When Is It Fair to Criticize the Translator?

Yes, it’s true: Literary translation is an unfairly un-glamorous job, usually recognized only in the negative.

If you fell in love with a book in translation, you probably loved Naguib Mahfouz or Hanan al-Shaykh or Mahmoud Darwish. If you hated the book in translation, then you may well have flipped to the title page to see which blessed translator was mucking up your good time.

Reviewers, too, can be quick to blame a book’s flaws on the translator. Once, I was telling Seif Salmawy—formerly of Dar el Shorouk, now of Bloomsbury-Qatar—that the translation of Habib Selmi’s Scents of Marie Claire was awkward and unfair to the original.

Salmawy gave me his usual broad smile and asked: But how do you know this was an effect of the translation?

I’m sure I had a lovely riposte, along the lines of, “umm, ahh…humph.”

On quite the opposite side, a few translators are blamed—Humphrey Davies, for one—for beautifying a text, giving it a gravity that it didn’t have in the original Arabic.

How do you know? Unless you read the source, is it ever fair to criticize the translator?

Since that conversation with Salmawy, I have become more reluctant to criticize a translator. However, I do believe that Arabic-English exchange is in an awkward period. At a recent translators’ symposium, leading French-Arabic translator Richard Jacquemond blamed low educational levels on the poor readability of many books translated into Arabic.

As for books translated from Arabic into English, one might just as well blame high educational levels, as these projects are often undertaken by academics rather than by artists or artist-academics.

So lately, I have been trying to test my gut feelings about bad translations. Emerging Arab Voices: Nadwa 1, A Bilingual Reader, presents an excellent opportunity, as the stories are on one side in English, and—flip over the book—in Arabic.

When I read the translation of Mansoura Ezz Eldin’s “Déjà vu,” tiny buzzing bells went off. The sentences were awkward in the English, sometimes even difficult to understand, as here: “On previous occasions she had usually just felt that she had experienced the moment before, and forced herself to say certain words in conformity with what she remembered living through earlier.”

Elsewhere, the description doesn’t seem to fit in English, “she had combed all her black hair up”, and yet elsewhere, the word choice felt icky, as when the protagonist is faced with plates of “nibbles.” (Perhaps this is appropriate to U.K. readers, but the word—used for المازات—made me shudder. Marwa Elnaggar backs me up here.)

Yet elsewhere, I couldn’t visualize something and had to go back to the original: “an old-style vegetable market” turned out to be one that was شعبي.

I read both the original and the translation multiple times. Perhaps Ezz Eldin’s prose isn’t everywhere as fluid as it could be; I’m not sure I’m qualified to judge. But, after much examination of the details, I return to where I started: my gut impression.

If a story is clunky, difficult, or just-plain ugly in the English, then it’s not unreasonable to think some of that had to do with the translator. So when is it fair to criticize the translator? I suppose your gut is probably as good an indicator as any.

But surely—of course, surely!—translators are faced, for various reasons and in various settings, with awkward prose, even from very strong writers. Is it their job to render that prose to an equal level of awkwardness in the English? After all, mightn’t that awkwardness itself be of literary, social, academic value?

Anyhow, before we range too far abroad, I do believe that translators are too often spotlighted in the negative. So—although it’s apropos of nothing—I would like to commend, among 2010 translations, Khaled Mattawa’s Adonis: Selected Poems (gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous work), Paula Haydar’s Touch, Ibrahim Muhawi’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief, Hosam Aboul-Ela’s Stealth, Maia Tabet’s White Masks, the poems of Sargon Boulus that Sinan Antoon has posted on Jadaliyya and run in Banipal, and several others I’m sure will occur to me in a minute.

Thanks, guys.

*After examination and reflection, I stand by my gut. Whatever Selmi’s own flaws might be, the English is inappropriately stiff.

If you want to read about that translation conference, Al Ahram Weekly has a piece, “From one word to another.”


  1. Great post.

    This is a very important issue. Zakaria Tamer’s Takseer Rokab which was translated to Breaking Knees (everything goes downhill from there) falls flat and fails to deliver any of the conciseness of the original.

    The works of Amjad Nasser however have been translated very well. I also find there is a big problem with works translated into Arabic. I sometime read the translation and then read the original and often find that I was taken for a fool. If I hadn’t read the original I would’ve read almost a different book.

    Here is an example of horrifically translated poem. I posted a comment but they removed, in true Lieberman style.

    1. Hah, that’s a good one.

      Both sides (Arabic-English and English-Arabic) have significant problems, and I suppose in part this can be traced to our attitude toward translation: that it’s something a machine could do, that it’s a rather rote job.

      I remember a story Humphrey Davies tells, about going to a speaking engagement where he found that, whereas he wasn’t being paid, the author was. When he asked the organizer about this, he was informed that the translator’s work was after all “infinitely less creative….”

      However, of course, standards in German-English and French-English translation (for instance) tend to be higher, probably for some obvious reasons and some other ones, too.

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