16 More Rules for Translation: Elliott Colla & Richard Jacquemond

Elliott Colla is the translator of Ibrahim Aslan’s beautiful novel The Heron, Ibrahim al-Koni’s Gold Dust, and he occasionally translates work not written by non-Ibrahim authors. He has been a runner-up for the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literature.

Questions for translators, not rules. To be asked roughly in the following order:

1. Do you really have time to donate weeks or months of unremunerated labor, even if the cause is a good one?

2. Does this particular book really deserve a second life in another language? Why?

3. How would you compare the work to five other similar works in other languages?

4. Who is the English audience for the translation, and why would they be interested now? Do you have any evidence for believing this?

5. Are you doing this because of your love of Arabic literary culture, or your love of English?

6. Do you have a fool-proof system for knowing when you’ve gotten something wrong and when you’ve gotten it right? Would you share it with me?

7. Did you consider transposition, modulation, equivalence, adaptation or some combinations when working on the harder parts?

8. Did you ask the author about that thing you noticed in the original? How about all those other things?

9. How much of the third draft sounded good when you read it aloud to friends who know nothing of Arabic?

10. Did you ask the author again and again about every little thing thought might be significant?

11. How much of the fifth draft sounded good when you read it aloud?

12. Did you set your alarm for early tomorrow to make sure you translate a little before you go to your real job?

Richard Jacquemond is an eminent scholar and Arabic-French translator who has brought a number of Sonallah Ibrahim’s novels into French. Jacquemond spoke recently about translation at the AUC; you can watch a video of the event on YouTube.

1/ Read the previous installments of “translators’ rules.” They sum up the basics of the profession, both on the practical and the ethical side.
2/ Don’t get too serious about these translators’ rules. Rules are made to be transgressed. And translators are as much inclined as any other profession to live by the “do-what-I-say, don’t-do-what-I-do” principle.
3/ Fight for your rights. Translation, especially literary translation, is underpaid and underrecognized everywhere. Affiliate yourself to your national literary translators association if it exists, or to the closest collective body that represent literary translators. Check information and exchange with other translators on current rates, standard translation contracts, etc.
4/ Do something else. Not only because you cannot make a living on literary translation, especially from Arabic, but also and before all because it is constraining, exhausting, and it gets inevitably boring at one point or another, whatever excellent be the writing you are translating. You have to be obsessive to be a good translator, but you have to be able to slip out of your obsession, for its own sake!