Is Team Translation ‘Perfectly Acceptable’?

Yesterday, I was re-reading the section of Denys Johnson-Davies’ memoir where he talks about the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, and why, in his opinion, Mahfouz triumphed over Yusuf Idris, Tayeb Salih, and Adonis. For whatever reason, while browsing Memories In Translation: A Life Between The Lines Of Arabic Literature, I re-engaged with the pioneer Arabic-English translator’s opinion on collaboration:

While living in Beirut between 1970 and 1974, I was approached to join the team engaged in translating the novels of Naguib Mahfouz into English for publication by the AUC Press. It was felt that most translators did not possess a sufficiently good knowledge of both Arabic and English, and that therefore an initial translation should be undertaken by a native speaker of Arabic and that the translation should then be handed over to one or more persons who would ‘iron out’ the initial text. I refused to be part of this team, believing that, just as a book cannot normally be composed by a committee of several people, so too the translation of it should be left to one person.

A look, for instance, at the title page of the Mahfouz novel Miramar reveals no less than four names have participated in its translation—which is not to say that the end result is not perfectly acceptable.

Whereas in my opinion not the ideal method of translation, the AUC Press project to translate the works by Naguib Mahfouz did produce a number of translations of his novels, and it was due to the fact that there was a sizeable body of his work available in English that he won the prize.

Johnson-Davies does append a kindly “which is not to say…,” although one perhaps should aim at a translation that registers slightly higher than the mark of “perfectly acceptable.”

Other team translations seem more successful. I once asked Arabic-English translator Maia Tabet, who has co-translated, what she feels about the process, and she said that “it CAN be done, but to my mind by two people who both know the language of origin and who have different skills.”

And, in the comments down below, Andy Smart—who translated The Gruffalo into Arabic together with his wife Nadia—says, in part:

…I think the success of a two-person translator team depends very much on the respective skills and the working relationship of the two team members. In many ways, this reflects the same challenge faced by translator-author relationships, and by author-editor, and even translator-editor relationships. Where there is a good working relationship between the two parties, the end result will be an improved text.

And translator Bibi makes the point that translation is (almost) never a true one-person process.

For a much bigger group of collaborators, there is the London-based Poetry Translation Centre, which translates poems by workshop. In their own words (on Twitter): We “take a translator’s literal translation of a living poet’s work & together we turn it into a good poem in English.”

I have stated previously that I don’t believe there is such a beast as a “literal translation”; that already the initial “literal” translator has made hundreds, if not thousands, of small choices and assumptions. However, the process of collaboration certainly does seem to have an educational benefit, allowing potential translators to see how someone else (or many someone elses) would’ve done it.

Which is yet another reason we need a series of Arabic-English translation slams here in Cairo!

For a more extensive defense of team translations, the NYTimes “Reading Room” takes up the cause of Russian husband-wife translating team Pevear and Volokhonsky. Volokhonsky makes the “literal” translation and Pevear pretties it up. Sort of.