Ahdaf Soueif on ‘Truer’ Translation

A very, very low-quality photo of Ahdaf Souief at the AUC's Oriental Hall. And poor Samia Mehrez is blurred out entirely. But I've got some good backs-of-heads shots, you'll have to admit that.

The award-winning author Ahdaf Soueif was the last to appear at this year’s series of talks by translators at the American University in Cairo.

And Soueif, unlike her predecessors in the series—Denys Johnson-Davies, Humphrey Davies, Jonathan Wright—seemed to studiously avoid discussing translation. In the past, Soueif has been a vocal critic of much Arabic-English translation. In 2001, Soueif gave a talk in Cairo that Al Ahram described as “lampooning the translation of much Arabic fiction into English.”

But Soueif was, last night, speaking before an audience of many of the pre-eminent Arabic-English translators working today: Denys Johnson-Davies, Humphrey Davies, Jonathan Wright, Marilyn Booth, and Raymond Stock were there, as well as others. Soueif seemed, perhaps for this reason, to want to avoid the topic of translation.

Instead, Soueif demonstrated how her dialogue had evolved from her first short-story collection, Aisha, to the time of her first novel In the Eye of the Sun. She read dialogue from Aisha aloud and showed how it was sometimes awkward to translate back into Arabic—she wasn’t sure how the word “oh,” would be translated, or how “cleave” would have sounded in Arabic. But she demonstrated how the dialogue from In Eye of the Sun could be easily spoken in English or Arabic.

About Aisha, she said:

What’s happening is that there’s energy there, but there’s no insistence on the character really speaking Arabic.

In a sense, these were stories written in innocence. When you read these stories, you can hear Yousef Idris, but you can also hear de Maupassant. And there wasn’t a position.

Soueif told the audience that, in the story from Aisha “Knowing,” the eid is referred to as the biram.

“Now, you’d have to slit my throat to make me refer to that as the biram, it’s e-i-d and there we are.”

Fortunately, Soueif did address translation in the Q&A, as one of my creative-writing students, Dalia, had the good sense to pin her down. Dalia asked if it was difficult for Soueif not to use her own style of writing while translating other authors.

Soueif said she had only really translated I Saw Ramallah and one play. And then she said:

I think not because you’re so concentrated on the text that’s there that, I mean… I looked at I Saw Ramallah again, today, before I came. And I hadn’t looked at it, really, since I’d translated it.

And actually I was quite surprised; it didn’t sound like me at all. And which is quite right, it shouldn’t sound like me. But it just so much didn’t sound like me that it’s surprising.

She went on to discuss her own struggle to work out a method of translation:

I found something that was for me that was quite interesting. Which was that you’re reading the text—you’re reading a sentence or two sentences—and then you’re turning to your laptop to translate them … was very awkward, and, as I was reading, there was a translation process that was happening in my head at the same time anyway.

Her solution:

And what I did, was I got a dictating machine. And I would just hold the book, and I would read—my eyes would be reading it in Arabic and I would be speaking it in English. Into the machine. And then that was transcribed. And then I edited it twice. But I felt that that was … it sort of gave a truer translation, if you like. It was more immediate.

There was a natural process that was happening, and it was allowed to flow. It was not being impeded by the physical thing of lifting your eyes… It was just being allowed to go through me, and then the editing process happened later.

And it was also much quicker, of course, which was good.

Earlier in the talk, Soueif also spoke about her excellent (non-literal) translation of protest slogans from November 2005 for a piece in The Guardian. A few of the chants:

حرس حرس حرس ليه، احنا في سجن ولا ايه

(Guards, guards, guards, why? Is this a jail or an open sky?)
العسكري مظلوم في الجيش …. ياكل عدس و يلبس خيش

(A soldier gets a lousy deal/rotten clothes, one lousy meal)

يا سوزان قوللي للبيه: طبق الفول باتنين جنيه

(Hey Suzanne tell the lord: even beans we can’t afford)

“You see what’s happening,” Soueif said. “Your translation is sort of taking the spirit of the thing, but also turning it into something you can imagine as a chant, rhythm and rhyme….”

Indeed. With the last one, for instance, instead of saying, “Hey Suzanne, tell the bey: a plate of fuul beans* are two pounds,” Soueif chooses to render the slogans entirely in idiomatic English, erasing the difference, the “foreign” aspects that many contemporary translators feel they need.

There is no bey, and no fuul (which could be footnoted at the bottom of the text as “broad beans, a popular breakfast food, sometimes eaten with blah blah blah).  There is no sense of transporting us to a strange, exotic place.

Indeed, in her 2001 talk, Soueif referred to the use of foreignizing terms as “stumbling blocks to empathy, to entering the spirit of the book.”

Further, at her talk during this year’s Emirates Lit Festival, Souief had said: “I’m very careful where I use Arabic words; there must be a reason for it; like when I used tarboush instead of fez, which has a negative connotation with it.”

“Foreignizing” vs. “domesticizing” a text is an enormous issue in translation, and it was a shame Soueif didn’t talk more about the politics of language and translation. I would’ve liked to see her use this opportunity, of a room full of current and future translators, to open up a real dialogue about the possibilities of Arabic-English literary translation.

Maybe next time.

Note: Soueif also talked about PalFest; I’ll certainly write more about that in the coming days. Meanwhile, if you’re in Ramallah, go help them put up posters.