One Minute with Hala Salah Eldin Hussein on Translating from English into Arabic

ArabLit: When translators and scholars talk about translating Arabic texts into English, they often note the difficulties of issues like dialect, rendering the interplay between colloquial and fos7a, and, as Rasheed el-Enany has said, in “conveying the ‘religious register’ of Arabic conversation.” Are there particular difficulties that English-Arabic literary translators complain about when they get together?

Hala Salah Eldin Hussein: Means of Modern civilization, erratic lifestyle, computer language, exotic food, and space lingo! These are all stones in the way of smooth translated texts. In everyday life we express them in English as they are products of that culture, and they are widely understood. English tends to absorb and include new words from Italian, German, and French, all languages actually. But Arabic is strict at times (seeking the purity of language), slow at times (language institutions are failures) when it comes to adopting new words. Words Arabs did not know at the beginning of the twentieth century can be problematic during translation. We have been lately debating how to translate the words “thong” and “tank top.” It is hard to believe that “underwear” and “sweater” have no equivalents in Arabic lexicons. Maybe it’s about time for The Academy of the Arabic Language to figure out equivalents to such words. Lexicons should be living texts, periodically updated and refined.

But computer lingo is the worst. In Arabic it sounds funny, as it is hardly used in Arabic. In translation you have no choice; you have to use these ridiculous terms when it comes to computers, software or the internet. Underwears have not reached The Academy, so I guess we’ll have to wait for quite a while for “Twitter.”

AL: What was one of the stories that gave you the hardest time, and why?

HSEH: I believe it’s “Refresh, Refresh” by American writer Benjamin Percy. It’s a story about the Iraqi war, and every war. All the men of a small town in Oregon—where a Marine reserve battalion is based—have gone to war, leaving their sons alone to fight and fear, and hope for their return. Death pervades. The story is gory, bloody, and violent, yet it is narrated with such tenderness that it hangs heavy with sadness. And I guess Mr. Percy had to cram implications, allusions, and figures of speech into every one of his lines so I had to “study” every sentence to get the full intended meaning right. It was excruciating, but the story turned out beautifully rich.

AL: Are there any stories or authors who are “easier” to translate into Arabic? Why?

HSEH: I find immigrants, those who have learned English at an older age, and those who don’t work in the academic field easier to translate. Sometimes this is proven wrong, Bosnian-American fiction writer coins words of his own, in one of his texts he actually used “shrimping”! But language-wise I found Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Chinese-American writer Ha Jin, Japanese-American writer Mary Yukari Waters and Nigerian writer Ada Udechukwu for example quite easy.

AL: I know you believe in rendering into one’s mother tongue, but have you tried translating from Arabic to English? If so, what came of it?

HSEH: I did some news reports. I didn’t win any translation prizes, but the result was OK.

AL: On a difficult day, what keeps you translating?

HSEH: The transformative power and ethereal beauty of literature.

Hala Salah Eldin Hussein is Albawtaka Review editor and general manager of Albawtaka Publishing House. Albawtaka Review is an Arabic independent (non-governmental) non-profit online quarterly concerned with translating English short fiction into Arabic. Here is a brief introduction in English about the project: You can also read more about Hussein here.

Also, the Academy debate on Twitter:

saqeram Saqer A. @arablit If you sack the 90+ year old members of the Academy, and replace them with linguists a third of their age, we’ll go somewhere

saqeram Saqer A. @arablit Otherwise, someone will have to start an NGO to replace the Academy and do a better job.

ralzu3bi ralzu3bi. Agree. They gave Arabeyes such a hard time. They’re lingustically condescending, stuffy and need to be “archived” @arablit @saqeram

ralzu3bi ralzu3bi. Why replicate an existing initiative?They should be ousted.We need younger custodians of Arabic to reflect present/future @saqeram @arablit

saqeram Saqer A. @ralzu3bi @arablit Agreed.

saqeram Saqer A. @ralzu3bi We could have something along the lines of OED, to use as a benchmark for what is considered to be British English @arablit

ralzu3bi ralzu3bi An interesting idea and worth exploring. @saqeram @arablit

saqeram Saqer A. @arablit I don’t mind spending a few years researching epic fail of Arabic language planning, if there is a happy ending. 😛

KhaledGhetas Khaled Hosny
@saqeram @arablit they are not that bad as you might think, it is mostly lack of much resources to do any serious work

KhaledGhetas Khaled Hosny
@saqeram @arablit also we have that tendency to ignore their recommendations and re-invent our own; the transliterations mess for example

saqeram Saqer A
@KhaledGhetas @arablit but where are their recommendations? They didn’t bother marketing them.

saqeram Saqer A
@KhaledGhetas @arablit One of my professors complained that he went to their offices to buy their recommendations. Bookshop was a dusty locked storage room

KhaledGhetas Khaled Hosny
@saqeram @arablit they published books and magazines for almost a 100 years now and we didn’t bother implementing any

KhaledGhetas Khaled Hosny
@saqeram @arablit I used to be critical of Arabic Academy, but after I’ve seen the massive work they did I was ashamed of our inertia

KhaledGhetas Khaled Hosny
@saqeram @arablit that what I did to, it is suboptimal, but when you go there you see it is a small understaffed organisation

saqeram Saqer A
@KhaledGhetas @arablit I need to see their work. Obviously the Academy’s work (because it’s a govt entity) is in the public domain, right?

KhaledGhetas Khaled Hosny
@saqeram @arablit I don’t know for sure, but the books I’ve lack any copyright statement

saqeram Saqer A
@KhaledGhetas @arablit 🙂 One of the things I should definitely do after my MA thesis is completed is visit Cairo & Alexandria.