The Translator as Movie Star

Movie-star translator Humphrey Davies did, indeed, pack the room when he spoke at AUC's Oriental Hall.

In his exceptionally gloomy piece about translation in yesterday’s Telegraph, Michael Hoffman claims:

I don’t think anyone reading a foreign book in English has ever been able to supply the name of the person who translated it.

Perhaps there is some truth to this hyperbole. Perhaps, in these times, the actor who appears on screen and gives voice to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (oops, I think people could supply that name)  or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Alaa el-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building finds his name buried in the credits, in such small type as to be barely legible.

I have borrowed this translator-as-actor metaphor from Humphrey Davies, translator of The Yacoubian Building. And The Yacoubian Building is a particularly interesting case.

One of my favorite star-translators, Sinan Antoon.

Many who have read both the Arabic and English texts assert that the Arabic عمارة يعقوبيان makes for a “poor script,” and that it is Davies’ voicing that gives the book gravity and art—much as Cate Blanchett or Denzel Washington or Nour el-Sherif might give life to an otherwise flat, dull story line.

Davies denies this translator-supplied enrichment, as he probably should. When asked at a recent lecture at the American University in Cairo whether a translator ever “beautifies” a text, he said: no, I don’t think so, no. The questioner clearly wriggled in his seat, wanting to leap up and correct, but managed to keep his place.

When something new comes out, I do look for my translator-stars: I admit that when flipping through the poetry section of Banipal, I look immediately for anything translated by Sinan Antoon. Whatever material Antoon began with, I’m sure that his voicing will give it texture and interest.

Hoffman may think me a curiosity—after all, he argues that this may be the “twilight of translation” (hunh?)—although perhaps, as Orthofer notes, Hoffman’s claim is usefully provocative. Meantime, I’ll be looking for fold-out posters of my favorite translators in the next Banipal….

My favorite movie star has an Op-Ed in today’s NYTimes about the Arabic digital divide.

Alaa el-Aswany fans should note that he’ll be at Kotob Khan the evening of Friday, May 21 for a talk about his books and, insha’allah, about democracy in Egypt.


  1. I don’t exactly know what is meant by a “beautifying translation,” but Jacques Derrida said once, and I agree with his statement, that a good translation can be “relevante” or “relevant” the same way a spice can add this “je ne sais quoi” to a dish. You still have the essential flavors, but the spice enhances the taste of a dish so it fills your taste buds, and a translation can do about the same to a text, satisfying your…literary buds.

  2. A skilled translator catches the music and nuance of the words, not just the meaning. Do they adorn them? Not necessarily, but most people really have no sense of where to put their feet in that dance and to them the words feel adorned rather than simply allowed to be their best.

  3. Perhaps beautifying is not a good word—too much of a home & gardening flavor to it—although in my defense, it was the questioner at the AUC who started it!

    But there is certainly something to it: a flat sentence in one language can become a more rich and aesthetically appealing one in another. (Or, more often, the opposite happens.) Of course, words are only words—the plot and characters, the setting and theme are all in the hands of the writer.

    But words, after all, are how the thing is made.

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