revise them until it was too late.
The new matter introduced has compelled us to make modifications in the notes of the translator, and to add new notes for the better elucidation of the subjects which have not been treated before. We have been, with respect to these notes, as careful as we were with respect to the text, endeavouring to respect as much as possible the personal work of the translator.
Now that the reader has all the necessary information about the French edition of the Cheikh Nefzaoui’s work, he will permit us to make, in conclusion, a few remarks upon the ensemble of the book.
There are found in it many passages which are not attractive. The extraordinary ideas displayed — for instance those about medicines and concerning the meanings of dreams — clash too directly with modern thought not to awaken in the reader a feeling more of boredom than of pleasure.
The work is certainly encumbered with a quantity of matter which cannot but appear ridiculous in the eyes of the civilized modern reader; but we should not have been justified in weeding it out. We were bound to keep it intact as we had received it from our translator. We have held with the Italian proverb, Traduttore, traditore, that a work loses sufficient of its originality by being conveyed from its own tongue into another, and we hope that the plan we have adopted will meet with general approval. Those oddities are, moreover, instructive, as they make us acquainted with the manner and character of the Arab under a peculiar aspect, and not only of the Arab who was contemporary with our author, but also with the Arab of our own day. The latter is, in fact, not much more advanced than was the former. Although our contact with the race becomes closer every day in Tunis, Morocco, Egypt, and other Mussulman countries, they hold to their old medical prescriptions, have the same belief in divination, and honour the same mass of ridiculous notions, in which sorcery and amulets play a large part, and which appear to us supremely absurd. At the same time, one may observe from the very passages which we here refer to, that this people was not so averse as one might believe to witticisms, for the pun (calembour) occupies an important position in the explanation of dreams with which the author has studied the chapters on the sexual organs, apparently for no particular reason but no doubt with the idea that no matter of interest should be absent from his work.
The reader will perhaps also find that probability is frequently sacrificed to imagination. This is a distinct mark of the Arabic literature, and our work could not otherwise but exhibit the faults inherent to the genius of this race, which revels in the love for the marvellous, and amongst whose chief literary productions are to be counted the “Thousand and One Nights.” But if these tales show such defaults very glaringly, they exhibit on the other hand, charming qualities, simplicity, grace, delicacy; a mine of precious things which has been explored and made use of by modern authors. We have pointed out, in some notes, the relationship which we found between these tales and those of Boccaccio and La Fontaine, but we could not draw attention to all. We had to pass over many with silence, and amongst them, some of the most striking, as for instance in the case of “The Man Expert in Stratagems Duped by his Wife,” which we find reproduced with all the perfect mastership of Balzac at the end of the “Physiologie du Mariage.”
We will not pursue this sketch any further. If instead of commencing the book with a preface we have preferred to address the reader at the end, this was done in order not to impose our views upon him and thus to stand between him and the work. Whether these additional lines will be read by him or not, we believe that we have done our duty by informing him of the direction we gave to our work. We tried, on the one hand, to prove the merits of the translator who furnished the basis for our labours, that is to say, the part which required the most science and study, while, on the other hand, we desired our readers to know in how far this translation had to be recast.
To the Arabophile who would wish to produce a better translation the way is left open; and in perfecting the work he is free to uncover the unknown beauties of the twenty-first chapter to his admiring contemporaries.
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