From “Les Marocaines chez elles,” by Edith Wharton, translated by Nandan Kulkarni
I try, while exchanging compliments through our interpreter, to note down the details of their dresses. But how shall I describe the complex jumble of the gauze thrown on the heavy brocades? The lovely movements made with thick silk ribbons in large gold loops which are slipped under their underarms and lift their heavy sleeves? The fullness of the beautiful fabric, with folds like those in a Veronese painting, high above the large rigid belts? And, above all, the incredible complexity of their hair? Their black hair, curled and shaved at the bulge of the forehead, makes only a black line below the gold diadem or cloth band that a jewel holds just above their arched brows… Braids fall over every other part of their face; over their ears, which are laden with heavy earrings, coral pendants, big gold rings with emeralds or pearls, “bijoux de juifs” (jewels of the Jews) made in the blue Mellahs (Jewish quarters) of white cities. The countless necklaces fall on the gleaming of rich caftans, above the little pink, blue, or white gauze frills in the style of Watteau. On a narrow neck of black velvet: necklaces of gold, amber, coral, eccentric combinations of amulets and rough stones crafted in the same goldsmithery in the Mellah. All this forms an ensemble of extraordinary radiance, where the pink gauze blends with the blue and gold brocade, the white gauze with old rose gauze and violet or green-apple belts. Through the group weaves in and out a little négrillon (negro boy) with the sweet little face of Zamor, whose violet silver-spangled caftan is encircled by a beautiful raspberry-pink silk scarf.
In the fall of 1917, at the invitation of the French government, Edith Wharton spent three weeks touring Morocco by car. “Like a burst of sunlight between storm-clouds,” this excursion in the middle of the First World War gave Wharton, with unique privileges of access granted by her hosts, the opportunity to observe and then write about what was then, to Westerners, “a country still completely untouched by foreign travel” (A Backward Glance, 358). The tour resulted in a series of articles in Scribner’s and the Yale Review, which were then, reorganized and illustrated with photographs, published in 1920 by Scribner’s as the book In Morocco. While the brevity of her trip prevented her from writing the full-scale tour guide she felt was needed, Wharton did give her book a historical preface using scarce French sources, thus bringing more information about North Africa to a popular Anglophone readership than was previously available. Wharton was also fully aware, it seems, that as much as her book would provide “vivid and picturesque” glimpses of a “curious…beautiful” country “rich in landscape and architecture,” it would also encourage and enable a “deluge” of tourism that would destroy much of what she recorded (In Morocco, ix-xi, passim).
There was one other article in which Wharton documented her trip, an account in French that appeared in La Revue des Deux Mondes in the spring of 1918: “Les Marocaines chez elles,” which includes some observations not duplicated, it appears, in any of her Anglophone publications about Morocco. The partial translation excerpted above, and fully available here, was undertaken by Johns Hopkins University rising junior Nandan Kulkarni as a final project this spring for “Scribbling Women,” an undergraduate course I teach that is cross-listed in English and the Museums & Society program. In this class, we examine the speeches, private writings, and published poetry, fiction, and journalism by a selection of North American women who draw attention in their works to race-, gender-, and class-based inequities. Students especially consider the creation, publication, reception, and legacy of our texts, which date from the 1820s through the 1930s, using rare books, archival materials, and other primary sources. The class culminates in public projects designed to provide broad and accurate access for other potential readers of these texts. With the pandemic-related transition to remote learning, we moved, like so much else this year, from hands-on examinations of materials to digital resources and digital final projects.
We read several short works of fiction by Edith Wharton, looking at their first publication in books and magazines, as well as their current availability in e-books and digital archives. Nandan was intrigued by Wharton’s writing, her long residence in Paris, and her travels, and asked to undertake a translation of one of her French language works for his final project. Wanting to give students as much latitude as possible during a difficult semester, I allowed him to do so although it was not one of our established assignment options—my own French is certainly not at the level of Wharton’s—setting the condition, however, that he would have to find a short text by Wharton originally written in French for which a translation was not already readily available. I was thinking he might translate a few of her letters to Léon Bélugou, from the collection at the Beinecke Library; but, learning that many are already translated in Edith Wharton in France, he found instead, to my surprise, “Les Marocaines chez elles” in a digitized volume of La Revue des Deux Mondes in HathiTrust. We decided that he would translate the first half of it for our class blog, with my editorial supervision. As he explains in his headnote, parts of it are similar to sections of In Morocco but some of it does not seem to have been carried over. We were not able to make a detailed comparison to the English-language essay in the Yale Review (the print collection in our library was unavailable throughout the spring due to pandemic-related closures) but it seems to differ from that version, as well. We look forward to the full translation that is forthcoming in the Travel Writings volume of The Complete Works of Edith Wharton.
—Gabrielle Dean, PhD, William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Johns Hopkins University
(See https://literaryarchive.net/2020/04/28/les-marocaines-chez-elles-by-edith-wharton-section-i/ for the entire translation.)