Translation, Lost and Found

SHAMAI'ILMay28temp arabic.indd

Above: A page from an as yet unpublished edition of the Shama’il of Tirmidhi.

Part One
Although my work is principally typesetting books, something previously done by men in inky overalls composing metal type, I do actually read some of them and it might explain why when I write on this blog about what I hope might be of some practical typographical value I cannot but help slip into philosophy, religion and metaphysics and all that comes with it, as many of those books I have worked on are often translations of important and famous texts on these subjects – mostly from Arabic with the Arabic and English running in parallel. And quite an education it has been. Studying the texts has really rammed home to me the crushing responsibility of the translator’s job. Not only must he or her deeply understand the foreign language concerned and the subject matter, but also have a profound grasp of English and all its subtle nuances and get it right. Their word choice can have life-changing impact and lead people in all kinds of right or wrong directions. Especially such texts as the source books of Islam like the Qur’an itself and the many collections of Prophetic traditions that surround it. Which is why commentaries and explanatory footnotes are so important to flesh out the translation.

In the last 40 years there has been a huge unstoppable convergence of different cultures all over the world especially in Britain and it has been very visible for me in setting these translations mentioned above, as two languages on the same page, one in roman text ranging right to left and the other in arabic script from left to right makes particular demands. In the same way the translator has had to refine his words to excellently express meanings, the task of a designer is to reflect that as clearly and as beautifully as possible with type. It is a wonderful metaphor for how cultures should merge. When the cultures clash it is often because they haven’t been juxtaposed in a beautiful way and the scripts coming from opposite directions collide rather than blend harmoniously. There is a parallel in human behaviour and how good manners can facilitate so much in life, the elixir for just about everything in fact. Is there not good manners in the way a page of text is designed? The designer of course needs to know deeply the roots of western design and calligraphy as much as that of Arabic or Persian if he is going to succeed. The exact parallel of the translator in his or her work. And in a different realm the same could be said of the way a mosque might integrate into an English urban landscape.

Recently I was a consultant on the Cambridge mosque competition for an English architect who asked me some quite reasonable questions, one which was how to reconcile a mosque facing Mecca with a road frontage which is not, and more generally how do you design a mosque that integrates harmoniously into say a northern English town. Safe to say that too often mosques are like a two finger salute to the local vernacular and built environment with the oh-so-predictable dome and minaret. Now to me this is the height of bad manners. But it is an an honest metaphor for what is going on socially and politically.

The new Cambridge mosque project has, to its credit, taken a much more considered route with a lot of local consultation and an interesting mosque design concept by architect David Marks of Marks Barfield who were responsible for the London Eye opposite the Houses of Parliament. Now when I first heard they had won the competition I had visions of a funfair mosque with a helter skelter minaret down which the muezzin helter-skeltered after calling the prayer. But after going through various evolutions the final design has matured and I actually quite like it now, as it has done its utmost to blend in with the surrounding landscape and is a serious attempt to blend various traditional motifs with what is in fact a hi-tech eco-building. Quite a leap from the brief I was given some years ago for a sketch design for this mosque which requested an Anglo Ottoman style of architecture. (I might reexamine this idea in a future post).

Because the proposed mosque has full approval from Cambridge City Council and is of a high architectural quality the locals generally accept it. It is thought it might even raise surrounding property values. It doesn’t have a minaret and the small token green dome will be barely visible from the road I think. Some might say it doesn’t look a mosque. Which in many ways is in its favour I believe. It is doing its best to dodge the cliche and all the baggage that goes with that cliche. Personally I think the dome could have been dispensed with but I presume some people like the link with tradition even though the idea of a dome for a large space predates Islam by thousands of years. I suppose its symbolism prevents it been mistaken for an upmarket industrial shed or a telephone exchange.

The architect I was consultant to in the mosque competition asked me where in the Qur’an the rules were for building a mosque. The answer of course is nowhere. The first mosque was just an open area defined by a low wall and what became a famous palm tree. In other words anywhere within reason (like not in a road) if it is clean and where you could put your head on the ground. How it was organised was entirely up to those concerned in building it. There were times in history when Muslims and Christians shared the same prayer space as in Cordoba and earlier in Jerusalem – a pragmatic solution with no fuss about the style of architecture. But on the whole if you ask most muslims what a mosque space should be you would get a very wide range of answers. Most actually don’t know or are confused or regrettably the dome and minaret idea.

It all comes down to translation and the challenge of bringing something of a seemingly alien nature: beliefs, ideas, culture, the printed word or buildings into a new environment. Much has been lost in translation to date but in time things will improve as it all takes on new hybrid forms.


The Mill Road aspect of the proposed new Cambridge mosque.

