Mohammad Rabie on Translation’s Offensive Side

Youssef Rakha has a piece up, on Al Ahram and on his blog, about Mohammad Rabie’s book كوكب عنبر (Amber Planet), published last year by Kotob Khan.

Rakha quotes Rabie, speaking about the core idea of his novel:

I meant the idea of translation itself; it is not a metaphor for anything else. I imagine that a complete, perfect translation is nonexistent. It is not something that people disagree much about that translation is always faulty to some extent, or that some translations are injurious to the original text. I don’t mean to imply that the text is holy. I mean simply that the ideas in a given text, which are easily understood and habitual if not stereotypical in their own language, might come across as something completely different or offensive once they have been rendered in a different language. Cultural interaction will happen anyway, but I think it happens in a more effective way through interaction with the other language without the medium of translation. That is not of course to say that translation is unnecessary, but it can certainly misrepresent a culture, or it can give rise to a deformed cultural understanding and actually obstruct rather than enhance hybridity and intercultural awareness. In translation it is much easier to stumble.

This is of course the central tenet that I wanted to play with in the novel.

Indeed, there is a big difference between reading a text in translation and reading in the source language. When reading in a different language, the reader switches into a different mode of acceptance. When I read books in English, I scan the literary landscape with my English-language faculties. When I read in Arabic or Russian—even when reading a children’s book—I become a different person.

I’m not sure there’s a way, in translation, to encourage the reader to become a different person. Or perhaps there is, although I don’t know it.

So, if we take Rabie to heart, Americans should worry a little less about their “three percent in translation” statistic and a little more, I suppose, about their inability to read in foreign languages.

No one is suggesting we throw out baby with bath water. (Anyhow, don’t most of us drain nowadays?) I am currently in the final pages of My Kind of Girl by Buddhadeva Bose, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha. I am reading it not as Bengali literature, but as though it had been written in English. This is not because the translation is smooth and the prose so enjoyable, although they are. But I have no way to shift modes. I have no other mental hooks.

Or rather, what mental hooks I do have—in English, about the Bengali landscape—are probably rendering my reading more “offensive.”

All this reminded me of something I’d read recently, “The Translator as Non-Author,”  from theorist (or anti-theorist) Anthony Pym:

…the more I work on translation, the more I see it as a repressive and misleading institution. I do not think the current translation form is a good thing, and I suspect that a good deal of our problems in literary and cultural theory stem from people wanting to see translation as a good thing – basically because it appears to break down the binary oppositions and national borders that mark the guilty past of literary and cultural studies.

Of course—despite this; despite power relationships; despite my provincial brain and its inability to break down barriers—I do believe in the possibilities of literary translation, or literary re-creation. I’m not saying it will improve your health or re-grow lost hair. But: good books. Who doesn’t like good books?

Meanwhile, the judges have been announced for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize 2011. According to organizers, a longlist will be announced in March 2011, followed by the shortlist in April at London Book Fair. The winner will be announced at a ceremony in Central London in May.

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One comment

  1. There are certainly points to be made about translation smoothing over cultural differences and blurring the lines between the cultural meanings inherent in words and phrases. The real issue with learning a language is not the words, but the cultural meanings inherent in the words. This means not only the famous phrases that come from great literature, but the more every day like jokes and things kids say. Getting those shades of meanings is the hardest part.

    However, I find it complete nonsense that translation is bad or shouldn’t be done, which feels like the extreme position but a logical outcome other their statements. I speak two languages, maybe I could tack on a third or fourth, but there is a limit to how much I can learn, a limit to how much any one can take on. Sooner or latter one has to enter into a translated relationship if you want to go beyond your language and culture. There is no perfect way to translate and there is no perfect way to relate to a culture. Ultimately, the best you can do is understand these issues.

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