It’s Hard to Rhyme a Word Like Vagina: The Amusing Nature of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg: Volume One

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Over the past few weeks we’ve been talking nonstop about this year’s crop of Best Translated Book Award nominated authors, translators, and publishers. Now it’s time for us to take a deeper dive into what this award really celebrates: the beauty of storytelling and the art of translation. Over the next few days, leading up to the announcement of the winner on the 28th, we’ll take a closer look at different aspects of several of the nominated titles.

Leg Over Leg is a four volume set of autobiographical novels that were written by Arabic author Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq. You could think of them sort of like the My Struggle of 1800s Lebanon. Back in the day people apparently lost their shit over Al-Shidyaq’s chronicling of the explicit adventures of his alter-ego “Fariyaq,” specifically the way he shunned authority and used naughty language to describe people’s sexual bits. As a result the whole project wound up being highly censored and abridged each time it was republished over the ensuing years. Humphrey Davies’s solid translation of the text marks the first time Leg Over Leg has ever appeared in the English language and thankfully it’s totally Girls Gone Wild in its raw uncensored style.

Humphrey Davies’s translation (from Chapter 1 of Leg Over Leg: Volume One):

[…] the woman whose vulva squeaks when it’s entered, the woman with the dry little scrawny one, the woman with the emaciated one, the woman with the tiny vagina a man can’t get at, the woman who holds the man’s semen inside her womb, the woman who flashes her “thing” and her belly folds, the woman the clefts at the head of whose womb are narrow and who holds herself rigid on her side for the man, the woman whose vagina makes a sound when entered, the woman broad-buttocked as a donkey whose vulva also makes a sound, the one whose vagina makes another kind of sound, the woman who swoons during intercourse and the woman who faints during intercourse, the woman who menstruates from her anus, the woman with a wide vagina, the woman the meaty parts of whose vagina are tight, the woman whose vagina is wide open and the woman whose vagina is open wide, the woman whose vagina may be either small or capacious, the woman whose vagina and rectum have been torn so that they have become one, the broad-vagina-ed and debauched woman, the uncircumcised woman with torn vagina and rectum who is also incontinent, the women so much fucked that, like an overused she-ass, she’s developed a medical condition in her womb […]

I’m eagerly anticipating the day that someone turns chapter 1 into one of those annoying Facebook games where you get to check off how many of these woman (or men; oh yes ladies, there’s plenty of peni talk stuffed in there as well) you’ve had the pleasure of enjoying over the course of your adult life.

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When he’s not busy describing the different shapes, sizes, and textures of people’s private junk, Fariyaq basically spends the bulk of his time traversing the land while writing poetry, trying his hand at being a merchant, and challenging all of the established religious and governmental rules of the day.

If it seems like I’m not taking this seminal piece of work seriously enough it’s only because every other review of this one that you’ll find online (all 1 of them, Complete Review) pretty much have the market cornered when it comes to explaining why this book is so damn important. The only thing I’ll add to the discussion is that Humphrey Davies deserves some sort of award just for making all of the rhyming pieces that Faris Al-Shidyaq seemed to love to toy with work in translation. It couldn’t have been an easy undertaking, but Davies somehow manages to make it all read as if it was quite effortless.

Finally, one of the more interesting aspects of this volume is that it’s a bilingual edition with the original Arabic appearing on the left pages and Davies’s translation to English on the right pages. Even if you can’t read Arabic, it’s sort of comforting to see the original text staring back at you through the ages, to know that’s been preserved and painstakingly translated for a whole new audience to enjoy centuries later. And if you don’t agree with that last statement, well then at the very least you can take heart knowing that the book is only really half of the length you thought it was going to be when you first cracked it open.

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Of the ten titles that are finalists for the Best Translated Book Award this year, Leg Over Leg: Volume One is certainly the one that is most historically significant. Does this mean that it should win the award? On the one hand there’s no denying this hidden gem of a volume’s literary value. On the other, bestowing the award upon what is essentially meant to serve as an academic text — not to mention it costs $40 for the hardcover, $58 for the ebook — doesn’t exactly do much to break down the existing barriers that stand between mainstream readers and what feels like their ever growing reluctance to embrace translated literature as something that can become a valuable part of their everyday lives.

What is the future of the Best Translated Book Award? In what direction is the prize headed? It will be interesting to see which book is deemed to be the best of the bunch on Monday. I do agree with those that think Leg Over Leg is a worthy contender for the crown, but at the same time I can’t help but feel that its victory would make the idea of partaking in translated literature a much more difficult sell among the general reading population than it already is.

Leg Over Leg: Volume One is available in English translation from NYU Press.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.