Should Arabic-English Translators Be Native Speakers of Arabic? Of English?

This February, Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) had planned to present a report about literary translation from the Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish into English in the U.K. and Ireland (1990-2010). However, events came between LAF and the presentation, and the (preview) report has not yet seen its Cairo audience.

When it’s published May 2, and later is presented, no doubt it will generate much argument. One of the topics for discussion will be the role of the “native speaker” in translation.

Spanish-English translator Gregory Rabassa once said that he’d been asked whether he knew Spanish well enough to be up to the task of translating Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Rabassa apparently responded that the real question was whether or not he knew English well enough.

Surely this is important. A translator must not be simply a scholar of the source language, but an artist in the target language, capable of great flexibility and great creativity.

Yet, as Italian-English translator William Weaver noted in an interview with the Paris Review, there is more to it than that: “You need to know the language but, even more, the life of the country.”

And what of Arabic-English translation, where there are so many countries and dialects? What sort of knowledge, craft, skill, and talent makes for the best translation? Do you need a native of X, a native of Y, or something altogether more? Translator Marilyn Booth, in the LAF report, said rather uncontroversially:

We must be careful, as knowing both languages is not enough to make you a translator.

Who wouldn’t agree with that? Surely, there have been native Arabic speakers who’ve made a mess of translating a novel into English. Just as surely, there have been native English speakers who have not understood the Arabic or who, not skilled as writers, have made a sticky mess of a novel’s prose.

Now translator Anthony Calderbank, who is surely referring to Abdo Khal’s Throwing Sparks as Big as Castles, which will be translated by Maia Tabet and Michael K. Scott:

I translated a piece for the last Booker nomination and it was excruciatingly difficult and I kept wondering to myself why on earth I was doing it but then the novel won and I felt glad I’d done it. Interestingly enough the author has asked for a native speaker of Arabic to translate it. He believes that a text should be translated by a native speaker of that text‘s language not by a native speaker of the target language. He doesn’t think a foreigner will understand the Arabic text properly.

And finally, most controversially, translator Catherine Cobham:

There is also the vexed question of whether a mother-tongue Arabic speaker should translate fiction into English. I have quite often been told that only an Arab can understand Arabic well enough to translate out of the language, but I would maintain that an Arabic to English literary translator should preferably have English as his/her first language. (italics mine)

Surely, if you were to mention the names of exceptionally talented translator-authors like Ahdaf Soueif and Khaled Mattawa, Cobham would amend her statement, at least somewhat. Why shouldn’t the best translator be one whose first (spoken) language is Arabic, but who writes in English like a…well, like a Nabokov?

Come on, native Arabic speakers:

I would like you to respond by winning this prize.


  1. After reading Cobham latest translation of Darwish, I cannot agree with her that it is best to understand the target over the source. She has left much out from the translation (or perhaps it was the editors) that proves her knowledge of Arabic is severely lacking. This is, perhaps, somewhat odd in that she is the translator of Adonis’ INTRODUCTION TO ARAB POETICS, albeit from the French lectures not the Arabic prose.
    Moreover, Rabbasa’s concern with dialect is a profound question for those who deal with dialect, such as Mahfouz. Yet those who have opted for such a choice–that is to write in dialect–the writers are still in the minority.
    As such, having looked at translations of Darwish, at least the latest ones, the reader must know Arabic well, well enough to select the best range in the English language that could account for at times the very complexity of his language. It is, therefore, the task of the translator, to be able to adapt to the changing tones and styles that any writer performs in so that a translator can best handle the task.

    1. Hunh. Among the Darwish translators who come to mind, all except Cobham are native Arabic speakers: Fady, Ibrahim Muhawi, Sinan, Mohammad Shaheen…. A panel discussion would be fascinating. Or a Darwish translation conference.

      1. where i come from the general consensus seems to be that a translator of a poet must preferably also be a poet 😉

  2. This is a complicated issue indeed. The ideal translator would of course be truly bilingual and an artist. I wonder why exactly Khal feels a foreigner is incapable of fully understanding his novel. It can be difficult but from personal experience I’d bet that many an educated Arab would also find the text challenging in places. Is he basing this on Calderbank’s excerpt? For example, the following line, as translated by Calderbank, reads: “The quarter awakens, before the sun’s rays penetrate the windows of the huddled houses, to the contented lapping of the satiated sea.” The original Arabic for this is:
    حي يفيق قبل اختراق أشعة الشمس لنوافذ منازله المتجاورة على تجشؤ البحر من فائض تخمته…
    Now, a more literal translation of this line might be rendered as: “The quarter awakens, before the sun’s rays penetrate the windows of its huddled houses, to the belching of the sea from its excessive satiation.
    The above regardless of it’s literary merit or indeed lack thereof, is a rather negative image that echoes the greed and excess of the palace. Whereas, Calderbank’s rendering of the same line has a very different effect, contributing to a positive or somewhat romanticized depiction of a popular neighborhood in Jeddah. Of course one could take some license here, i.e. “the belching of the glutinous/dyspeptic sea” etc. but to many readers this would also sound odd. So although Calderbank’s translation does indeed lose something, it seems to me a case of artistic license rather than an insufficient knowledge of Arabic on the translator’s part.
    I’m reminded of an anecdote related in an article linked on this blog not too long ago where a publisher told of how some authors would complain when they found the translator had changed the word order… Oh dear.
    There is always a gulf to bridge between author and translator and language is but one of many factors. To labour the point, should the translator of “She Throws Sparks” not only be a native Arabic speaker but also Saudi, male and in his 50s?

