In the recent Literature Across Frontiers report that tracked translation from Arabic to English (1990-2010), translator Anthony Calderbank said: “I have myself seen some very poor translation, sloppy, not well polished, and so on. It is a hard industry to regulate with all the volunteerism and amateur ad hoc-ism.” And translator Marilyn Booth: “European literature had a build-up of translation and translators over generations, but with Arabic there isn’t a critical mass, as the increase in interest has been so sudden.”
If the interest in 2010 was booming, the interest in “authentic” Arab narratives in translation now, in 2012, is even more so. Translator Mona Zaki asks:
I would like to take a census from all of those who teach Arabic literature in translation: How many new books can you put on your reading list with a strong heart, knowing they are keepers, and you are likely not to see your students selling them back to the bookstore?
The market is overflowing with translations, and as teachers we want to offer something that would address the new interest. This spring I learned that most novels are remaindered within two years of publication. The rubbish out there is unbelievable and I have a lot of respect for translation being a translator myself. A line must be drawn somewhere and we need to move beyond trade fiction into good fiction.
A bad translation kills the book on many fronts – if we are getting a wider readership because of the political events why kill it with unedited amateur fiction? Who is responsible for this output?
So: Is it possible to sour the interest that’s been generated by recent events with bad translations? Is it very different from other language pairs? As Anthony Calderbank said, “it’s a hard industry to regulate”. Is regulation desirable? Are there any ways to quickly improve the landscape, or will it require time?