Why Jonas Hassen Khemiri Didn’t Translate His Own ‘Invasion!’

A number of people have asked (me) why authors like Bahaa Taher, Radwa Ashour, and Elias Khoury, who are fluent in English, don’t translate their own works. After all, Ashour has translated the work of her husband, Mourid Barghouti—why not her own?

I have never had an answer as pithy as this one, from Tunisian-Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri. He told the NYTimes:

It’s almost impossible to translate your own words. You need someone who’s a bit rough with the text, who can challenge it and take it for a ride.

Certainly, some do translate their own work with success—Sargon Boulus springs to mind. But cases when self-translation was disastrous (the revision of Girls of Riyadh) spring to mind as well.

Khemiri (who the Times of course calls “Mr. Khemiri”) said that achieving the right balance of playful and serious is what has made Rachel Willson-Broyles such a good translator for his works.

Willson-Broyles also translated Khemiri’s entertaining, moving novel Montecore, which was released in English earlier this year. And young translators take heart. The Times reports:

Ms. Willson-Broyles first came across Mr. Khemiri’s work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she is a graduate student, when she translated a page of “Montecore” into English as part of a class exercise. That page eventually found its way to Mr. Khemiri, who recommended her to Knopf, and she has gone on to translate both “Invasion!” and “Montecore.”

Does it make sense for young translators to work hard to translate excerpts of novels and memoirs they admire (for free)? Well, perhaps, why not? Why not?


  1. A somewhat Beckettian Experience

  2. I always put it this way — just because one is fluent in a foreign language or two doesn’t mean they can express their souls ever most fully in that tongue. This is why translators usually are encouraged only to work into their mother tongues exclusively — the same applies to writers. It depends on the person I suppose, however, even myself, even though I speak perfect Arabic, I am still more at home in English. I cannot imagine rendering my own writing without being lost in translation or having to run my Arabic parallel through a relative of mine in Aleppo…

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