Mustafa Al-Slaiman on Translating ‘Metaphor-poor’ German into Arabic

Qantara has an interesting Q&A with German-to-Arabic translator Mustafa al-Slaiman in this week’s issue.

Silke Lode asks: Why are so many children’s books being translated into Arabic? Al-Slaiman (and, as the parent of a book-hungry six-year-old, I agree strongly here):

Literature for children and young people is a catastrophe in the Arab world. There are plenty of ideological and religious books, but few that are actually suitable for children. Childhood is the most important time to develop a love of reading. We want to offer children books written especially for them, so that they become passionate readers later on.

She asks: Do you censor texts as you translate, with an eye to different cultural sensibilities? Al-Slaiman says no:

Sometimes it’s the writers who are most worried. The Turkish-German writer Emine Sevgi Özdamar suggested leaving a part of her Life Is a Caravanserei out, where someone sits on the toilet and insults God. The Arab publisher saw no reason to do so – he said it was there in the original so we’d keep it.

When is translation impossible, or near-impossible? Al-Slaiman cites Joachin Sartorius’ love poem “Diana.”

Literally translated, he writes: “I saw the world’s back in the water.” The back is a rather un-erotic part of the body in Arabic literature. Shoulders or feet are much more erotic. Simply looking or even retracting the gaze sounds more seductive in Arabic poetry than touching. These are just details, but if you translated “Diana” literally there would be nothing of its eroticism left.

And no, I’m no (proper) judge of the German language, but this is my favorite quote from the Q&A:

Since Brecht, the German language has become slightly drier, poor in metaphors. Arabic – like Russian or the Romance languages – has many more images. That’s another reason why translation is a creative act. The lyrical Arabic rose has to have its own scent in German translation.