What Makes Arabic Literature Difficult to Translate?

One of the interesting moments in Humphrey Davies’ talk at the AUC campus on Monday night was when an audience member pressed Davies on the topic of free indirect discourse. Or, as scholars like to call it, FID.

(Explaining FID is a pain. If you like, here’s a decent write-up.)

I would have thought—on a theoretical level, I suppose—that the thorniest thorn when translating Arabic to English would be the fos’ha (literary) vs. a’ameya (colloquial) divide, and how to render the two distinct dialects as, you know, distinct. Two generations ago, everything was fos’ha. A generation ago, everything but dialogue was fos’ha. Now, Arabic authors are further breaking down and re-constructing the boundaries between literary and common speech.

Davies agreed that, theoretically, yep, this is thorny. However, he seemed quite comfortable feeling his way through these particular rose bushes. The snaggier issue, for him, was clearly the tense- and point-of-view-switching of free indirect. After his talk, an audience member asked why he was so open-minded about the interplay of fos’ha and a’ameya, but seemingly rigid about FID.

Davies portrayed free indirect as a particular difficulty in English audiences (but not Arabic audience or, for that matter, the French). Of course, he’s not the only English-language reader irked by it.

Still, is free indirect really that hard for us? Or perhaps it’s just exceedingly difficult to move from one language to another? After all, Jane Austen used it. William Golding used it. Nick Laird, too.

More about Davies: I interviewed him, a while back, for The Quarterly Conversation.

NOTE: Upcoming lectures in the AUC’s “In Translation” series will be by Jonathan Wright (translator of Taxi and Azazeel) on March 10 and by novelist Ahdaf Soueif (translator of Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah and author of numerous works, including In the Eye of the Sun) on April 28.

Read Ursula Lindsay’s much more thorough piece about Humphrey’s talk on Al Masry Al Youm.


  1. On this point.. do you happen to know of any novels/short stories that are written entirely or mostly in the Syrian/Lebanese Dialect 3meeya rather than fusha/msa?? I’ve been searching online but it’s impossible to find anything!!! If you could offer me ANY information i’d be eternally eternally grateful.

  2. Funny you mention the bifurcation (how often do I get to use that word) between Fus7a and dialect. When I was student, I recommended an edge of translation closer to adaptation. This included changing settings to something more palpable to Western audiences, character names (but not character itself), and alternating between formal English and colloquial English to represent this dichotomy. A lot of students were even put off by the suggestion. Keep in mind they are the future of translation, so do not expect any innovation in this regard. Many people want a literal 1:1 translation, which is funny considering how different Arabic is semantically and pragmatically. This is the same reason, by the way, I believe English translations of what was originally Hebrew sound so stilted with lots of run-ons. If you knew anything about the original language, the bad translations make a lot more sense.

  3. Yes, I have heard complaints from translators about the “1:1 correspondence” police.

    You just have to plug a text into Google Translate to see how ridiculous that is. Perhaps we do need to embolden translators to try more and more varied artistic strategies. There are fine translations…but oh boy, plenty of flat and dull ones….

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