Are ‘Academic’ Translators Superior to ‘Commercial’ Ones?

Such are the two designations mentioned by Philip Kennedy, director of NYU Abu Dhabi’s Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies department, as reported yesterday in The National. Kennedy is currently leading a team of academics who will translate large swathes of classical Arabic literature.

No mention of artistic translators, or the artist-as-translator. Just 1) academic super-smarties and 2) those who do their translating in a back aisle of a Wal-mart.

The National explains Kennedy’s need for academic translators:

This variety of styles and genres [in pre-modern Arabic literature], this fascination with the power and texture of language, present a formidable challenge to the translator. “The library needs to represent the broad swathe of demographics, and stylistics, and subjects,” Kennedy agrees. “If it’s the cant of beggars or something, or the cant of thieves, then it needs to really read like the cant of beggars or thieves in English. And if it’s legalistic it needs to sound legalistic in English, in as far as it can be in a modern idiom.”

To this end, the editions will be produced by academic, rather than commercial, translators.

Ah, yes! Because after all, we can have great confidence that a room full of academics will know how to re-create the “cant of beggars and thieves in English.” Because academics are widely known for their abilities with clear, nuanced prose. Versus, you know, the “commercial translators.”

Although, in the end, perhaps we can throw clarity and beauty out with the bath water. Says The National:

Kennedy wants to guarantee a high-quality product. “It needs to be accurate,” he says. “Isn’t that the onus on translation now?”

God save us from a world where “accuracy” alone—a one-to-one correspondence of (unreadable, un-beautiful) words—is the important thing in translation.

Dr. Kennedy: Please do consider adding artists, or at least literary academics, to your team of editors.