We met with Ms. Catherine Cobham, lecturer and translator of #Arabicliterature from the U. of St. Andrews. In an interview with Catherine, we asked her the following questions:
Tell us about yourself …
My name is Catherine Cobham and I’m from the UK. I’m a lecturer in Arabic language and literature and literary translator currently at the U. of St. Andrews. I obtained a BA Arabic and English from the U. of Leeds and an MA by thesis (on the short stories of Yusuf Idris) from the U. of Manchester.
How long have you been studying Arabic?
I have been studying Arabic and learning it through translating and teaching it for many decades in one form or another, and with just a few short breaks for domestic reasons. I went to university to study English literature and picked up Arabic as a subsidiary subject in first year, changing to a joint degree in second year. This was a 3-year degree, so I did effectively 2 years full time Arabic study and have been catching up ever since!
What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?
The reason I had an interest in Arabic was because I lived in Paris for a year, met Algerian students there and was annoyed when they talked to each other in a language that I was unable to understand. I quickly found that the Arabic I learnt at university was no help in communicating with them and they were on one hand impressed that ‘une petite anglaise’ was bothering to learn Arabic, but on the other hand upset that I could soon read and write standard Arabic better than them. I did my undergraduate dissertation on French colonialist policy towards the use of Arabic and the imposition of French in Algeria to try and understand the background to this.
What & who inspired you? What were your motivations? Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
I was fascinated by, and hooked on, the Arabic language from when I first learnt it, but I did often learn more by going through texts with Arab friends at university than from my teachers. The language teaching was patchy and erratic, and from text books that were already old-fashioned. The readings in both classical and modern Arabic literature were usually given without any context or explanation, just as random isolated texts to practise different kinds of Arabic. I remember that the photocopies of Quranic Suras (chapters) for the final exam were in parts illegible! So my main motivation for compiling a reader of modern Arabic short stories with Sabry Hafez later on in my career was to provide students with some good stories and a context and introduction to the stories and writers. I quickly developed the habit of using material from print newspapers when I first started teaching Arabic, and even procured some Arabic news videos with the help of Jonathan Featherstone, now of Edinburgh University. However, the range and accessibility of material online is a huge and positive change that could not have been envisaged a decade or two ago.
What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
I was grateful to my dissertation supervisor for drawing my attention to the works of Yusuf Idris, whom I had never heard of, whom I still believe to be one of the best modern Arabic writers, and with whom I was able to have many inspiring conversations. Interestingly, his writing was to some extent rediscovered by activists in Egypt in the Arab Spring and even short films were made of adaptations of some of his short stories on YouTube. My aim was always to translate Arabic fiction, as literature rather than language was my main interest, and I was shocked by the few and not always very good translations of Arabic novels available. I was also shocked by the reactions of people who asked me whatever made me want to study Arabic, and by a generalised, misinformed ignorance of and even hostility towards Arabs and Arab culture, and I naively thought that translating Arabic novels would go some way to overcoming this ignorance and prejudice. For years I did hourly paid Arabic teaching as it paid more than translating literature, but eventually decided to apply for a job as a university lecturer. I did this reluctantly at first, but came to find it an extremely satisfying job. Students of Arabic tend to be highly motivated and passionate about their subject, and it is a pleasure to see them developing their enthusiasm and analytical and linguistic skills, and questioning their preconceptions about the Arab world. As a lecturer in the subject, I find that my passion for the subject grows rather than wanes, so in that sense teaching Arabic is a privilege and a continuing source of enjoyment.
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?
To study Arabic, you really need to be committed to the subject, and I find that most students realise whether or not they are committed/hooked within the first few months of studying it. You have to go from learning how to read and write to studying and translating and speaking about quite sophisticated topics in a few short years. In addition to a creative and imaginative approach to the topic, you have to be prepared to be self-disciplined and study and attend classes regularly. It’s not possible to cram it all in just before a test or exam. (No pressure!) It is important to visit Arab countries as often as you can, whether as part of your course or in the vacations, and whether to do immersion Arabic language courses or to work in some voluntary capacity – e.g. under the auspices of Unipal or the Sudan Volunteer Programme. Incidentally, the job prospects of students with Arabic degrees are good: prospective employees are impressed that you have the discipline and perseverance to study what they perceive as a difficult language and unfamiliar culture, whether or not the job in question involves Arabic. However, I hope that a lot of you will go on to an academic career in Arabic as we need you!
Quick Wee Questions
What’s your favourite Arabic word?
احدودب – just because I like the sound and hadn’t seen any form 12 verbs before I first saw this. Also it reminds me of curved old fashioned daggers and folk tales.
Maybe also قسمة when it means ‘destiny’, ‘fate’, because I’d seen the word ‘kismet’ in stories when I was a child and was fascinated to see where it came from when I first learnt Arabic.
What is your least favourite Arabic word? Why?
I love them all, except the ones I always forget how to spell, but I won’t reveal them here. 😊
Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?
Yusuf Idris, Fuad al-Takarli, Mahdi Isa al-Saqr – the first two through their writing but also and especially from meeting them personally, Mahdi from his writing and through lengthy correspondence with him, round about 2003 especially.
What is your favourite place in the Arab World?
Damascus, some parts of Lebanon and Egypt sometimes.
What is your favourite Arabic quote?
Don’t have one at present. I have to find another one. Maybe something from one of Darwish’s poems. A few years ago I might have said
الثورة حتى النصر and عمّال العالم اتحدوا
What is your favourite book? Why?
Too many to name. In English it might be anglophone writers of Indian background like Rohinton Mistry and others. In Arabic, maybe الرجع البعيد by Fuad Takarli, but also the short story بيت من لحم by Idris made a big impact on me when I first read it and continues to strike me on many levels.