What’s Wrong with 35 Naguib Mahfouz Translations?

It’s just a few days now until the YEAR OF MAHFOUZ begins.

Yes, that’s right. The YEAR OF MAHFOUZ.

For those of you who missed the memo, 2011 is the centenary of Egypt’s humble, prolific Nobel Prize-winning author. Among Cairo’s bookstore-visiting and conference-going crowd, it’s scheduled to be a pretty big deal.

Moreover, Mahfouz films and TV productions will probably make it a big deal in the wide world beyond.

When I spoke with Kotob Khan bookstore owner Karam Youssef this past Sunday, she was full of excitement for the coming year of Mahfouz-oriented lectures, discussions, and film screenings. She added that the lectures will explore new sides to Mahfouz and that some of his lesser-known works will be discussed.

Meanwhile, as I noted earlier, the AUC Press will finish up translating all 35 of Mahfouz’s novels before the author’s 100th birthday. Indeed, the only two that now remain unpublished in English are Heart of the Night (translated by Aida Bamia, scheduled for release this coming spring) and Love in the Rain (translated by Nancy Roberts, also scheduled for release in the spring of 2011).

Not everyone is brimming with enthusiasm for the 35-book marathon.

According to Susannah Tarbush, who has very generously set down her observations from the recent SOAS conference on translation, Dr. Rasheed El-Enany has some reservations.

Enany, editor of the Edinburgh Studies in Modern Arabic Literature series and a Mahfouz scholar, reportedly said:

I don’t think that the entire oeuvre of Naguib Mahfouz deserves to be translated. His 35 novels are of varying quality and artistic achievement. Some of them are hardly read in Arabic now and he was the first to admit, with his usual modesty, that he had written some very negligible fiction in order to deal with an issue of the day that he felt he needed to make a statement on.

However, according to Tarbush, El-Enany does believe that Mahfouz’s lesser works—while not necessary of literary interest—do have socio-political importance.

And really, if El-Enany says a Mahfouz novel isn’t worth reading, then it probably isn’t. After all, as Elliott Colla writes of El-Enany’s 1993 book, Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning, El-Enany hardly dismisses all of Mahfouz’s lesser-known novels:

…Rasheed El-Enany argues that Mahfouz is the Arab world’s most important novelist not simply because of the influence of his novels of the 1950s and 1960s, but also because his later novels, relatively ignored by contemporary critics, have continued to develop the Arabic novel in equally exciting ways.

But, in any case, what really interests me is the translation problems with these 35 books. Back to Tarbush:

El-Enany has encountered problems with some of the Mahfouz translations which he thinks are “symptomatic of the big majority of translations of Arabic fiction into English.” They include difficulties in translating dialect and colloquialisms, and in conveying the “religious register” of Arabic conversation. There is also a loss of the symbolic significance of proper character and place names.

These seem like relatively small problems, on their surface: an insha’allah here, a Fishawy there. But all together, the problems with the Mahfouz translations add up.

Ekrema Shehab addresses troubles with the translation of Midaq Alley’s honorifics (such as معلم and استاذ) in “The Translatability of Terms of Address in Najib Mahfouz’s Ziqaq Al-Midaq into English.” While she makes some good points about flaws in Trevor Le Gassick’s renditions, I can’t say I feel enthusiastic about all of her suggestions, either.

El-Enany has criticized the translation of Palace Walk, as here: “Mahfouz: A great novel and a wanting translation.” The book was translated by William M. Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny.

This Hutchins-Kenny translator duo brings us back to Denys Johnson-Davies’ critique of some of the early “team translations” of Mahfouz’s novels, where one translator would give a literal translation and others would gussy it up in English. The kindly Johnson-Davies noted: “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.”

And, perhaps the most serious criticism has come from Edward Said, in his “The Cruelty of Memory,” in New York Review of Books (2000). Said looked at eleven Mahfouz translations and found:

To Arab readers Mahfouz does in fact have a distinctive voice, which displays a remarkable mastery of language yet does not call attention to itself. But in English he sounds like each of his translators, most of whom (with one or two exceptions) are not stylists and, I am sorry to say, appear not to have completely understood what he is really about.

What’s To Be Done?

In the past, there have been complaints that the sure bet of a Mahfouz translation has made it difficult to get other Arabic books published in English. I’m not sure that’s such a problem today. And, even if it were, it’s not the only problem with our Mahfouz-a-thon.

Perhaps what is really required in this YEAR OF MAHFOUZ (ouz-ouz-ouz)—in terms of translation—is not to scramble to render every last short story and napkin scrawl into English, but to re-translate some of his key novels.