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.