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Photo: Bertramz
When you look at the remains of Qalb Lozeh church in Syria, you can see the inspiration behind Notre-Dame.

As many of us have been learning in recent years, much that is beloved in Western architecture was originally inspired by buildings in the Middle East. Moreover, there are Christian cathedral styles that mirror Muslim mosques.

A new book aims to set the record straight. Oliver Wainwright reviewed it at the Guardian.

“As Notre-Dame cathedral was engulfed by flames last year, thousands bewailed the loss of this great beacon of western civilisation. The ultimate symbol of French cultural identity, the very heart of the nation, was going up in smoke. But Middle East expert Diana Darke was having different thoughts. She knew that the origins of this majestic gothic pile lay not in the pure annals of European Christian history, as many have always assumed, but in the mountainous deserts of Syria, in a village just west of Aleppo to be precise.

‘Notre-Dame’s architectural design, like all gothic cathedrals in Europe, comes directly from Syria’s Qalb Lozeh fifth-century church,’ Darke tweeted on the morning of 16 April, as the dust was still settling in Paris. …

“It is not only the twin towers and rose window that have their origins in the Middle East, she pointed out, but also the ribbed vaults, pointed arches and even the recipe for stained glass windows.

“Gothic architecture as we know it owes much more to Arab and Islamic heritage than it does to the rampaging Goths. ‘I was astonished at the reaction,’ says Darke. ‘I thought more people knew, but there seems to be this great gulf of ignorance about the history of cultural appropriation.’ …

“With Stealing from the Saracens, an exhilarating, meticulously researched book, [she] sheds light on centuries of borrowing, tracing the roots of Europe’s major buildings – from the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey to Chartres cathedral and St Mark’s basilica in Venice – back to their Middle Eastern precedents. …

“ ‘Now we have this notion of east and west,’ says Darke. ‘But back then, it wasn’t like that. There were huge cultural exchanges — and most came from the east to the west. Very little went the other way.’

“Given their prevalence in the great cathedrals of Europe, it is easy to imagine that pointed stone arches and soaring ribbed vaults are Christian in origin. But the former dates back to a seventh-century Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, while the latter began in a 10th-century mosque in Andalucia, Spain.

“In fact, that first known example of ribbed vaulting is still standing. Visitors to the Cordoba Mezquita can marvel at its multiple arches intersecting in a masterpiece of practical geometry and decorative structure, never needing a repair in its thousand-year existence. …

“The pointed arch, meanwhile, was a pragmatic solution to a problem encountered by masons working on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. One of the holiest sites in the Muslim world, it was built in 691 by the ruler of Islam’s first empire.

“The challenge was how to line up an outer arcade of rounded arches with a smaller inner arcade, while maintaining a horizontal ceiling between them. For the openings to align, the masons had to give the inner arcade tighter arches, forcing them to become pointed. Another world first can be spotted higher up in the shrine, where encircling the dome is an arcade of trefoil arches, the three-lobed style of arch that went on to encrust practically every European cathedral. …

“[Misidentification of] the Dome of the Rock was down to the Crusaders of the Middle Ages mistakenly thinking the building was the Temple of Solomon. They used the domed, circular layout of this [shrine] as the model for their Templar churches (like the City of London’s round Temple church), even copying the decorative Arabic inscription, which openly chastises Christians for believing in the Trinity rather than in the oneness of God. Their pseudo-Kufic calligraphic patterns went on to adorn French cathedral stonework and the borders of richly woven textiles, with no one aware of what they actually meant.” More at the Guardian.

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Murakami photo: Elena Seibert
Oe photo:
Paris Review
Haruki Murakami, left, and Kenzaburo Oe are Japanese novelists who write first in a different language and later translate into Japanese.

Today’s topic is a little esoteric, but for some reason it fascinates me. It’s about two Japanese novelists who write their books first in a foreign language, not in their own.

In the case of Haruki Murakami, it was apparently because when he tried writing a novel in Japanese, his saturation with the traditional Japanese writing style weighed him down. By writing first in English and later translating, he felt freer and came up with a style that was more his own. Critics are calling this process translationese.

Masatsugu Ono, a novelist, too, writes at the Paris Review, “I clearly remember the vivid colors of the two books — one red, the other green — that a high school classmate of mine was reading. … I was from a small fishing village that didn’t even have a bookstore, and having come from a junior high school with fewer than forty students, I was intimidated by how he already had clear taste in music and literature. …

“The next time I encountered those books was after I moved to Tokyo for university. I came across a large stack of them right by the entrance of one of the city’s largest bookstores. They were the two parts of Haruki Murakami’s novel Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood). …

“I immediately felt that his style was different from other contemporary Japanese writers I had read. Probably because one of my professors (who was from Belgium) had translated it into French, A Wild Sheep Chase was the first of Murakami’s novels I read. And I soon found myself reading through them all.

“In 1978, Murakami went to Jingu Baseball Stadium, located near the jazz bar he ran, to watch the opening game of the season. The moment the lead-off hitter slammed the first pitch cleanly into left field, a thought struck him: I think I can write a novel. … ‘It was like a revelation. Or maybe “epiphany” is a better word.’

“Murakami describes this event — even in Japanese — using the English word epiphany. Late that night, he sat down at the kitchen table and began to write. Several months later, he finished a first draft. But it disappointed him. Murakami placed his Olivetti typewriter on the table and began to write again, this time in English.

The resulting English prose was, unsurprisingly, simple and unadorned. However, as he wrote, Murakami felt a distinctive rhythm begin to take shape:

” ‘Since I was born and raised in Japan, the vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock. When I sought to put my thoughts and feelings into words, those animals began to mill about, and the system crashed. Writing in a foreign language, with all the limitations that entailed, removed this obstacle.’ …

“Writing in a foreign language liberated him, and he finished the beginning of his novel in English before translating it into Japanese: … ‘I wanted to deploy a type of Japanese as far removed as possible from so-called literary language in order to write in my own natural voice.’ The style Murakami describes as ‘neutral’ was deemed by some critics ‘translationese.’ …

“[When I read him], the writing did not feel like translationese to me at all. Rather, I had a strong feeling that his Japanese was our Japanese, one that I also lived and breathed. I was struck by the fact that one could write a novel in that kind of language. When reading Murakami, I never experienced the difficulty or resistance I felt each time I read Kenzaburo Oe’s later novels, which were written in a highly elaborate style that I considered ‘literary.’ …

“I’ve always been encouraged and inspired by the fact that Oe has continued throughout his career to write stories set in his hometown. And I’m strongly drawn to the original and imaginative way in which he develops local myths and small histories (in both senses of the French word histoire: history and story).

“I’ve heard that Oe didn’t much appreciate Murakami’s early books, but when Oe made his debut in the late fifties, his writing style was also considered translationese. … Oe’s early works were so spontaneous and vivid that he quickly gained a huge audience, especially among young people. But the sensual nature of his first few books was gradually replaced by an intellectually elaborated style, one that also has been described by critics as translationese.

“So while Murakami’s translationese makes him clearer and more natural, Oe’s translationese makes him more difficult and more artificial. However, according to [Kojin Karatani, one of the most influential Japanese critics], Oe’s clearer and more natural early work was already translationese, too.”

There’s a lot more here about similarities and differences among Japanese writers, but for me, the most interesting aspect of the article is learning how reading and thinking in a foreign language affects a writer’s style.

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