How Do You Know It’s a Good Translation?

Or, more importantly, how do you know it’s a bad one?

Fady Joudah and Sinaan Antoon, fine poets and translators

I, like you, don’t read both texts side by side: comparing, contrasting, savoring the linguistic differences. After all, my written “literary” Arabic is about at the level of my six-year-old son’s, if that. I can read Russian well enough, but that doesn’t really help me here.

There are Arabic-English translators who I’ve learned to trust: Humphrey Davies, Fady Joudah, Sinaan Antoon, Hosam Abou-Ela. There are translators I’ve learned to mistrust, although I’m not bold or mean enough to list them.

I don’t feel that any of the translators on the second list are consciously (nefariously) cheating me of an authentic literary experience. Perhaps there are some who “correct” their authors, unconsciously perhaps, ever so slightly changing the text to fit their own vision. Perhaps there are those who don’t know both languages well enough; perhaps there are those who are lazy.

But what I fear most is those translators who don’t love words.

Humphrey Davies speaks of loving Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. If I were to have one litmus test for translators, it would be that: Tell me about a book that you love, passionately, unmoderatedly (and, really, so much the better if it’s Remembrance of Things Past). If the translator looked at me as though I were slightly cracked—as most people do, when I ask that question—then he’d immediately fall to the second list.

Of course, as you read a translation, how do you know when ugly language is the translator’s fault? Perhaps the original Arabic was full of all this clunky phrasing, this misuse of commas, these flat word choices; perhaps the translator is only representing the author’s true flaws?

At times it seems clear-cut. When you’ve read “beat around the bush” or “raining like cats and dogs” one to many times, it’s time to become convinced that your friendly translator isn’t the lover of words you always wanted. But what then?

Especially if you read Arabic at the Grade 1 level.

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4 comments

  1. Maybe with translating Arabic poetry, for a satisfying translation to “work” it is best if the translator is also a poet in the language translated into. In addition to Fady and Sinaan I think also of Khaled Matawa, the prolific US-based Libyan poet, critic, teacher, who has translated for example Saadi Youssef for Graywolf Press. Another approach is that of eg British poet Sarah Maguire, founder of the Poetry Translation Centre in London, who does not know much Arabic but who works with translators to produce English versions of Arabic poems. Vice versa, she has been translated into Arabic by Saadi Youssef, in a volume published in Damascus.

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  2. And not just a poet, probably, but a good one.

    But I think the same criteria—more or less—are necessary in a translator of fiction: someone with a particularly nuanced sense of words and their interplay.

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