There has been some debate, on this site, over Fatima Sharafeddine’s Rule 7:
It is very difficult to translate a bad text. Refuse to do it because, as a writer, you will not be able to help editing the text while translating it, which should not happen normally.
Yankee Translator was the first to chime in:
I strongly disagree with Fatima’s rule 7: engaging in serious editing is a fundamental feature of Arabic-English translation and should be embraced as such.
Rule #7 applies to ‘bad texts,’ whatever that means. Poorly written work might actually be made excellent in translation, provided that the story is worthy of the effort.
Translator Barbara Skubic agreed with Fatima, saying:
In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t bother translating a bad text: if the story is worth it, it’s probably been written better by someone else. Find it. Or, if you’re so inclined, write one yourself (careful with copyright!). Both options are infinitely more rewarding.
Yankee Translator responded by elaborating his position:
Rule 7 is based on the assumption that the Arabic texts you are working with are close in form to English texts in terms of flow and structure. I think this assumption is very valid when engaging in German-English translation for instance, and it is probably mostly valid for most works in Arabic consciously based on the format of the Western novel. If you work with texts in other genres (op-eds, religious literature) however, this becomes completely infeasible, and serious editing is not only desirable, but a sine qua non of a good translation.
The question of course is how much editing we are each thinking of. Of course I am not advocating a blank check on editing, and even in cases where serious editing is needed, the translator still needs to strive very hard to strike a balance between a flowing translation and the original text. However, harking back to an earlier post where charges were leveled against Humphrey Davies for making his English text more engaging than the original Arabic – my thoughts are, if the charges are true, then Davies should be roundly commended!
I assume that Yankee is referring to Humphrey’s translation of The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa al-Aswany. This allegation has been made any number of times, (usually without naming the book). A questioner at Humphrey’s AUC translation talk last year asked if Davies ever “beautified” a lackluster text in translation: nudge nudge, wink wink.
Humphrey said: No.
Barbara chimed back in, noting that Fatima’s rule 7 is very similar to Susan Bernofsky’s Rule 3. She also asked:
Why do you think ‘editing’ would be a no-no when translating, I don’t know, Karl Marx, but a sine qua non when translating Mohamed Abdou?
I have to say that the act of translation immediately places one on a slippery slope. Perhaps some editing is inevitable, just as subjectivity is inevitable. One should certainly aim to be as transparent as possible about any editing that’s been done: with the author, the editor, and the reader.
As for “improving” a text—well, Hanan al-Shaykh has said that she’s worked closely with Catherine Cobham, and seems to say that Cobham has had some editing responsibilities. But this has been a partnership, it seems. Fair enough. But “improving” an author’s text without her or his knowledge, participation, or consent?