This Translator Should (Not) Be Hidden

There are many things to wonder about in the collection Arab Spring Dreams, originally titled Re-Orient, even though the book’s Middle Eastern authors — not its Western readers — are the ones being asked to make real change.

In among the things to mull is the hiddenness of the collection’s translators.

When evidence of translation is erased from a literary work, one often hears the argument that readers don’t like the experience to feel mediated: They want to reach out and come in direct-seeming contact with the foreign hand on the other side of the mirror.

But really, mediation is often desired: The memoir of An American in The Foreign Place is often more popular than A Foreigner in The Foreign Place. Readers, understandably, like to see themselves in their narrator. They like to feel that someone “like them” is helping them to discover the landscape, pointing out the highlights and not skipping over the lowlights.

Indeed, Arab Spring Dreams has a Christmas-wrapping-paper amount of this sort of mediation: There is framing upon framing, pointing upon pointing, and then more explanation, and then more history, and finally a small essay.

Despite the collection’s title, Arab Spring Dreams essays were not written by North Africans and Gulfies and Levant-ians in the post-Jan-2011 era. The collection is the result of an essay contest for young people in the “Middle East” (minus Israel, whose youth are apparently not in need of re-imagining themselves) that ranged over several years. A few of these essays are compelling: One, a short story, imagines the life of a gay man in Cairo. Another tells of a young man’s humiliation by a Cairo police officer when out nuzzling his sweetie, very much like a scene in Ahmed Mourad’s Vertigo.

But long before the essays appear, the collection receives a rambling preface by essay-contest judge Gloria Steinem, which begins, “For most of human history, we have been gathering around campfires for light and warmth and telling stories,” and goes on to talk about pre-historic storytelling, and Iroquois governmental practices, and gender in Romance and Germanic languages, and I guess she gets asked to write a lot of these sorts of things.

After this, the editors write a very pointed introduction telling us precisely what they asked for in these essays (that the essays not talk geo-politics, that the essayists not address the US role in their countries) and we are told how to read them: “A very few, for example, seem to implicitly support the establishment of Islamic governance in their countries…. The anthology in no way endorses the specific agendas put forth by every contributor. But we felt it was important not to sugarcoat the region’s realities.”

Each essay receives a mini-preface with country history, framing, and explanation. Some get a post-script as well.

This is all by way of saying: This is not an unmediated-feeling experience. Not in the least. But the translators’ faces are still hidden. I’ve only found two mentions:

“After carefully translating them, we rigorously edited the essays for clarity–without altering their underlying substance. In a handful of cases, we deliberately brought to the foreground dramatic elements already embedded in the essays themselves.”

This perhaps indicates that the editors, Nasser Weddady and Sohrab Amhari, did some of the translating. However, Dalia Ziada, one of the contributors, is also thanked in the acknolwedgements for her translating work. So she must have done at least a bit of it.

Perhaps there is not much behind this decision to obscure who-translated-what-from-which-language. Perhaps it’s an aesthetic decision; the translators’ and languages’ names didn’t “fit” the product they wanted to create. But after so much wrapping paper, I would like to know one more thing: Which of the essays were taken from their original vernacular and re-written in another. And to put a name to that effort.