On Collaboratively Translating Arabic: ‘We Don’t Want To Do the Notes’

It was nearly a year ago that Library of Arabic Literature stalwarts Devin Stewart, Chip Rossetti, James Montgomery, Joe Lowry, Richard Sieburth, Michael Cooperson, Julia Bray, and Philip Kennedy met in Abu Dhabi to discuss Caliphs and Consorts, a forthcoming translation of anecdotes and poetry that was collected in Ibn al-Sa’i’s Nisaʾ al-khulafa. However, it’s only now that the discussion of poetry, consorts, and collaborative translation has been posted online:

caliphs_imageIn the discussion — three clips from which are posted below — LAL executive editor Shawkat M. Toorawa made a forceful case for collaborative translating. “We know for a fact,” Toorawa said, “that our experience with collaboration has produced a better outcome, and a better product. And it’s made us better scholars.”

The Caliphs and Consorts project had begun a decade before, with a smaller group, when Joe Lowry suggested that they translate the text. They did, Toorawa said, “and then it languished,” until ten years later, when a group of them were invited onto the LAL board.

The LAL agreed to take on the text, “and we thought, well, maybe we should workshop it. Let’s not just go back to Joe and Devin and Michael and Shawkat and produce something. Let’s just take what they have. In whatever state it’s in. And maybe we should get together and workshop it.”

The group submitted the text to Julia Bray, who produced an independent report on the translation. According to Toorawa, the report said, in essence: “I think this is an exciting text, I think this is a wonderful selection. I think we have to revisit the translation.”

Toorawa said that this was humbling, and yet correct. He went on to suggest that if a translator can “become more humble,” then the translator’s work will be better.

Good translations are important because, Toorawa said, “The Library of Arabic Literature isn’t some esoteric, erudite series being published in Belgium and directed at the nine people who can afford the book and the six of them who actually care about it. The LAL is an initiative, the audience of which is the world.”

Bray added, in her presentation, that, “When we talked about collaborating, you probably thought we meant just sending each other emails and correcting each other’s typescripts.” But what the group means by collaboration is much more than that, she said, and includes the important element of an “outside” expert who is unaccustomed to the in-group jargon. In this case, the outsider is Richard Sieburth, who translates French poetry.

It was 2011, Bray said, that the group held their first workshop, “Which was designed to help us translate the most terrifying of all things to translate, which is poetry.”

Thanks in part to Sieburth, Bray said, “We felt hugely liberated from preconceptions and poor practices.”

Bray went on to speak about the collection, which was assembled by Iraqi historian Ibn al-Sa’i (d. 1276 CE), a prominent historian who was interested, Bray said, “in general political history as it was framed through the lens of women’s share in it.” According to Bray:

The first part of the book…contains material that had been doing the rounds for quite a while beforehand, but had never been presented in quite this light. The second half of the book consists of work that is closer to the author in time, and it concerns the great women of the Seljuk court, who were of a rather different kind from these early Abbasid, learned entertainers, who were also beautiful and sought-after.

Although it is a short work, Bray said, “I think it is going to be full of — not only interesting and in some cases delightful discoveries — but quite often perhaps, very important ones.”

In the second part of the discussion, Toowara invited the group to the stage to demonstrate how the collaboration process worked and to take questions from the audience. Toowara noted that Tahera Qutbuddin was missing from the group, as she was attending a conference in Cairo.

The group began by discussing their translation “Balm to the Eyes.” They listed a number of possible translations for قرة العين. They were, according to Toowara: “eye candy, harmony, eyes’ delight, lovely to look on, easy on the eyes, sight for sore eyes, and the one we selected provisionally, balm to the eyes.” He added, “Just for the record, I don’t like it. But some people love it.”

Certainly, other suggestions could be added: Wikipedia editors, for instance, like “solace of the eyes” or “consolation of the eyes.”

The group began by discussing the phrase “eye candy” and the reasons why this wouldn’t work. For instance, as it came out, Michael Cooperson noted, “Tahera Qutbuddin’s sister is called قرة العين, which really for me makes it impossible for us to call her ‘eye candy’.”

The group went on to address a number of other particular translation points, which can be seen in the video, and also addressed larger issues about translating poetry. James Montgomery noted, later in the discussion, that “there are many many beautiful poems in Arabic, and there are many ugly translations of those poems into European languages.” He added:

And this is one of the things we confront. And one of the things we’re interested in talking about is why do we think those translations don’t succeed? On one level, what the translator is trying to do is to capture everything that that translator perceives to be in the Arabic, in order not to leave anything out, in order not to miss anything, in order to take what is poetic about the original, leave it behind, and then resort to the dictionary and provide a kind of prose version of the Arabic.

Sieburth called this practice, of producing an accurate but un-beautiful version, “sight reading.” He opposed this to an “interpretive performance, Glenn Gould doing Bach as opposed to someone just sitting there doing all the notes.”

“We don’t want to do the notes,” Montgomery said.