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.