Bilingual editions offer both risk and rescue to the translator. Every possible shortcoming, from a bit of clumsiness to outright error, is on display to the knowing reader. At the same time, it is comforting that readers will not be misled by an imperfect translation. Perhaps they will even sympathize with its frequent challenges and appreciate its occasional triumphs.

In this way, a bilingual text cautions its readers by its very nature. Don’t just take translation at its word, it says. Watch as it faces its source, exchanging looks that are in turn transparent and opaque. Perhaps you will see in their dialogue something of what the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé called the “supreme” language that we lack. Perhaps the light of the “pure language,” which Mallarmé inspired to the critic Walter Benjamin, will shine in its medium of translation.

Such a language is perhaps not so far from the object sought by mystics on the quest for Truth, or of doctors searching for treatments – all of whom often author aphorisms… But these are not questions that the translator should answer. I will limit myself to an overview of the present work’s linguistic conditions of production, in particular its blurred margins where language tries to go beyond its meaning to speak to humanity about what lies beyond it.

Two by two plus one

These aphorisms are acts of multiplication. A text with two authors is multiplied by its translation into a second language. The book itself is an entry in a series of bilingual editions that multiple linguistic combinations, pairing French with Arabic, Italian, and now English. Within the text, human language is conjugated with the body and with nature, with the spirit and with the divine.

In this sense, translation amplifies a dynamic already coursing through the text’s dialogic form. Its aphorisms relate to one another translationally. One posits a set of terms and relations among them. The next one rearranges those terms, transforming their meaning, and so on, launching a movement that drives the text.

Although the aphorism is a new genre in Zaki and Herman’s collaborative writings, it reprises in a new form the style that has distinguished much of their previous poetry. What sets aphorisms apart is the way they lend themselves to dialogue. In previous poems, each writer’s contribution varies from a single line to a stanza or more. No specific rule governs the length of one author’s intervention. Here, a strict alternation is imposed at the level of the aphorism, whose form requires each to make complete statements.

There is a curiosity peculiar to reading a text with multiple authors. Readers want to know who wrote what, as though writing were always the singular product of an individual pen. At first blush, it may seem that Zaki and Herman satisfy this desire by differentiating their contributions typographically. Yet one cannot read Zaki’s italics or Herman’s roman type alone as a continuous discourse attributable to an individual perspective. The text’s typography functions primarily as a marker of dialogue. It is the alternation itself that matters most.

Aphoristic language

Writing in aphorisms also connects Zaki and Herman to a long poetic tradition. Aphoristic literature seems to be as old as human writing, suggesting it was originally an oral form that facilitated memorization and transmission. The word, if not the genre, originates in ancient Greek medical discourse. The Aphorisms in the Hippocrates corpus marry medical knowledge with literary craft to transmit principles of practice in a memorable form. The first and most famous Hippocratic aphorism encapsulates the temporal relation of human life to the craft of medicine: the passing nature of life presses one’s need and ability to master medical practice. The first words of this aphorism have taken on a life of their own, often cited in Latin: ars longa, vita brevis, “art is long, life short.” The semantic shift of the word art away from technique and craft toward notions of fine art has yielded the new meaning that life is short, but art is eternal, suggesting that creations outlive their creators. Long before this latter Latin usage, however, the Hippocratic aphorisms traveled to other shores and through other languages, notably Arabic and Syriac in the eastern and southern Mediterranean. There too scholars took Hippocrates to be speaking to the human condition more broadly and debated over the centuries how best to interpret his aphorism in medical and more general contexts. Like so many Greek writers, it was in al-Andalus that the Latin Hippocrates was born in translation from Arabic.

This schematic history of one aspect of the aphorism suggests through-lines for possible readings of this Dialogue. If science used aphorisms for their brevity and concision, these same qualities imbue them with multiple meanings that lend themselves to philosophical and spiritual contemplation. The aphorism as a medical form raises the question of how language may articulate the physical condition of the body, as well as the operation of the intellect that treats the body. Broader interpretations of the medical aphorism ask how language that speaks of the body may also speak to existential and spiritual conditions.

Human language and beyond

In these aphorisms, Zaki and Herman incessantly resituate language beyond its human and linguistic dimensions, be it in relation to the body, to matter, to nature, or to the divine. The apparent solidity of humanness – the difference between human and animal, body, and spirit – are ever and again put to the test of the language that is supposed to be its guarantee. The aim is not to do away with humanness, but to understand humanity in all its entanglements by abstracting language expressions about the material and spiritual conditions of existence from what cannot be spoken in language.

Not wishing to limit any further how the reader may approach these aphorisms, I offer this preface simply as my own reading, based on the intimate experience of translation. It is how these aphorisms resonated in me as I worked with their language, knowing all the while that they will echo differently in other readers.

Matthew Brauer, 29 July 2020, Knoxville’s University, Tennessee, U.S.A.