Translations That Erase the ‘Underlying Arabic’

When I opened up Raba’i Madhoun’s The Lady from Tel Aviv, trans. Elliott Colla, I had a hard time believing it was السيدة من تل أبيب:

imagesWhat struck me before anything else — although the opening conceit is interesting — was that the English text reads like a contemporary English-language novel, with common syntax and styling that reminded me of many popular literary novels. It was nothing like most translated Palestinian, or Arabic, novels. As I kept reading, I laid my discomfort up against a few things Joseph Lowry said in a Skype interview about his translation of al-Shafi’i’s Risalah. He was talking about academic translations, but we can extend it to literary ones as well:

…the translations that do get produced — and I think this is true elsewhere in Islamic studies — tend to be translations by specialists for specialists, and this often leads to them being written in a kind of code that allows specialist readers to re-imagine the underlying Arabic, which is not, I think, probably the best way to translate.

Many translations of contemporary Arabic literature seem, perhaps to a lesser extent, to be written in a code. Perhaps unintentionally, the sentence structures often allow readers to “re-imagine the underlying Arabic.” Sentence maps to sentence, and one can feel the rhythms of the Arabic prose — which sometimes sound odd as they’re re-fitted into English clothing.

But when reading The Lady from Tel Aviv (Colla’s translation), I could nowhere imagine the underlying Arabic. When al-Madhoun’s protagonist, Walid Dahman, is waiting at a checkpoint, I remembered what it was like to wait at an Israeli checkpoint, and I was transported past the words, into a place inside my memory. But I could not map any of the individual sentences back to al-Madhoun’s sentences (without looking at the original, anyhow).

I will admit that it was disconcerting, at first, not to feel this was a text “from the Arabic.” That sort of feeling has become familiar. My first reaction was that Colla had overly “domesticized” the text. Perhaps he has, a bit, and perhaps any novel set in Gaza should be a little domesticized. But plenty of the “foreign” markers are left just as they are; no falafel ever becomes a bean patty.

Ultimately, the translation ignores both Scylla (domesticization) and Charybdis (foreignization) and puts its effort into being a fast-paced, readable book. There are places where it meanders, where a digression seems to take us too far afield and then leaves us, before abruptly snapping back to the central arc of the story: al-Bashity/Dahman/al-Madhoun’s return to Gaza, after decades abroad. The prodigal son returns to an unrecognizable home.

Almost throughout, this novel reads as though it had been written by someone who thought in English as a first language:

I go to sleep at about 2 in the morning. I have not been asleep for more than an hour when I am woken by the sounds of dozens of muezzins. Their calls clash and jumble over one another, like a band of musicians warming up before a concert. I mutter to myself and try to go back to sleep. But not half an hour goes by when the calls begin again, now even louder and more cacophonous. It is as if these are not real muezzins, but trainees who have been told to practice all night long. What the hell? Are Gazans now required to perform the dawn prayers twice? 

What the hell? Gaza has never felt so near.

What informs Colla’s translation choices?

This interview with Madhoun, newly translated and on Al-sharq al-Awsat, offers insight


  1. Sounds interesting! I’m always interested in the work of translators, yet I so rarely read them myself.

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