The Process and Politics of Translating Literature: A Symposium at Queens College

Author and teacher Jennifer Sears attended a Queens College symposium on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 entitled “Celebrating the Literature of the Middle East.”  She shares her impressions in two separate posts. This is the first.

By Jennifer Sears

Panel "The Writer as Translator - Multilingual Writer / Translators on Cross-Pollinations in Their Work" featuring (L-R) Ammiel Alcalay (Bosnian and Hebrew), Murat Nemet-Nejat (Turkish), Sinan Antoon (Arabic) and Susan Bernofsky, moderator. Photo courtesy Katrina Weber Ashour.

Elias Khoury, Sinan Antoon, and Ammiel Alcalay were among writers who gathered at Queens College to discuss the process and political implications of writing and translating Arabic literature.  Among topics discussed were political concerns regarding publishing and promotion; technical concerns such as the effect of translation on a writer’s own work and, in Khoury’s address, the challenges of writing during wartime, having fun, and the discipline of translation. This was in addition to  the challenges particular to the many dialects and forms of the Arabic language.

The following notes from the panels are presented in the order of the program, which was sponsored by the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, Archipelago Books, and the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Editing Translations

With Jill Schoolman (Archipelago Books) and Edwin Frank (New York Review Books Classics); moderator Susan Bernofsky

An afternoon session with editors Jill Schoolman of Archipelago Books and Edwin Frank of New York Review of Books Classics considered the editorial process of translation.  As many student translators attended, questions centered on the technical aspects of editing. Asked whether translators who are established writers are preferred over translators who are not writers, both Schoolman and Frank agreed that writers do not always make the best translators.  As would be echoed in subsequent panels, translating and writing are different practices.  Like writers, they said, literary translators have to know their own capabilities.  Frank emphasized that, like writers, translators must be willing to step back from their work to review and revise.

Good translators also must have the experience of “living” with the language they are translating. Most languages have colloquial and formal speech patterns.  Extreme differences between fus-ha and amaiyaa and the regional dialects of Arabic were emphasized by Schoolman and audience participants, in addition in addition to variants of French.

When asked which recent projects have been most personally fulfilling, Schoolman identified translations of Mahmoud Darwish and Elias Khoury.  Edwin Frank mentioned Eileen Chang, stating that he didn’t know Chang existed until NYRB enabled her work to be translated into English.  Discovering this writer who was previously unknown here, he said, emphasizes why translators and the publication of translations are so vital.

When asked how they felt about the career opportunities for editing translations, both Frank and Schoolman laughed.  Though they are clearly committed, in some ways it is an “impractical career.”  Reflecting on circumstances that led to their current positions, Frank remarked that he was fortunate to be connected at the right time with an organization interested the venture.  Schoolman, daringly, followed her vision and created her own Archipelago Books, a rising presence in the market.

The Politics of Translation: On Navigating Cultural (Mis)Understandings

With Aron Aji (Turkish); Sara Khalili (Persian); Barbara Harshav (Hebrew); moderated by Roger Sedarat

For Aron Aji every word in Turkish exists inside an “echo chamber.”  Turkish language, he said, is naturally metaphoric and he finds the language difficult to translate without the equivalent sonority in English.  When he translates from Turkish to English, a book grows by twenty percent.  Sara Khalili said translations from Farsi are the opposite. Because Farsi language is more precise, a three word phrase in Farsi becomes five sentences in English.   Barbara Harshav stressed the challenge of Hebrew because it is a conglomeration of languages.

After a brief discussion of footnotes, beard stubble, book cover art, and the complications of translating the small but necessary details of everyday life, Aji stated that he feels cultural misunderstandings often take place not because the translator is uninformed, but rather because the receiver of the work is uninformed.  Harshav also claimed that translators, don’t push the boundaries of language enough.  She can tell when a translator is having fun.  Harshav also stated that teachers should take responsibility to widen the audience for translated works and more connection needs to be made across the curriculum, such as translation in the sciences.

The Writer as Translator: Multilingual Writer/Translators on Cross-Pollinations in their Work

With Sinan Antoon (Arabic); Murat Nemet-Nejat (Turkish) and Ammiel Alcalay (Bosnian and Hebrew); moderated by Susan Bernofsky

Susan Bernofsky opened this panel by asking each writer to read a work of his own and a translation.  Sinan Antoon read from his “Postcards from the Underworld” after commenting that the ninth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq and its program of “shock and awe” in early March passed largely unnoticed by the American media.  Continuing his reflection on this obvious omission, he followed with a section from Mahmoud Darwish’s In The Presence of Absence: “Longing is a scar inside the heart and a country’s fingerprint on the body.”  Murat Nemet-Nejat  read from his recent translation of Turkish poet Seyhan Erözçelik’s Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds and a section from his anthology “Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry.”

After the readings, Bernofsky asked the writers which language they use to compose their own work. Nemet-Nejat, who composes in English, explained that he came to writing poetry through translation.  He became a translator while experiencing his first New England winter in the United States.   Lonely and cold, he turned to Turkish poetry and then translation when he wanted to share the Turkish poetry with his friends. People frequently question Nemet-Nejat why he doesn’t write his own work in Turkish.  In English, he believes, he knows “the weight” of every word.  In Turkish, he doesn’t know or is overwhelmed by the weight of each word.

