Bad Translations: What To Do, What To Do?

This sort of bad translation should, of course, continue. More here:

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? 


  1. This drives me crazy (even more so as an Arabic-English translator). Even though I’ve experienced this with non-literary texts, I’m sure there are some similar factors. I’ve found that for some reason a lot of Arab translators think that, since they know Arabic, a basic knowledge of English is sufficient to qualify them to translate into English. Why? I really don’t know. A lack of education in translation itself?

  2. There are so many factors at play here – one of the key ones, it seems to me (and our report showed) is the lack of editorial standards around translation, on both sides… Good to talk about it though Marcia, as it seems to me that definitely yes, the interest generated could be soured or dulled by bad translations – I have been struggling not to get put off myself, for that reason, over the last few years, and I’m in the field. Really a sad situation (with some obvious huge exceptions)

  3. Dear colleagues, we are not talking only about translation shops and Google translated books. Besides number-able professionals, there is an numberless army of “freelancer-with all specializations”, secretaries, clerks, receptionists and opportunists who carry out translation. Anyone can do it and does it. I have been seeing even serious govt publication which can be trashed at first sight by anyone who has some taste.

    It seems to me that there is not quality consciousness nor control across the Arab world (unfortunately unlike Israel!)

    Certainly money alone is not the problem. Look here a web page of one of the prestigious universities and realize where we stand:

    The web page reads as follows:

    The following are generally required for admission to the Graduate Studies programs:

    1. The applicant must be Saudi, Non-Saudi Must, be on official Scholarships for graduate studies. As for residents, the general grade must be Excellent and the graduation date must not be exceed five years

    2.The Applicant must have a university degree from a Saudi university or any other recognized university
    3. The Applicant must have good conduct and he/she must be medically fit
    4.The Applicant must present two academic recommendations from professors who previously taught him/her
    5. The approval of the applicant’s employer if employed
    6.The appliant must proved the Ph.D. level, The candidate must be a full time student The council of each university may add to these general conditions whatever it sees necessary

    وبالله التوفيق

    1. This is what I’m talking about. Money definitely isn’t the issue. I recently discovered terrible translations in the booklet of a major translation organisation! When I brought it to the attention of the director, I was told “we didn’t have much time”. That is not an excuse. If this is the case in a major (and well-funded) translation organisation, then what hope is there? It seems like a lot of people don’t consider such errors as problematic. I can’t really understand such ideas. Maybe Alice has a clearer perspective.

      1. Hope the Arab Spring will bring spring to Translation as well as to all aspect of life. Old traditions (like old habits / sorry bad translations) die hard.

      2. Well, if our contemporary rush-rush-hurry-rush-rush-ness is working against good translations, is there any way to…umm…make it work for them? I’m not thinking how. Although I did like Adam Talib’s suggestion that he would take less money (as a literary translator) if he were allowed more time and a better editor, thus a better product.

  4. My first criteria for assigning and teaching a novel is translation. There is no point struggling with bad English! The problem goes deeper than that. The Arabic text is not good enough to start with.

    1. Well, Arabic is so “hot” right now, that texts are being grabbed up right and left, the good with the not-so-good, the baby with the bath water. I think?

  5. one issue is that arabic-english literally translation does not pay. really, it doesn’t pay a living wage. there may be some independently wealthy translators out there — i know there are — but most of us do this in addition to the job we perform. and that makes us part-timers. speaking from my own experience, i can’t expect to get too good at something if i’m not able to do it all the time.

    1. Lucky for the world, I am an independently wealthy blogger.

  6. Thank you Elliott, Mona and Marilyn. I couldn’t have put it better. But I’m still going to throw in my 2 cents.

    1. Building critical mass takes time – in any endeavor under the sun. This is an age that is inherently inimical to taking one’s time – building up something brick by brick is critical to critical mass. Whether it’s a political movement, the state of translation, or the production of a feast.

    2. Mona has nailed it on the head: “The Arabic text is not good enough to start with.” I can certainly attest to that as I have just put the last period/full stop to what I consider was a really poor text, after laboring for 9 months, pretty much non-stop. And it was a prize-winner. The text was awful.

    Elliott also hits the nail on the head: literary translation, like so many other creative endeavors, doesn’t pay a living wage. You cannot excel at something and “outshine” yourself from one work to another, one year to another, if you don’t do it all the time. And if you do, if it’s not your part-time gig next to a teaching job or some other kind of remunerative work, you must live like a pauper – I know from personal experience!

    1. (1) I think is such an important point.

  7. My editor at a big US publisher occasionally buys literary translations, but she says they often take much more time to edit and earn far less than work written in English, so it’s tough to convince the publishers to invest in them (and she personally isn’t all that fond of working on them). If this is the attitude at major publishers, then translations naturally fall to smaller operations–where budgets and schedules are even tighter.

    I’m not sure what the way out is, but the path is definitely not quantity over quality. Maybe some of that money from various translation funds can go to an annual Arabic translators’ camp or something? Ideally the workshop would pull in expert translators who work with more common languages.

    I still think translators tend to approach Arabic too deferentially, far more than translators working in Romance languages treat their source texts. I think I’ve mentioned this in earlier comments on this blog, but one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had was in a seminar with William Weaver, who’s translated most of Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, and seeing what he’d advise for the French and Spanish translators in class. Not long after, I submitted my own translation work for an Arabic-only translation prize, and was docked for not literally translating the dual. Sigh. This was in the 90s, and I’d like to think attitudes have loosened up along with the way Arabic is taught, but I’m not so sure–there’s a lot of “proving yourself” in the language that’s required, and I think needs to be a bit unlearned if you’re to translate well.

  8. Zora says, quoting a big US publisher, ‘translations earn much less than work in English.’ Part of that is due to the multi-layered and thinly-veiled contempt in which Anglo-Saxon cultures hold other cultures and languages and, especially, Arabic. There is no money to be made for translations because there is no “market” for them and there is no market for them because that’s not what the culture at large is interested in. It’s not a secret that there’s a profoundly anti-intellectual bent in Anglo-Saxon cultures. The UK and the USA are particularly insular despite all the PCness about diversity, and their history as empires with sway over much of the rest of the world, has much to do with that. Translation and politics are inseparable.

  9. This is quite a stimulating discussion. Thank you, Marcia.

    As someone who lives in constant terror that one of our sister organizations will publish translated material without consulting me first, I have now stopped laughing at translations which I occasionally come across by other organizations. (Marcia, I have cringed for 2 consecutive years over the cultural/events booklet of a certain book fair ehim; but they don’t ask for help!)

    In my part of the world, yes it is a rushed job; but it is also sue to the fact that the person/entity which commissioned the translation knows very little English. The blind leading the blind as they say.

    1. But, my dear, if they have you around, what cause is there for blindness?

      Although of course I know what you mean. The General Egyptian Book Organization put out quite a whopper of a book of excerpted translations a while back, apparently, and honestly there’s no excuse for it; people like me would give our time for free to improve these things.

      And meanwhile in the US/UK, publishers are often fumbling around blindly looking for Arab/Arabic narratives and stories to publish, and there’s really no need for that, either.

  10. Just so we don’t feel so alone, I found this on Twitter: “侯安 / André Holthe ‏@houan
    good read.Goes for recent boom in Chinese lit too”

Comments are closed.