When Is It Fair to Praise the Translator?

Generally, I am—or have become—more wary of unfairly criticizing a translator than of doling out unwarranted praise.

Before criticizing the translation of Mansoura Ezz Eldin’s “Deja Vu,” for instance, I read and re-read the Arabic and the English. I checked them against one another, sentence by sentence. I tried to place myself in a British reader’s shoes. Perhaps—I thought—“nibbles” might be a good translation of “mezzat” for a U.K. reader. (I’m sorry, I cannot get over the word “nibbles.” For me, it evokes a hamster twitchily chewing on a bit of dried crust.)

But, in the end, a bad sentence is a bad sentence. This may not have been pretty in the original (I still need to purchase the original of the anonymous text below). Yet in any case, there is no excuse for:

Most of the prizes that consisted of candy and whistles went to Asaad, whose predictions usually came true as he led us through the hard-hit homes and reminded us of how they were as of yesterday, an arrogant boy who cared nothing for Abdel Halim’s love songs, grinning stupidly when I poured them into his ears to carry over to Andrea.


If They Did, They’d Discover Massacres

But Iraqi poet/novelist/academic/translator Sinan Antoon recently raised a more prickly specter than undue criticism:

Reviewers praise translations without taking a look at the original Arabic (if they did, they’d discover massacres.)

Certainly, an English version can be slickly done while missing the essence of the original text, for any number of reasons. Note what Miral al-Tahawy had to say about the translation of her first book, The Tent*, as she received the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature this past Saturday:

The translator was preoccupied with some Bedouin songs, names, and other matters that needed explication in my first novel The Tent. My younger brother sat across from him ready to answer on my behalf, explaining and rectifying various aspects in my novel, which he had not read. But perhaps I did not necessarily know more about Bedouin life than he did, even if I had written a novel about it, since I was just a girl. All my attempts to intervene and to impose my presence on the translation process, from which I had been deliberately marginalized, in spite of myself, utterly failed.

Tony Calderbank, the translator, seemed more tolerant of the process of translation within the Bedouin culture. He surrendered to the situation and rather than asking me the questions, he started addressing them directly to my brother. I would nod my head acceptingly to confirm that that was indeed precisely what I had meant to write.

During later sessions, Tony had come to understand my role in the process of translation. … He would then request to meet one of my brothers, without asking about my whereabouts, to respect the traditions he had become an expert in. I would stand behind the door and eavesdrop on my own stories that were being reinvented.

This particular situation is surely not the norm: One imagines that many more errors stem from cultural assumptions, incorrect readings, too-heavy application of translation theory, or the desire to make the text sound more like a prototype in the translator’s mind. And, of course, there is the specter of Orientalism.

Is the Translator ‘Domesticizing?’ ‘Foreignizing?’ ‘Orientalizing?’ None of the Above?

In a talk about translating Sanskrit “canons,” scholar Phrae Chittiphalangsri asserts:

Translation forms part of the West’s representations of the Orient. Surprisingly, however, the relationship between Orientalism and translation has remained underdeveloped. One reason for this may be the lack of attention [Edward] Said himself paid to translation.

Chittiphalangsri goes on to associate this orientalizing process both with the “domestication” of texts (the attempt to make a text seem more familiar to readers) and their “foreignization” (the current trend of keeping the reader aware that she is reading a translation, a method Chittiphalangsri sometimes refers to as “orientalizing the orient”).

Chittiphalangsri attempts to get away from the “domesticizing/foreignizing” divide that dominates current talk about translation:

We can understand translation and Orientalism more with virtuality. Instead of limiting orientalist translation to the dialectics of domesticating and foreignising, we can think of it as a simulation. A simulation does not necessarily subscribe to literal or free translation. Rather, it is a way to acquire the virtual effect of the original.

I agree with Chittiphalangsri, wholeheartedly, that we need to break away from this domesticizing-vs.-foreignizing mindset. Indeed, I like how Khaled Mattawa describes his guiding light in translating Adonis: Selected Poems:

In this process I was aided by recalling a conversation I had with Adonis in which we briefly talked about his own translation process. I had asked him about the critics who attacked his work. “These critics claimed that I erred in the literal sense,” Adonis explained, “but I did not, I believe, make any poetic errors. That I could not allow myself to do.” I took this advice as a vision for this translation project…

All right, perhaps Adonis’s statement has more feeling than sense to it.

So, Maybe Americans Are Right Not to Read Translations?

Forget the translators for a moment. What’s a poor literary critic to do? Or a poor reader? If I don’t know Hindi or Chinese or Urdu, should I give up reading or reviewing literature written in these languages? Is it better for a reader/reviewer to stick with her native tongue?

After all, we can’t trust the translators!

I would hate, of course, for that to be the conclusion to these musings. Translations are a necessary way of gaining access to great books.  And reviewers surely should talk about these greats. My world would be so much poorer without Mahasweta Devi, who I know only as she comes to me via Gayatri Spivak (although one must trust Spivak, if anyone, not to orientalize…right?).

Which is not even to mention that my Arabic is often inadequate at assessing a translation. Did Khaled do a good job with Adonis: Selected Poems? (Gersh, I dunno, but it shore is purty….)

Such remains the territory of our world, the prickles in our beds. As Elliott Colla writes in “Dragomen and Checkpoints”:  “Translation is not just how we might understand each other, it’s also how we conduct the business of conflict.”

*Translation of Miral’s speech was done by AUC Press, and—while I was at the event and listened to her talk (and even have a recording)—I blame them, of course, for any inadequacies.