Is an Imperfect Translation of Arabic Lit Better than None at All?

Randini Obeyesekera has a very nice ode to translation in today’s Sri Lanka Guardian.

Obeyeskera notes that translation is of particularly import in Sri Lanka, and says (italics mine):

Translation has been, is, and will always be the lifeblood that feeds Sri Lankan life and literature. How so? We know that being a small island located at the cross-roads of sea routes that connected the western and eastern worlds, over the centuries Sri Lanka has been a contact point for different linguistic, ethnic and cultural forces. How do peoples and cultures function in such situations of contact if not by translating, interpreting, absorbing and transforming all that they encounter?

The English-speaking world has seen a flutter of interest in translation with the publication of Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters and perhaps with the popularity of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornet’s Nest. But it’s still just a flutter. Somehow, we don’t imagine ourselves at a crossroads, a place of exchange, but instead see English as a place onto itself, self-sufficient.

Yes, (we might argue) perhaps we needed Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Borges, and all right, those pesky Russians, too. But most of us English-language readers aren’t glancing at the shore, waiting to see what interesting things might blow in from—for instance—Arabic literature. And Obeyesekera asks, when things do blow in, do they do the original justice?

Obeyesekera  says that the Sinhala-language market is currently flooded with poor translations. Obeyesekera asks a question I often ask myself:

We are now faced with an important question. Is a second rate or imperfect translation better than not having any translations at all?

Obeyesekera notes that a high-quality translation is,  after all, an extremely difficult task, requiring—much like the original creative output—both labor and passion. The writer’s answer:

To answer this one has to frame it within the larger question: what do translations do? If it is that translations of creative literary works extend one’s experience beyond the known and the familiar, stimulate one intellectually, heighten emotional sensitivity, and expose one to other unfamiliar worlds, then I think an imperfect translation is better than none. … If translations serve as a source of empowerment – when texts, especially religious texts, are translated into the vernacular and made accessible to many – then too I think an imperfect translation is better than not having one.

This is an interesting question for contemporary Arabic letters, particularly as I have seen some young authors posting their (Arabic) short stories online with a call to any and all translators: Come turn this into English! I also asked myself this question when reading Taha Hussein’s Call of the Curlew in English. (And true, no translation is perfect.) I appreciate Obeyesekera’s answer, and I want to answer as he does—yes, yes!—and with Call of the Curlew I certainly do.

But with other some translations, where the experience feels utterly changed by the translation, such that the characters come out looking like caricatures of the Western idea of the (insert-your-own-adjective) Oriental, and where the act is not a cultural exchange so much as a re-invention of cliche, well then I think…better not.


  1. Thinking about this, I think I would say that a poor translation is NOT better than no translation, because a poor translation gives that author and sometimes that whole area of literature a bad taste. If a new reader decides to try some Arabic fiction and gets two or three horrid translations, they may turn away from it entirely when really it is incredible. So I say good translation is very important.

  2. Yes, good point. I suppose I was thinking of people like myself, but more sensible to think of English-language readers who have very, very little access to Arabic fiction, and will take a part as being representative of some sort of whole.

  3. I’d agree with the first commentator. I read Arabic now but began by reading translations from the English and it took me a very long time to get over hearing in my head the stilted dialogue and over-wrought and awkward prose that AUC Press seems to specialize in.

  4. Having read an English “translation” of one of our foremost Sinhala writers, (7. 2. 11) I have spent very many hours rendering the translation into a language I thought conveyed to (first)languaged English readers, with more potent force, the “story” told by the writer. So is what I have done “translation” or “interpretation”. Is it a valid attempt: to do a good interpretation.
    What, in fact, is “interpretaion”; what, “translation”
    I have had the experience of being asked by (simultaneous)French and Spanish interpreters, of my English language interventions, to speak more slowly, so they could better convey the impact of my sarcasms.

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