7 Authors’ Views on Trusting (Or Not Trusting) the Translator

From Al Masry Al Youm

Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher made headlines last year when he filed a suit against the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, citing both financial issues and infelicities in translation.

Taher, who is fluent in English, has generally been an advocate of his translators. He “very much” enjoyed Humphrey Davies’ version of his International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)-winning novel, Sunset Oasis. Taher added that the translation of his engaging Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, by Barbara Romaine, was “very good; I even took part in it.”

However, Taher said he was never contacted by the translator of his 1985 novel As Doha Said, as he has been by other translators. When the novel was republished in London, Taher said he read it, and, “was very much astonished.”

“There were so many mistakes in the translation,” he said. But when he contacted the AUC Press, they didn’t see eye to eye: the publisher didn’t concede that there were many mistakes in the English text. Taher decided not to pursue it further, saying that he got what he wanted when “the contract was canceled.”

Translation is a strange and sometimes miraculous process, melting down a text in one language and trying to reconstruct it in the material of another. The process of seeing one’s work appear in another language can be exhilarating, discomfiting or angering. It can also be baffling.

Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Farghali said, “For example, during my experience in Stuttgart and Frankfurt … the German poet Jose Oliver was reading my diaries about my experience in German. I felt it so weird – I didn’t understand what he was reading, but the audience was looking to me and reacting either by smiling or laughing, and I had to guess – to which part of the text they are reacting.” Go on; keep reading.

Also, out-takes from Hamdy al-Gazzar:

Al-Gazzar expressed his admiration for Davies, and said that, indeed, he has read Black Magic in English. “At first, during the period of translation, Humphrey and I had about ten work sessions where my role was to answer Humphrey’s questions. … I trust totally in Humphrey’s work so I just read it to learn more.”

“Then, when I was invited to read few chapters from ‘Black Magic’ at some events in theUnited States, I had to prepare myself, so I studied the translation. I recognized that it is very close to my Arabic style of writing and felt good about that. At the same time, I felt that this text is Humphrey’s, too. His art is there, too.”

And from Ibrahim Farghali:

”[In the English translation of Smiles of Saints] it was my voice in a way or another, the same tone. This feeling is not related to my knowledge of English; no because when I read it I found my own voice. I found the same tone with both the narrators and characters, a very Arabic tone, which is not easy to find.”

And Miral al-Tahawy also said:

“But perhaps I did not necessarily know more about Bedouin life than he did, even if I had written a novel about it, since I was just a girl. “


  1. This is exactly what I’ve been wanting to read! It would give/add great insight into the act of translating that your forthcoming book contained a part on authors’ views 😉

    1. You know, I thought it might be interesting to do a bilingual Arabic/English book on translation… I’d need in-depth interviews from the authors, in addition to the sections on rules… maybe creative-writing/translating exercises…

      But then I thought: Who am I to assemble such a book??

  2. It sounds great! Of course you can assemble this! You have all the translators, authors and readers needed to start and who would involve their own respective contacts. You could pull this off in your sleep 🙂 (well almost)!

  3. Marcia Lynx Qualey, I can’t believe you said “Who am I to assemble such a book??” Could you cite ONE other person who could bring to the project the unique and pertinent configuration of skills that you have?

    1. Just about anyone bearing a proper degree?

      OK, I am thinking about it. I will put together a table of contents.

      And my full name, jeez. 🙂

      1. what’s a proper degree? silly …

        1. Well, I don’t think an MFA in creative writing (fiction) is it! And no, I promise yet again, this isn’t all a fiction and I’m not really a bearded guy in the UK….

          1. dude, i have a degree in theatre. what qualifies me as a translator is … 15 years of experience. and that special ear thespians have for sentences that “sound” and “don’t sound”. oh, and knowing languages, of course. that goes without saying.

  4. Nice posting, Nice information and keep posting like this. Thanks for this posting.

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