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.