12 Rules and 3 Translations from Banipal-commended Translator Maia Tabet

Maia Tabet’s 2010 translation of Elias Khoury’s White Masks was commended by the 2011 Banipal Prize judges, as was announced earlier this week. We resume our “10 rules” series in 2012 with 12 from this excellent friend of ArabLit:

1. Read a lot of good writing. Writing that sings, that makes your heart quicken, that you wished you had written yourself. For me, as an Arabic-English translator, going back to Shakespeare time and time again is invaluable

2. Try not to work on more than one literary project at a time because you need to have the music of the words echoing around your head even when you’re not at your desk.

3. Re-read (aloud if possible) accordeon fashion. First the sentence, or sentence fragment. Then the paragraph. Then the passage. Then the chapter, or entire piece. Listen for seamlessness.

4. Use a Thesaurus generously. It is not just a treasure trove of words, it feeds the imagination, and set off trains of thought when something is exercising you.

5. Sleep on it. A problem, or passage, where you are stuck WILL clear. Be patient, lay it to rest a bit, and then come back to it. As New Ageists would say, trust the process.

6. If the problem or “stuckness” does NOT resolve, and you’ve worked the sentence or passage over and over again and still can’t really nail what the author is getting at, more than likely the original was rickety and the writer was cutting a corner.

7. Work it over, and over, and over again, even while holding in your mind the thought that perfection is unattainable.

8. After giving a text everything you’ve got, squeezing every last drop of inspiration, imagination, know-how and dogged hard work you can muster, let go of it.

9. Show your work to someone whose literary skills you respect. It’s like playing tennis. You want to play with someone who’s a better player than yourself, because it improves your game.

10. Translating literature can be incredibly rewarding in the way any creative activity is, i.e., the thing itself is the reward. And like any creative activity, it demands a lot of discipline. THAT’s not easy.

Two more rules for translating with a partner:

– From limited experience, I would say work with a partner who has different strengths but similar sensibilities.

– The process of translating is like navigating the ocean – how close do you cleave to the original, how far do you stray in order to convey an image in the idiom of the target language, how to circumvent the inevitable treacherous passages: what in Arabic sounds very natural might in English come across as excessive wordiness, repetition, or hyperbole. Translating with a partner provides a sounding board and an echo chamber which are invaluable when navigating such perils.

Recommended Translations by Maia Tabet

Tabet’s first book-length translation was of Elias Khoury’s lovely Little Mountain; she was the first to bring his work into English.

You also will enjoy Khoury’s White Masks, which—while it circles around many of the same questions as his other works—is one of his most accessible novels.

Also, Tabet’s translation of Ahmed Fagih’s short story “Lobsters,” published in Banipal 40, was certainly a challenge (to bring off a story without punctuation) and is an absolute delight to read.

Older rules:

10 from Dr. Issa J. Boullata

Pierre Joris: 7 Minutes on Translation

25 ‘Rules’ for Translating Poetry from Popescu Shortlistees