    1. Mike… I imagine (and this is my imagination!) that sometimes writers say these things in order to get a fresh translator.

      I’m told Miral al-Tahawy asked to have a female translator for /Brooklyn Heights/ after a previous bad experience. Will a female translator understand the novel differently? I don’t know, maybe. Does it matter that said female is the very talented Samah Selim vs. some random female pulled off the street? Well, of course.

  3. As I said, I was laboring the point above, some random, middle aged male pulled of the streets of Jeddah wouldn’t do… I completely understand an author wanting a “fresh translator” where they’ve had a bad experience. But in the case of Calderbank there is no suggestion of this and Calderbank is, in my opinion, a very talented and accomplished translator.

    1. Yes, although the line you examine suggests he is perhaps not the right translator for Throwing Sparks…

      He himself, elsewhere in the report, suggests he was the “right” translator for Zaat because he understood the milieu so well.

  4. That’s interesting, I haven’t actually seen the report yet. Enjoying your blog by the way.

    1. Tried to send it to the email you put in, but it bounced back.

  5. Wow, thanks! Try the same address but

  6. the idea of a translator translating from his/her mother tongue into another language would rather scare me if i were an author. how many Nabokovs or Conrads are there, after all?
    i dont speak arabic, but to me what that arabic author said sounds very familiar, since many chinese also believe that their language is so profound and complex that no foreigner can really grasp it well enough to understand the true meaning of a literary text, which is obviously an overstatement.

    1. Marta,

      No, I don’t think Arabic is inaccessible to the foreign translator any more (or less) than English is.

      But while there may not be an enormous number of Conrads or Nabokovs or Ibrahim al-Konis, there certainly are Ahdaf Soueifs, Khaled Mattawas, Fady Joudahs, and many other Arab Anglophone authors with their ears in two worlds.

      One of my favorite books of last year was Hosam Abou-ela’s translation of Sonallah Ibrahim’s /Stealth/. Aboul-ela is not Nabokov (sorry, Hosam) but his translation is very well done. On the other hand, yes, I can mention a book from last year that was ruined by its translator, likely because of her insufficient grasp of English.

      1. One more thought on this: That native English speakers are not very likely to be (just by virtue of their native speech) Toni Morrison or J.E. Wideman or James Joyce.

        There’s no reason to believe that simply being a native speaker will make one a decent writer…

  7. You hit the nail on the head, Marcia!
    “… simply being a native speaker will [not] make one a decent writer …” And I would add, from my own experience, or a decent teacher of that language. You might have beautiful pronunciation, perfect enunciation, great vocabulary, but teaching a language and conveying how it works and why is not the same as speaking it; and RENDERING a literary text in all its complexity, beauty, evocations, and musicality, is not the same as UNDERSTANDING the complexities and evocations of the original, or appreciating said musicality and beauty.

    1. So true. I, for one, am a fairly decent writer, but when I try to translate…I’m just awful. I don’t really understand why, but there it is.

  8. I feel that English native speakers are better suited. Just look at how Arabs (and Persians) transliterate. for Example the Qud al Arabi newspaper writes ‘Hilary Clinton’ as ‘Heelaaree Kleentawn’ . Utter ignorance which is proved in the way Arabi names are spelt in English. One can easily write ‘ Hilary Clinton’ in Arabic (as it’s pronounced) – but the Arabs’ ignorance is too much.

    1. Interesting point of view. Although perhaps the Anglo transliterations of Arabic names don’t bear out the supposition of their linguistic superiority.

    2. هاو كن يو سي سوش ثنجس! 🙂

  9. to paraphrase nabakov, the ideal translator should be a gifted writer in the language translated to, solid in the language translated from and (and I don’t endorse this last part but I include it for the sake of completeness) a man.

    1. Hah! Where was this? I must hear context on the last of the three.

  10. I try to be all three, not always successfully.

  11. Courtesy of Martin Amis in Experience, and I think the last one is to explained not so much by context as deliberate mischief making — but he may have been thinking of his own stuff. There’s also the suspicion associated with Amis’s fondness for a good line.

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