Jonathan Wright: The Journalist as Literary Translator

To be a proper blog, the photo must be blurred and amateurish.

The AUC translators series, which hosted its third speaker last night, invites interesting comparisons.

Journalist and translator Jonathan Wright spoke yesterday at the university’s downtown campus, addressing issues of translation alongside the first author he’d translated, Khaled al-Khamissi.  Wright addressed translation in a very different manner from Humphrey Davies, who spoke in the AUC series last month.

Interestingly, both Wright and Davies have argued that they don’t have a literary voice when they translate, but instead try to speak with the voice of the work.

Davies has said that he tries to “hear the voice of the novel,” while Wright said yesterday that the voice of the book appears to him after a series of questions and doubts. “In the end, you usually do find the voice in which to write. It creeps up on you as you progress.”

But from that point of agreement, Wright established himself as a very different sort of literary translator.

Whereas Davies talked at length about a love of books and language, Wright described much of his career as that of a straightforward working journalist, when he “didn’t think much about” the translation he did.

After all, a journalist has to work quickly:

“If you’re about to put out an urgent story, you’re not going to hold it up while you debate whether to use this word or that.”

Wright said that he hadn’t intended to work in literary translation, but when he came across Khaled al-Khamissi’s best-selling Taxi, it was at a time when journalists were gabbing a great deal about the Arab street. Taxi seemed like a book that would address this (perhaps “forensic“) Western interest.

Wright said that Taxi seemed like an excellent “vehicle for explaining to the world the diversity of Cairo. Not of Cairo, of the world in general. … In fact, they [the characters in Taxi] are just like ordinary people, except in the context of Cairo.”

Wright’s long history as a journalist certainly has shaped his take on translation. His attitude seemed far more “get it done” than some of Taxi‘s other translators. Author Khaled al-Khamissi described the Italian translator, Ernesto Pagano, as rendering literary (fos’ha) Arabic in a more classical Italian, wheras the colloquial dialogue (a’meya) was written in Neapolitan dialect.

Wright said he’d briefly thought about rendering the conversations with taxi drivers in Cockney slang. Fortunately—as this surely would have been disastrous, particularly for the American reader—Wright said he decided: “Why bother?”

At times, Wright’s push toward a standard English has the effect of flattening out the text. Wright said that he felt, for the English-language reader, “religious references are in general problematic.”

“I just say that insha’allah (God willing) is ‘I hope.'” Wright explained his thinking: “If you load the work [with religious references], it does begin to look as though you meant it as a religious tract.”

At times, al-Khamissi and Wright disagreed—particularly about the possibilities of “literal translation,” which Wright defended—and at times Wright seemed to disagree with himself.

At one point in the evening, Wright spoke quite eloquently about how what an Arabic-English translator needs most is not perfect fluency in Arabic but “what you have to learn most is how to use English.” He spoke of leaps of the imagination required when there is no good semantic overlap; for instance, he found no “exact” word in English for an Arabic term describing the sound of a grinding millstone. He said he just had to imagine for himself the sound a millstone makes as it turns.

But at another moment, he insisted that he didn’t see the translator’s work as being creative, and claimed that it was “pleasure, without the hard work.”

It will be interesting to see his translation of Yousef Ziedan’s dense and philosophical Azazeel; unfortunately, Atlantic says they won’t have it out until the summer of next year.

What’s more:

The Wright Talk Continued: Arabic Translators and Dictionaries