Part Two
The subject of mosque design has occupied me a lot in the last thirty years, and at one point a couple of years back I was invited to speak at a small symposium put on by the Arts Council (and others) in London on this very subject: Spiritual Spaces in an Urban Environment. Up to that point I had considered that a mosque space needed to be traditional because the religion itself was based on tradition and anyway I could not abide all the nouveau trends in mosque architecture which exploited every kind of fashionable technology. I didn’t understand Zaha Hadid type buildings and neither did the audience at the symposium we were participating in. Necessity created the minaret as a means of the call to prayer reaching people from a high point and domes or columnated spaces were arrived at as a way of creating large spaces and were not created out of some religious dogma. However to depart too much from such conventions in the modern context causes consternation and not without cause. After all the human form is a traditional thing, on the form of the first man, It is what gives things meaning. We are looking back down the long corridor of time and it is possible to draw on all that experience.

Modernity has, however thrown a spanner in the works as suddenly creating interior space was not restricted by what could be built by hand and human scale was the first casualty. Technology given birth by the industrial revolution, disconnected architecture from craft and allowed builders, architects and engineers to run riot and create new ways of construction. Tradition was still a powerful influence though and the Victorians created some remarkable structures with strong historical references in wrought iron and glass covering previously unattainable expanses of interior space: the great glasshouses at Kew, the famous dome in Buxton covered in slate which is bigger than St Peters Rome, and many of Britain’s great railway stations.

The amassing of capital and the profit motive was instrumental in the industrialisation of building and remains as the motivator of modernity and what leaves us with all this debate about just what is a spiritual space. Much as I love the beautiful traditional mosques that you will find from Beijing to Fez, attempting such ideas in a western urban environment is extremely difficult. The Paris mosque is maybe the one exception that worked as it conveniently fits a whole block and is more a collection of interior spaces than a building very much as it would integrate into a traditional north African city. And it was utterly north African, built by craftsmen from Morocco and was a model of local cooperation with the opening prayer conducted by Shaykh al-Alawi of Mustaghanem and the then French premier. The Woking mosque worked well being the first in the UK but it was standing on its own in a small park. In general the cliché of minaret and dome mosque that has sprouted up all over the UK and Europe reflects how awkwardly the new communities have attempted to blend into their host communities. To me it’s “in your face” architecture and in many ways understandably provokes the local community. I realise that many people came into the UK who weren’t educated in the fineries of architecture or town planning but even where immigrants were educated as in the USA the results were the same, an awkward blend.

Of late I have been thinking that one possible urban solution is to create a space for retreat off the street for anyone who is in need of spiritual solace, or just to rest your feet without having to pay for a coffee. It can be like the prayer spaces that have cropped up in airports, football stadiums and even office blocks and factories. When walking through central London recently I was intensely aware of a need of something to counter the horrific commercial pressure everywhere. Non-denominational prayer spaces seemed like an obvious answer paid for by banks. Maybe if people learned the basic good manners of sharing a prayer space they might learn the manners of building a mosque (or a temple, synagogue or whatever) in an unwelcoming environment.

In a remote country situation the hitech modern solution seems inappropriate and a design driven by indigenous building techniques is best and probably cheapest and then you are fairly safe. My own choice is to avoid prestressed concrete, steel and ‘hard’ cement products produced by high firing techniques. A building constructed from say adobe bricks with a wooden or vaulted roof has an unrivalled stillness and beauty that is effortlessly a spiritual space. The actual design, proportions and details can also reflect calm and stillness but these are more conditioned by cultural and artistic factors. The community who will use it can, if at all possible, also help in the construction which helps bind them to it for ever. But importing all that into an urban context is well nigh impossible. Health and Safety stop it dead. And even in a remote situation there will still be legal and cultural hurdles to cross. All the courtesies required in the Cambridge case still apply, but it is just less complex.

Ultimately, any building is like a glove on a hand and is no better or worse than the vision, aspiration and abilities of the community of men and women who build it which is why architecture can tell you so much about history and about our forbears and what they were up to. Architects should of course be the servants of their clients but the intention behind such things as mosques is what produces the final result and when you walk into such a mosque for the first time you meet that intention full on.

About Ian Whiteman

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1 Response to Translation, Lost and Found

  1. a p says:

    Perhaps a simple way of ensuring harmonious integration with local surroundings is by using existing buildings. There are, for example, so many vacant churches in Britain, and it’s a shame to see them just being left to rot, or become another Tesco Metro. There are plans to turn a beautiful 18th century church in my area in to a gym, which is apt! In Church Going, Larkin wrote (and this was in the 50s!):

    I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
    Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
    Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,

    And always end much at a loss like this,
    Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
    When churches fall completely out of use
    What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
    A few cathedrals chronically on show,
    Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
    And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
    Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

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