Notes from a Translation Masterclass with Roger Allen

Earlier this week, after accepting the Saif Ghobash – Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, Roger Allen gave a masterclass at the Arab British Centre in London. Contributor Amira Abd El-Khalek was there.

By Amira Abd El-Khalek

Allen at the masterclass. Photo credit: Amira Abd El-Khalek
Allen at the masterclass. Photo credit: Amira Abd El-Khalek

It is very difficult to try one’s hand at literary translation during a three-hour class with 24 other people. But, in any case, participants got to take a trip through the Roger Allen’s 43-year career and an array of best practices from his time as a literary translator.

Roger Allen, who was the first student in Britain to receive a degree in modern Arabic literature, from Oxford University in 1968, has translated the works of many masters of Arabic literature. Among these are Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris, Ibrahim al-Koni, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Abd al-Rahman Munif, and Saadallah Wannous, Bensalem Himmich, Jurji Zidan, Hanan al-Shaykh, May Telmissany, Hassan Najmi, and many others.

Allen said that his translation process goes through several stages. He either chooses the work himself or is approached by an author who wants their work translated into English. First, he does a rough translation of the work – a translation, he says, you wouldn’t dare show your spouse. Once finished, he leaves it on a shelf for a few months. Next, he takes it down and transforms it into a readable text without looking at the original Arabic. Third, and a few months later, comes the difficult part where he looks into the details of the work, polishes it up, and works on its technicalities, such as notes or glossaries. Last comes the tricky task of persuading a publisher to publish the work.

Translation Advice

Roger Allen shared with the class some advice that he found useful throughout his career:

Form a strong relationship with the author you are translating. Allen himself has consulted and formed friendships with most of the (living) authors he has translated. Getting permission from the author to work on the translation is important and the dialogues are always enriching, he said.

Photo credit: Amira Abd El-Khalek
Photo credit: Amira Abd El-Khalek

It is important to take note of the style and differences in styles between languages. Allen does not believe that classical Arabic and ‘ammeya Arabic are two separate poles. There are infinite possibilities between them and both the writer and the translator should be given the freedom to experiment with those possibilities. For example, he said, the Mahdi edition of Alf Leila wa Leila (The Thousand and One Nights) was translated into a language that is not entirely classical and did justice to the oral tradition of the work. On the other hand, the Bulaq edition of Alf Leila almost wiped all that out and transformed it into a strictly classical text.

Translating together with a native speaker of Arabic can be very rewarding, Allen said. It can sometimes be problematic, he acknowledges, but it does give you insight into nuances you wouldn’t always get unless you’re a native speaker.
Allen also talked about translating a text that has already been translated and the challenges that rise from that. Furthermore, he acknowledged the loneliness of the long-distance translator, re-emphasizing the importance of that connection with the author whenever possible.

Another issue he raised was using the experiences of literary scholars, for their interpretations and revisions could be very beneficial for the translations.

The Importance of Titles

Allen at the masterclass. Photo credit: Amira Abd El-Khalek

Allen also raised the issue of book titles and the importance of carefully choosing the titles. Sometimes, titles in translation are very different from the original. For example, Hanan al-Shaykh’s Hekayti Sharh Yatoul has been translated into The Locust and the Bird.  Bensalem Himmich first suggested that his novel A Muslim Suicide be Death by the Kaaba. The Arabic original is Zat al-Andalussi (That Andalusian).

Sometimes translators have a say in the title and sometimes it is imposed on them by the publisher. Titles are especially significant in how a readership will accept the work within a different culture.

As a class, we went through some of the texts that Allen had suggested. We discussed them, looked at different styles and nuances of translation and listened to the fascinating stories that Allen told about his adventures with the texts and the authors. The texts included: Yusuf Idris’ short story, “The Concave Mattress,” Ibrahim al-Koni’s Aphorisms, Himmich’s A Muslim Suicide and Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Endings.

Roger Allen concluded that there is a great need for Arabic translations in the Anglophone world in contrast to the literary translations faring in the Francophone world. For someone like myself who has no such experience and has not read any literary translation theory, sitting in a class full of translation students and professionals, including Jonathan Wright who was nominated for the Saif Ghobash prize for two of his works, was a little intimidating. However, given the opportunity to participate in such a masterclass, your eyes open up to a whole new discipline where you realize that this is as much a creative art as writing.

Literary translation is not a mere act of literally translating a text. It requires a lot of patience, a lot of talent, mastery of words and a strong command of two languages at the very least. The literary translator is a transporter of one culture to another with all its intricacies and details, which is no easy feat.

Amira Abd El-Khalek studied English literature and anthropology in Egypt and the UK. She has held academic positions at Ain Shams University and the American University in Cairo and has worked in national and international NGOs. She is an avid reader in English and Arabic, enjoys writing and is passionate about films.