Story of Joseph: Book Review

Story of Joseph: A Fourteenth-Century Turkish Morality Play. By Sheyyad Hamza; translated by Bill Hickman. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014. Pp. 148, with bibliography and index. $24.95. ISBN: 9780815633570.

Bill Hickman’s translation of this poem for the Syracuse University Press’ Middle East Literature in Translation series into a dramatic work marks a meaningful and creative effort. Hickman, now retired, but formerly a professor of Turkish language and literature at the University of California, Berkeley, has accomplished much more than simply offering a translation of this fourteenth-century Turkish religiously-inspired poem. He has rethought it as a form and created a book with many more facets—specifically, the translation is couched in its journey into publication and the poem’s context in literature.

For one thing, Hickman details his original plans to publish a more fully annotated scholarly bilingual edition with the poem. While this was rejected as risky because of the niche nature of the work and the costs associated, Hickman chose to publish the English only with a decent amount of background—even to the point of adding line counts so a dedicated reader could go back into the fourteenth-century Turkish text and do his or her own language and poetic studies side-by-side. He hopes this work will inspire people to continue to pursue Turkish language and literary studies.

But the notion of “inspiration to study” by the poem is not the only scholarly value of this compact text and translation. Hickman also sets aside short sections of the book detailing the historic values of the work. For instance, Hickman contextualizes the poem’s relationship to Islamic traditions generally, fourteenth-century Turkism and Islamic culture specifically, and the Judeo-Christian tradition to argue that even after 700 years (almost) since its inception, the story and this variation are valuable as a famous story and as a little-known poem from a little-known poet in Turkish Islamic literature—Sheyyad Hamza.

Regarding the translation itself, Hickman took a direction which he says does not interfere with meaning but which does alter the structure of the poem. He writes that he took his cue from the narration of characters’ dialogue—“Joseph said,” Jacob said,” “Zeliha said,” etc.—to  turn the poem into something more akin to a drama. To look at the pages, one sees the names of characters in caps followed by “their lines”—even including a narrator who adds a form of commentary to the story from time to time. I don’t personally have any complaints about this, but it will be interesting if this poem is taken up again in the field and rethought again as a poem against this translation. This structure change is particularly worthy of note because on the title page, the text simply says, “Translated by Bill Hickman”—a short bit of language which really hides a lot of decision-making and thinking through the original Turkish text.

Bill Hickman has crafted a dense but not off-putting work of literary interest in The Story of Joseph: A Fourteenth-Century Turkish Morality Play by Sheyyad Hamza. In so doing, he hopes to draw attention to Turkish language and literature by contributing to the field something new (from the old).

Jesse A Lambertson
Sultan Qaboos Culture Center Library