Adventures in Co-translation

Sarah Irving recently found herself co-translating a short story. She writes about the process:

Fi yom min ayyam, as the story goes, my friend Yousef and I found ourselves discussing the idea of translating a Jordanian short story called Feero. Yousef Hamdan is a Jordanian PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, working on 20th century Arabic literary criticism. He also writes reviews for the Jordanian press. I’m also a postgrad student, British, and acting out a midlife crisis by trying to turn my unspeakably embarrassing Arabic into something slightly more presentable; before I went back to school I was an author and journalist.

We both had a passion for Arabic literature, we reasoned. Neither of us was fluent enough in the other’s language to be translating solo, and both of us felt we would benefit from a two-sided translation process. I got to be involved in his interpretation – in terms of both language and meaning – of the text. And he got to be involved in shaping the raw translation into a readable finished product.

So far we’ve translated three short stories by the Jordanian writer Shafeeq al-Nobany, from the collection al-Arabun (The Deposit). One, al-Arabun, has been published, and Feero should be out any day now. The third is in my To-Do file (sorry Yousef!). We’re looking for some new short stories to inspire us, and have been invited to submit to a collection of autobiographical writings from the Islamic world. It feels like good progress after just a few months.

So what have been the pros and cons of this style of working? I’ll start off by giving some of Yousef’s responses to that question. “Firstly, there is the fact that each of us knows some of one of the languages and is a native speaker of the other,” he says. “With me as a native speaker of Arabic, I know what small things mean – not just literal meaning, but cultural meanings of names, places and so on. And then with you as a native speaker of English we can very finely tune things to be as close as possible to the meaning of the original but with a nice style. We can discuss a word or phrase and find the best choice”.

Another benefit, according to Yousef, is that the process is “less boring that working on one’s own. It makes translation an interactive process between two minds, it’s part of communicating with another human being as well as with the text, and because it is more stimulating it allows you to work longer. It is also an interesting process of finding the cultural commonalities and also differences, and finding ways to talk about them”.

I would concur with pretty much all of that. I would also acknowledge that there are potential pitfalls. One which concerned me to start with was the danger of creating ‘translation by committee’, over-compromising any originality and spirit out of the text. So far, I think (hope!) we’ve avoided this. It has felt to me more that, rather than watering down the text, it has leant a rigour to the experience; Yousef has to explain to me why his interpretation of the Arabic is right, and I have to justify to him my choice of English and what the nuances and suggestions behind it might be. We get to bounce ideas around with someone who has a deep investment in the result, but who has a different enough relationship to the text to complement rather than confine the other’s role.

There are also, of course, the issues faced by any other translator and which are permanent sources of debate – how far, say, to take an idiomatic phrase and find the ‘equivalent’ for it, or whether to translate it directly and introduce the reader to the culturally specific and possibly quite alien references of another tongue. How much to ‘explain’ obscure references. Whether to ‘adapt’ long sentences or frequent metaphors to Western tastes. These issues don’t go away – but at least there’s someone else to discuss them with!

This style of working wouldn’t suit everyone; in some ways it is not dissimilar to being on the receiving end of a good editorial process, but in a much more instantaneous manner. It requires trust and a mutual respect for one another’s abilities, but without a deference which would cripple the ability to criticise and challenge. It also requires a basic compatibility – if not friendship, at least a core appreciation and tolerance of another person’s presence in one’s physical and mental work-space. And it requires a commitment to and enjoyment of a dynamic, flexible, discursive way of working, a willingness to have one’s cherished new phrase argued down and preparedness to back up one’s choices of language at the most immediate level. It can be tough, but it can also be a lot of fun.

Sarah Irving [] is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, and has been a journalist and reviewer for over a decade. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and is dipping a tentative toe into the waters of Arabic-English translation.