Making It Visible: Jonathan Wright on (Not) Translating Alaa al-Aswany’s ‘Automobile Club’

Translators are often expected to remain invisible puppeteers, unseen by all except specialists and those good at squinting. The translator who stays in the background is praised: The reader, we’re told, wants to connect with Elias Khoury, not Humphrey Davies; Jurji Zaydan, not Samah Selim. But there are moments when translators feel they must be heard:

Photo from AUC.

Back in 2007, translator Marilyn Booth felt the need to clarify a few things about her translation of Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh.

In this case, Booth’s translation had been significantly reworked by Alsanea and an editor at Penguin — against Booth’s express wishes. Alsanea apparently wanted to see her story presented in more “universal” terms, minimizing its gender politics and its rootedness in Saudi culture.

Today, another translator, Jonathan Wright, put himself on the public record as being at odds with his author.

In an open letter posted on his blog, Wright goes into painstaking detail about his previous relationship with al-Aswany, how Wright was engaged to translate al-Aswany’s latest novel, and how that translational relationship went sour.

The reasons for poor author-translator relations here seem murkier than they were with Booth and Alsanea. Al-Aswany apparently decided to shift translators “on a whim,” according to Wright, without giving a reason*. That’s fine enough, although Wright still required compensation for the work he’d done. This compensation, according to Wright, has not been forthcoming.

To justify his decision, al-Aswany argued that Wright made a number of “mistakes” in his in-progress translation of The Automobile Club and that the translation was thus “not up to the desired standards.”

The Automobile Club

The corrections al-Aswany gave — in a document provided by Wright — range from the unnecessary to the uncomfortably bad.  “That radiance,” according to al-Aswany, is incorrect, and should be “that glow.” (Um, okay.) “My wife realized that I needed some time alone” should, according to al-Aswany, be “My wife understood my need for the solitude.” (?) “Like an antique” should instead be “ancient or musty sound.” (Hunh?) The sentence, “I thought hard about the possibilities, eager to reassure myself” is corrected to “I concentrated to get rid of my worries.”

Certainly, Al-Aswany shouldn’t be required to know how to best render his sentences in English: That is the translator’s job. A good editor can help, as can a collaborative relationship with the author, but the author grabbing the wheel is rarely a good thing.

In 2008, Booth wrote in Al Ahram:

In my long experience as a literary translator, I have found the great majority of writers and editors to be deeply respectful of my work and to value true collaboration. Most authors are neither arrogant nor unethical, after all; and most have respect for translators’ unique skills. Many novelists, indeed, are also experienced and sensitive professional literary translators. … But I fear that in the current haste to find the next “Arab bestseller,” the translator’s special and crucial role in creating lasting art will become a victim, to the detriment of writers and readers everywhere.

Although this case may indeed come down to a whim — and the desire to bend others to that whim — the book is also a potential “best seller.”

Not all would shed tears over The Automobile Club, which is not likely to receive much critical applause.  But here, Wright would probably disagree. From his blog: “When the literary elite belittled Aswany’s novels, I always stood up for him, arguing that Egypt and the Arab world in general needed good story-tellers who put plot and character ahead of literary ostentation and obsessive self-analysis.” I might disagree on Wright’s framing of the either/or, but even if this won’t be “lasting art,” Wright’s open letter is chilling.

It is unclear who is now translating The Automobile Club for Knopf, although the publisher is surely continuing with the project. Neither al-Aswany nor the publisher have yet responded to a query about their perspective on events, but a recent profile on al-Aswany in Ahram Online — which goes to far as to compare The Automobile Club to Mahfouz’s Cairo Modern — states:

The English translation was delayed due to a disagreement between the novelist and the publisher regarding the nominated translator, but it is now in process of publication. Soon enough, an English speaking audience will get to know Kamel, who is hoping for a better day for Egypt, and Prince Chamel, a member of the royal family who dreaded its rule, and hoped for a revolution that might eradicate the past and allow for a new, better and more dignified future, even for those who feared to challenge Al-Kou.

From Jonathan Wright:

Why translators should give Dr Alaa Al Aswany and Knopf Doubleday a wide berth

From Marilyn Booth:

From The Literary Saloon – Booth’s TLS letter at bottom 

From Ahram Weekly – Further: Where is the translator’s voice?

On al-Aswany’s Automobile Club:

From Ahram Online: Al-Aswany weaves threads through Egypt’s revolutions

*Originally, this post suggested the author and translator’s diverging politics could be a factor; as the translator points out below, the timeline of events would make that highly unlikely.


  1. Brava Marcia! I’m always awed by how fast you are even when it’s not 6 am

    1. Yes, I do have an amazing capacity to focus on this blog instead of my paying work. 🙂

  2. I’m surprised by the reference to “diverging politics”. Just to clarify, these events took place in May. I took no public position on political events in Egypt until after the military intervention of July 3, many weeks later. At the time in question, I was merely a passive observer and I didn’t have a strong position, even in private. Jonathan Wright

    1. Yes, you’re right, the timeline makes my supposition entirely wrong. I added a correction.

  3. Not because you obviously have little sense for subtle yet significant difference the sample translation could have been worked out by the editor! All due respect, but literature translation is a very sensitive issue. An editor cannot rewrite whole passages!!

  4. The Booth and Wright situations are completely different. Wright’s issue is a clear-cut case of what could be called fraud – failure to pay for services rendered.

    Booth, on the other hand, appears to be taking issue with the changes made to her translation – changes made by the author:

    “She made many changes and deletions that not only added many clichés to the text but, more seriously, detracted from the spirit and the political resonance of the novel, part of which surfaces through a politics of young people’s language use, which I worked to convey in my translation.”

    Well, it’s the author’s work, and re-working the translation is entirely the author’s prerogative; I’m not sure the translator should be lecturing the author regarding what the book is supposed to mean.

    1. Well-stated, but I have to disagree with “re-working the translation is entirely the author’s prerogative.” The translation is the translator’s work, and the original is the author’s work. If the translator is not doing her job properly, that is a shame, but it is her creation. I am with Mahmoud Darwish (I believe, I can’t find the quote), that the new text belongs to the translator and must work in the new language.

      1. I understand what you’re saying, and it’s a fair point. My point was that it seemed like Booth was essentially trying to tell the author about the novel’s ‘spirit and political resonance’, when that’s for the author to determine.

        Yes, some authors don’t have the skill set to determine the quality of the translation (in all fields, not just literature…). Are they being silly/foolish/egotistical? Absolutely…..but it’s still their right to do. As long as I get paid, I grit my teeth and bear it (although I have asked to have my name removed from jobs that were revised so horribly that I did not want to be associated with the final end product).

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