When is it OK for the Translator to ‘Improve’ an Author’s Text?

What would St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, say?

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.

Marahm added:

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?


  1. ‘Poor text’ and ‘editing’ should be defined. If the writer is a bad writer then so be it. Translation is not about owning the text. Translation is an act of a delivery, a transmission system really. I say system because as such there are rules as Arab lit has consistently shown.

    A ‘good’ translation should be a ‘faithful’ rendering of the text, however good or bad the text might be. If a text is ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ then let it be known and let it be assumed by the writer who has entire responsibility for and ownership of his work. If ‘editing’ means the editing of a text as we have it from/into the same language (flow) then fine. For Arabic translated into a non-semitic language, rearranging syntax is inevitable, so fine. But if ‘editing’ means ‘rewriting’ which is what ‘improving’ entails then it’s plain treason to the text – and looting of someone’s work as taking it as one’s own. When the writer does not know about this rewriting, it’s horribly wrong. When the writer knows and accepts this, I still don’t agree with it until the original has been altered, unless indicated in foot notes.

    Maybe foot notes are the solution: ‘does not match the original, was having a wild storming session with writer, blow the original text’ or ‘God, this paragraph was rubbish in the source text, you wouldn’t want to read it, thankfully I know how to say it better, no worries’…

    Or maybe it’s all in the title. I’ve read a collection of poetry translated from Arabic into English but not called ‘translation’, it is called a ‘version’ because the translator has played with the text and is owning to having done so.

  2. Well, when Tom McDonough and Raja Alem worked together on his “translations” of her books, the process was collaborative, and varied quite a bit from her originals. But a) he was listed as a co-author and b) it was collaborative.

    Humphrey also talked about censoring some offensive term from a book…he told the author, the author agreed but was irritated, then eventually, well, Humphrey didn’t do it in the end. Maybe he was taking too much ownership at that point. Still: collaborative. (And the author’s desire took precedence.)

    I think what’s problematic is when a translator decides to improve a book just like an editor would (nip a bit here, this description is boring, oh-ho!) but on her or his own, without discussion with the author. After all, maybe the author doesn’t know the target language. *Maybe* the text is better. Or maybe the translator just didn’t understand it properly.

    As for Fatima…if she says it was bad, then it was bad. 🙂 We trust Fatima.

  3. At the crux of this controversy concerning editing vs. translating is the fact that a work of written art emerges from an author with a life of its own. A text is different from an author, just as a child is different from a parent.

    Editing a text (translated or otherwise) is not the same as doing plastic surgery on an author’s crooked nose.

    As a reader of Arabic literature in translation, I have quit several worthy books simply because the English translations offended my reading ear and/or bored me silly.

    However, as a writer, I was deeply offended when an editor lopped off the last paragraph of an article I wrote, the last paragraph which tied the other paragraphs together.

    Perhaps a new career opportunity will grow from this discussion– a third “editor/translator” who will testify that the translated text does not deviate from the main premise of the original in terms of theme, if not of actual translation.

    1. Well, certainly, a good translator will not bore you silly. A good translator will find a way to voice the author, being faithful without being literal.

      I think Adonis & Khaled Mattawa—and Adonis’s faith in Mattawa, himself a brilliant poet—is a relationship that worked. But I doubt Mattawa ever saw himself as “editing” Adonis….just as I can’t imagine Ibrahim Muhawi or Sinan Antoon saw themselves as editing Darwish. Perhaps part of it is not translating a work you don’t respect…which brings us back to Bernofsky’s Rule 3 (despair).

  4. With regard to Arabic translations in English, “…being faithful without being literal,” is absolute necessity. Translating a work you don’t respect sounds like pure drudgery.

    Relationship is good word; perhaps the success of translation needs a relationship that resonates between translator and author, a relationship founded upon a well-written text in the orignal language, of course.

    The definition of “well-written,” seems to carry all the weight.

    Is it possible to have a poorly written text (in terms of language) that expresses an important universal theme? It happens all the time. Could such a text be rendered more accessible in translation? Sure. Should such a text be translated? Maybe not, unless someone pays you well to do so, and maybe not even then. Have I just restated rule #7?

    Oh-oh, time for me to go back to the books— literally!

  5. Two items often float around my head with regard to this issue. The first is classical guitarist Andres Segovia, who, when accused by a concert-goer that he’d invented passages in a composer’s piece that weren’t there, said something to the effect that “Ah, well, composers never know how to play their own music.” The other is artist Robert Rauschenberg’s “Drawing by Willem de Kooning, as Erased by Robert Rauschenberg,” a performance that many would rightly see as humorous but fairly egregious when it comes to “translating” another’s work. I’ve recently added a third, which is Patrick Thursfield’s introduction to his co-translation of Miklos Banffy’s “They Were Counted,” in which he discusses the liberties he took with certain passages of that book. Of course, Thursfield and his co-translator, Katalin Banffy-Jelen, went on to win the Oxford-Weidenfeld prize for this translation.

    For what it’s worth, your recent posts on translations – and rules for translators – should be collected into a small book and published. I’m finding the discussion to be one of the best things going out there on the subject.

  6. Also, it would be a mistake for us to assume that sticking close to the original text is the most faithful way to reproduce it – if some editing is the only way to preserve the original force of the text, it is not just a matter of aesthetics, but of staying true to the original work in full.

    1. Perhaps, in the end, we’re all saying much the same thing. I think a lot of it is attitude…if the translator respects the text and is trying to reproduce its power (by using different means), I say good. If the translator feels the text is lacking, and is trying to nip and cut and trim and spruce to compensate…unless it’s with the participation of the author…it seems a bad business.

Comments are closed.