Chip Rosetti on Translating an Arabic Novel(la) set in America

In a short essay for the blog Three Percent, translator Chip Rosetti explores an issue that had surely been bothering me subconsciously: Translating an Arabic literary text set in the English-speaking world.

Translation is not—of course—just about a one-to-one correspondence between words (as if there were such a thing). Rosetti’s metaphor for the translational act struck me as beautiful, compact, and very apt:

Translating literature, I’ve found, is like trying to construct a replica of a building using very different material, like remaking a sandcastle out of two-by-fours: you hope to get the basic structure and architectural features right, but inevitably the material won’t curve the way the original did, or have the same seamless texture. There’s always a fine line between the task of reconstructing a text in another language so that it can speak for itself, and imposing your own views on it.

So, let me see if I can extend this metaphor. In the first novella, “St. Theresa,” Rosetti is trying to turn an Egypt-themed concrete house into an Egypt-themed wood-framed structure. If there are inconsistencies and gaps in the woodwork, we can say to ourselves: It’s because we don’t fully understand Egypt!It’s because Egypt is a concrete kind of a place! We truly understand the difficulties of translation when we see the gaps!

But what if he’s trying to turn an American-themed concrete house into an American-themed wood-framed structure? Mightn’t the American reader say: For goodness sakes, that’s not how houses are built. That’s not where we put our windows!

Okay, I’m exhausted now, and must leave this metaphor.

I really enjoyed Bahaa Abdelmeguid’s first novella in the collection—“Saint Theresa” (the one in really large type, above)—but I had a different relationship to “Sleeping with Strangers,” which is partly set in America. The second novella seemed to me, in many ways, a retelling of Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.

As Rosetti notes, I found several plot points implausible (for instance: the one about a character’s being imprisoned for a long period for failure to pay alimony—and being set free only after authorities were paid off). And the descriptions of America sometimes were jarring. What’s the translator’s role in a situation like this? Writes Rosetti:

Although there were other places where the author was happy to correct minor issues of “fact” about the American setting, there were some instances—such as Mado’s unreliable version of events—that needed no interference from me. It was a useful reminder of the limits of my role as translator, and of course, the fact that fictional characters are entitled to their own skewed views of the world.

It also made me wonder what the role of an Arabic-language translator might be in translating, for instance, Sphinx, a thriller set in modern Egypt. Probably just to roll her/his eyes at the inevitable infelicities and translate them as is?

Read Rosetti’s essay here: Chip Rossetti on Translating “Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers” by Bahaa Abdelmegid.

Order the book from or get it at your local independent bookstore.

And wait impatiently for Rosetti’s forthcoming translation of The Animals of our Days. (Or wait patiently, as you like. My mother always claimed that patience is a virtue.)