‘A Lot of Translating is About Not Making A Fuss’

One of ArabLit’s favorite readers and book-club leaders, Elisabeth Jaquette, has just posted the Cairo Book Club’s first-ever podcast, from their discussion of Mourid Barghouti’s I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, led by the book’s English-language translator, Humphrey Davies:

120419-mourid-barghoutiThe podcast begins with Jaquette giving background on Barghouti, his memoirs, and Davies, some of which you can also find on Rolling Bulb. What follows is a lively discussion of the several aspects of Barghouti’s memoir, published in Arabic in 2009 and in English translation in 2011. Davies also digresses at one point to pitch audience on reading Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun:

If you want to know about Palestinian disposession, you have to read Bab al-Shams [Gate of the Sun]. You feel it living and breathing. In terms of really getting to the essence of what people felt and lived — a lived experience — a mass of people.

Davies contrasted that with Barghouti’s book which is the view of “one person, a sensitive observer’s view on things.” Davies said that, in particular, he wanted people to read the section on the separation wall. “Because I think it will have an impact on people.”

There was also an enjoyable argument at the middle about the extent to which Palestinian literature must carry the burden of explaining history. Davies also talked quite extensively about his thoughts on translation. He said you certainly wouldn’t want to get too literal, because, “Some translations sound weird because they try to capture every little thing” and then “you get something that just reads strangely. Maybe it’s better to sacrifice that little bit in the interest of a smoother more sort of flowing translation.”

Davies repeated a couple times that: “I go with what seems right to me at the time.”

There was also an important point raised about the dangers of over-domesication: “I want people always to know that they’re reading a book about a different place,” Davies said. “If you try and hide that, then — though I’m not excluding theoretically that there may be cases where it could be done — in general, it’s probably not a good idea. There are some phrasings that might have the same functions as an idiom in Arabic” but that “would stick out like a sore thumb. ”

No examples came to mind for Davies, but let’s say, for instance, if you tossed in the phrase “stick out like a sore thumb” into your translation. That might well stick out. Indeed, I have often pulled up short in translations that used “raining like cats and dogs” and “beating around the bush.”  

“In general,” Davies said, “you have to be careful not to do that.”

So what is translating about? Well, “a lot of translating is about not making a fuss, too much,” Davies said. You don’t want to have the reader “trip over the stuff that doesn’t matter so that they can get to the stuff that does matter.”

The group talked about translating names; when that works and doesn’t work. Indeed, I am currently re-reading Mahmoud Saeed’s Ben Barka Lane, and I’m glad that translator Kay Heikkenen didn’t translate Si al-Jaza’iri as Mr. Algerian.

Getting in all the nuances can be difficult, Davies said, because, “They won’t allow you to use footnotes. You can occasionally sneak in a little phrase…but rarely can you do that. Sometimes, I resort to a translator’s note. … But then, who reads translator’s notes?”

imagesJaquette asked an excellent question: Did Ahdaf Soueif’s translation of Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah influence his translation of I Was Born There, I Was Born Here?

Everybody kept telling me, “Wow, we hope you do as good a job as [Ahdaf Soueif].” I think after I’d done my first draft without looking at her translation. [then] I looked at her translation, and I looked at the original Arabic [of I Saw Ramallah], and I decided, ‘These [I Saw Ramallah and I Was Born There, I Was Born Here] are very different books.’ I mean, the Arabic is a very different book. Strangely. Because the one is a sequel to the other. But stylistically, they’re quite different, I find. And so I thought, well, she did a fantastic job, but it’s not really relevant.

If I thought they really were the same, I suppose the best thing to do would’ve been to have read her translation before, or at least several chapters of it, and somehow internalize it as much as possible. And hope that that would then reflect itself. Because she did do an excellent translation.

That wrapped up the first CBCP. You can listen to it online at Rolling Bulb.

Also remember that the summer book giveaway is still ongoing, and both of Barghouti’s memoirs — I Saw Ramallah and I Was Born There, I Was Born Here are both eligible reads. The prize remains a copy of the 2013 PalFest anthology; contest closes August 14.


  1. I completely agree to this: “Some translations sound weird because they try to capture every little thing” and then “you get something that just reads strangely. Maybe it’s better to sacrifice that little bit in the interest of a smoother more sort of flowing translation.” I hate it when I can easily tell that this book in my hand is translated.I guess the brilliance of a translator is to make you feel that you’re reading an original book…

    1. Me too. Usually, when I can see how a sentence maps to the Arabic, I think the translator hasn’t done his/her job.

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