Translation is Not Dialogue

Translation can be a wonderful thing: a way of taking beautiful voices and shaping them into different vessels—so that they can be thrown out of the darkness of their own language and into another the darkness of another.

But translation has its uglier sides, too. For one, it is often mis-identified as a sort of medicinal panacea. As in: If we translate these lovely humanist books (for “these Arabs”), then they will be cured of their ills (and become like us).* The beauties of translation are muddled yet further when the word “dialogue” is brought into play, as though these lovely humanist books wanted not to be read, but to have a good vigorous chat.

Such was the story in the AFP yesterday: ‘Anne Frank’ in Arabic seeks publishers. The article opens with this strange plea: “A group which has translated nine books about the Holocaust both into Arabic and Farsi for the first time appealed Thursday for publishers, saying ‘young people are yearning for this’.”

The “Aladdin Project”  cannot be seeking publishers for books like The Diary of Anne Frank and Primo Levi’s If This is a Man because they need cash to print books: The project seems a good deal better funded than your average Arab publisher. They must be seeking another sort of translation, into an Arab (and Iranian) publishing house, so as to further “translate” these works into a legitimate local market.

I will put Anne Frank to one side, since I can’t remember the book (only the movie sticks with me). But one can certainly make a strong cultural argument for translating the works of an exceptional author like Primo Levi. Indeed, Levi has already been translated into Arabic by Palestinian journalist Selim Joubran. But turning Levi’s words into Arabic and tossing them from the darkness of Italian into the darkness of Arabic is hardly a form of “dialogue,” through which two groups can begin to talk.

Although the project calls itself a “dialogue” between “Jews and Muslims,” surely they don’t mean it: They are translating works into Arabic and Farsi, not out.  They are funding visits to Auschwitz and educating about the Holocaust, but not funding visits to Sabra and Shatila or Tell al-Zaatar, for instance. What they mean is: Translation is (re)formative. If we take beautiful literary works about the Holocaust, and clothe them in Arabic so that they appear Arab and are accessible to Arab readers, then Arabs will recognize themselves in them. Arabs will want to jump into that mirror and become them.

Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld (I don’t know what sort of profession this is, I’m just quoting the AFP story) apparently said at a Frankfurt Book Fair roundtable that ” it was a question of tackling ignorance”:  “Rationally I cannot accuse the Arabic or Muslim people of not knowing what happened to Jews if they have no books, if they have no movies, so they are not educated in that field.”

Ah, if only it were so easy! If only “the Arabic or Muslim people” really hadn’t seen any Schindler’s List or Life is Beautiful, and, when they did, poof! (Although the project is called “Aladdin,” so perhaps magic is at play.)

Now, as long as these Aladdin folks are in the translation business, I suggest translating W. G. Sebald’s gorgeous and contemporary works from German into Arabic. Sebald is interested in the links between Holocaust and colonial empire,  and plus his prose will make your heart melt.

*Yes, I continue to read Shaden Tageldin’s Empire and the Seduction of Translations in Egypt which probably makes me read these stories in a particular way.

**On another note from the Frankfurt Book Fair: France Blocks Emirates’ Membership in IPA.