Lecture with Rebecca Johnson (Northwestern)


Location: 116 DeBartolo Hall

“Robinson Crusoe in Arabic, or the Strange and Surprising Adventures of a Genre”

This talk would look at Qissat Rubinsun Karuzi, an anonymous translation of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in Arabic in Malta in 1835 and making it the first appearance of a novel in Arabic. While most studies of the Arabic novel set the date of its rise as the early twentieth century, situating it in the context of the rise of national independence movements and the formation of national educational programs and national canons of domestic realism, this talk will make the case for setting this clock back to situate the novel’s incorporation into Arabic within the context of the ambivalent textual and translation practices of the nahda, or the literary awakening of the nineteenth century. To do so, I will look at the technologies and material conditions of the translation —which included missionary presses and the unlikely partnerships they fostered between European and American missionaries on the one hand, and Arab intellectuals (of various religious backgrounds) on the other—as well as the text itself, which departs from Defoe’s source in revealing ways.  

Reading Karuzi with Crusoe simultaneously reveals the cross-linguistic interaction that produced this foundational text and the productive mistranslations that define the genre’s ambivalent adoption and transformation into Arabic. The goal of the talk would therefore not be to read the differences between Karuzi and Crusoe as failures, but as a lens through which we can re-read the history of the transmission of the novel as a genre. Reintegrating problematic texts such as Karuzi (alongside the domestic nationalist novels produced in the first decades of the twentieth century) into the foundations of Arabic literary modernity helps build new ground for understanding the history of the novel outside of Western Europe, I’ll argue, and raises important questions about the approaches to comparative studies of the genre outside of models of diffusion.

Rebecca Johnson teaches courses in Middle Eastern literary and cultural studies with a special focus on modern Arabic literature.  Her research focuses on the history and theory of the novel in Arabic and English, the literature of the nineteenth-century period known as the Nahda, and literary orientalism and occidentalism, and her wider interests include pre-modern Arabic prose genres, cosmopolitanism, and the poetics and politics of translation. Her current book project studies the intertwined early histories of the Arabic and English novels, using translation as a lens through which to understand the form and function of the genre.  Professor Johnson has been a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, the Council for Library and Information Resources, and the Fulbright Foundation.  She has also published translations of Arabic literature; her translation with the author of Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody is available from City Lights Books.

Lecture initiated by Tobias Boes and Olivier Morel.