On Touching in the Arabic Jane Eyre

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, Prismatic Jane Eyre’s Arabic researcher, explores the verb “touch” in one of the Arabic translations of Jane Eyre.

Central to the Prismatic Jane Eyre project’s vision is the idea that translation is prismatic. Simply put, in translating texts from one language to another, we become aware of how translation can alert us to language’s nuances and different shades of meaning. Translation can open up texts, offering meanings or interpretations that we never could have imagined simply by reading the source text. In this piece, I examine the Arabic translation of the verb “touch” in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I am interested in how “touch” is rendered in Arabic and in what ways its translation goes beyond the English, engendering prismatic readings in both the English and its Arabic equivalent. I look specifically at Munīr al-Baʿalbakī’s 1985 Arabic translation of the novel, which is still considered to be the most reliable of the Arabic translations. In al-Baʿalbakī’s translation, three key Arabic verbs are used to refer to “touch”: massa, lamasa, and lāmasa.

Massa (from the Classical Arabic root m-s-s) connotes the most delicate of touches which can only be captured or sensed if the person being touched is fully in tune with an emanating touch. (This verb is used to great effect in the Qur’an, when the virginal Maryam asks: “How can I have a son while no man has touched me and I have not been unchaste?” to dispel the possibility of having conceived through physical touch.) The other verb used in Arabic to convey touch is lamasa (l-m-s), which is attributed to the hand touching another part of the body. It highlights the corporeal aspect of, and in, touching. The third verb, which is in fact a variant of the second, is lāmasa (l-m-s). Unlike lamasa, lāmasa (with an elongated first ā sound) is interactive and connotes interchangeable movements. This thereby makes both parties (the toucher and the touched) equally involved in the process of touching.

Let’s look at Al-Baʿalbakī’s treatment of the act of touching in this line in Jane Eyre:  

She inquired how long they had been dead; then how old I was, what was my name, whether I could read, write, and sew a little: then she touched my cheek gently with her forefinger…

In his translation of this sentence, Al-Baʿalbakī acknowledges the gentleness of the touch as reiterated in the source text by opting to use the verb massa. In doing so, the touching becomes a marker of a beginning: a gentle initiation that is performed in/on/through body parts which are considered less intrusive and therefore less physical than others.    

In another setting, massa again (and not lamasa) is used in the Arabic version of the following line:

When it came to my turn, I drank, for I was thirsty, but did not touch the food.

It would not be entirely unusual to use the verb lamasa in this context (in fact some other Arabic translators of Jane Eyre have done so) precisely because this verb is used to communicate palpably touching food. However, Al-Baʿalbakī invokes the verb massa to reflect the nature of the rejection of the food: it is an outright rejection, a rejection even of the intention of touching. In this way, the Arabic verbs – massa versus lamasa – are placed in a hierarchy according to subtle proximities and, through these nuances, the involved subjects are separated or united.

An example of the outward and interactive nature of the verb lāmasa is clearly exemplified in the following quotation from Jane Eyre:               

… as if fingers had swept the panels in groping a way along the dark gallery outside.

This inadvertent touching as expressed in lāmasa (instead of lamasa) is both temporal and spatial: temporal since it is a time that leads to other times within a chronology, and spatial and outward-looking through the vastness of the long vowel ā.

In conclusion, these examples of touching in Jane Eyre and Al-Baʿalbakī’s Arabic translation cannot but usher in a constant return to both languages, not to limit meaning in any way, but rather to open up more possibilities within and beyond both texts. Translating “touch” in Arabic seems to speak to the multiple degrees of touching inherent in the language itself.

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