One of the many forgotten figures featured in Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs is Yehuda al-Harizi, whose Tahkemoni, a translation of al-Hariri‘s Maqamat (The Assemblies), became (according to Alcalay) “the first object of al-Harizi’s often boundless pride,” a pride fully evident in this excerpt:
Now many of those that slept in the soil of folly awoke and they made the chariots of their tongues race through the road of song. They planned to translate the book of this Arab Hariri from the Arabic tongue into the Sacred Tongue, Hebrew, and they came in prosaic garments to serve in the sanctuary of the muse. And when they came forth equipped for the battle of poetry, they could only take as spoils one out of the fifty [sections]. For by the power of the metaphors of the book they were dismayed and terrified, and at the sound of its thunders and hailstones they perished and were exterminated, and the hail came down upon them and they died…
Until I arose and wrought its armor. I translated the whole book with fitting prose and poems like pearls, pure and salty.
He tempers his pride at being the first complete translator of the masterwork with this lament:
Now when I had fulfilled their desire and had translated the book, I forsook my home and I wandered on roads, I sailed on ships, I crossed seas. I fled form the West and I shone in the East. And I saw that I had done foolishly and my iniquity was greater than I could bear in having neglected to compose a book of our own poetry, as though the word of the living God were not among us. I had hastened to keep the vineyard of strangers, but mine own vineyard I had not kept.
I imagine most translators know the feeling. I endeared myself to Robert Fitzgerald once by asking him to sign not a copy of his famous Odyssey translation but rather a selection of his own poetry. He said grumpily “I didn’t know anybody read this stuff” as he scribbled, but he couldn’t suppress the smile.