Translating Whispers: Recitation, Realism, Religion


The essay analyzes the beginning of the seventh chapter of Naguib Mahfouz›s Palace Walk in which, at the heart of this realist novel, we encounter a vivid description of Qur’anic recitation. The scene does not discuss what is recited so much as it offers an account of how. “His voice could not be heard,” we are told, “but the continual motion of his lips gave him away. From time to time a faint whisper slipped out in a sibilant s sound.” What is a minor detail in a novel otherwise filled with events reveals a sort of literary limit to the descriptive labor of realism. In the translator’s use of “sibilant s sound” is a creative rendering of the Arabic letters sīn and ṣād and the evocation of waswasa. Drawing together reflections on the whispered s and the speaking body, this essay considers the potentials of language folding upon itself, torn between the tongue of the speaker described in prose and the poetic resonance of the Qur’anic verse. Alongside discussions of the postlingual turn, this whispered detail invites reflections on registers of discourse both liturgical and literary.

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