Alcalay, who writes in English and translates Bosnian writers and Hebrew writers based in the Arab world, stated the translation challenges and deepens a writer’s use of his own language. In his view, translation can “open” a writer’s experience with his or her own language.

Antoon composes his fiction and poetry Arabic.  Essays, however, come to him in English.  Like Nemet-Nejat, Antoon began translating works into English while in graduate school.  In his case, studying Arabic literature in the United States required translation.  He translated to augment his academic studies and to share works he loved with his friends.  The possibility of sharing, Antoon agreed, is the importance of all works of translation.  On both sides, people are grateful.

Antoon also expressed the political implications of “sharing” through translation.  Literary translators and writers all make choices.  The publishing industry also makes choices.  Antoon expressed frustration that literature in translation is received and promoted as ethnology rather than literature.  Translations are often reviewed by travel writers rather than reviewers of literary works.  This misrepresentation extends to the bookstore where translated literature is often regionally categorized with general labels such as “The Middle East” rather than appearing among literary works.

Childhoods in Translation

All three writer/translators grew up navigating different languages, accents, and dialects within their own homes.  Nemet-Nejat’s family originates from Iran, but he grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Istanbul where the primary language was Ladino and in school spoke Turkish with his friends.  Language was inherent to his identity.  Alcalay and Antoon also grew up in multilingual households.

As mentioned earlier panels and as Elias Khoury would discuss at length in the evening session, Sinan Antoon addressed the unique challenge of understanding and translating colloquial, formal, and regional dialects in the Arabic language. This constant interchange of language and tone makes all Arabic speakers translators by necessity and perhaps leads to why, according to Antoon, so many people in the Arab world believe they are poets.  Laughing, he added that only the foolish continue.   Dialects spoken in the Levant and Egypt are more widely understood, while those on the margins, such as Iraq, Morocco, and the Gulf, are more isolated in regard to publishing and translation.  Speaking of his recent translation of Mahmoud Darwish which was translated from Modern Standard Arabic, Antoon speculated that MSA was an unsuccessful attempt by orientalists to reduce or unify the Arabic-speaking cultures, thus making them more easily contained.

Whom Does the Translator Serve?

Alcalay suggested, provocatively, that it might be a good idea not to translate.  (Alcalay has written on this idea at length.)  He emphasized the question: who does the translator serve? Translations of single novels or collections of poetry are presented to a readership that does not have the cultural context that brought forth the original work.  Alcalay emphasized that a single translation extracted from its culture can have a powerful influence on how a culture is viewed and evaluated by readers.

Antoon agreed, adding there is a noticeable gap between the Arabic literature favored among readers of Arabic language and Arabic literature favored among readers who rely on translation.  Work celebrated abroad differs from work celebrated in the Arabic-speaking world.  He referred to NYU-Abu Dhabi’s Library of Arabic Literature which is currently translating work up to 1890, diminishing the importance of work written since that time.  He expressed frustration again with the narrow scope of the publishing houses and with the unbalanced number of narratives about Muslim women ”liberating” themselves from repression, a narrative dangerously favored and promoted by contemporary American media.

When Alcalay suggested that a strike by translators of Arabic to English might be necessary, Nemet-Nejat slyly responded that a strike by translators working for intelligence agencies would have an even greater impact.

Resist though Quantity?

Alcalay agreed that publishing houses select and promote only a few writers from various countries, perhaps giving these writers and narratives undue and uneven influence.  Nemet-Nejat offered a challenge, stating translators need to take responsibility and provide more translations. He estimated the number of Turkish writers translated into English has quadrupled in the past ten years.  By providing more works of translation, Nemet-Nejat asserted, the literary world will have greater access to the voices that will override current trends.  He added that while the Turkish government gives money for translations that present an image of Turkish culture they want to promote, a small number of translators devote their lives to translating lesser known works by authors they believe in and who Nemet-Nejat hopes will endure.

Responding to an audience question about state department funding for translators, Antoon commented that by accepting support from such “insidious” institutions, a writer or translator must accept the underlying reality that aim such organizations is to use language and translation ultimately as a way to conquer.  Alcalay agreed, calling the military terrain of translation “terrifying.”  Such institutions are present, always, to promote and further their own goals.

Translation as Discipline

Bernofsky closed the panel by asking the three writers about how translation affects the process of their writing.  For Alcalay, translation provides a form and compared a writer’s practice of translation to the musician’s use of musical scales, a constant return to the fundamentals of the art.  In his experience, translation leads to writing and writing leads to translation.  Antoon agreed that translation is a valuable form of practice.  He cited Ezra Pound’s advice to a young W.S. Merwin. Pound advised Merwin to steep himself in the craft of translation because young poets often think they know what to write about but don’t.   Translation, he advised, enables writers to discover what can be done their own language.


“Ammiel Alcalay and The Limits of Translation” is accessible on Loggernaut.

PBS interview of W.S. Merwin discussing Ezra Pound’s advice

Jennifer Sears teaches English for the New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and also teaches dance in the NYC area.  She can be found at: or