To Translate, It’s Not Enough To Understand a Language, ‘One Needs To Feel It’

A panel made up of an Arabist, a specialist in modern Arabic Literature, and an author discussed the aspects of translations that delight and nettle them at the Seventh Emirates Airline Literature Festival, which took place at the beginning of this month:

By Sawad Hussain

Photo credit: Sawad Hussein.
Photo credit: Sawad Hussain.

Translation from any language into another is a tall order, each having its own cultural references and local idioms. But translation from Arabic is another story altogether: one-sentence paragraphs; subjects separated from their verbs by lines on end; colloquial Arabic, from any possible number of countries, mixed in with Modern Standard; the tense being a mood rather than actually stated throughout the text; and the list goes on.…

As such, it wasn’t surprising that the Seventh Emirates Airline Literature Festival dedicated a session to unravelling “The Sticky Arts of Translation and Interpretation.” Though Arabic wasn’t mentioned explicitly in the title, the session primarily focused on Arabic-to-English translation from the viewpoints of Arabist Leslie McLoughlin, Professor and International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) chair Yasir Suleiman and two-time IPAF-shortlisted Iraqi author Inaam Kachachi.

How sticky the art of translation can be was laid bare through the different types of translation that one can encounter: literal, cultural, or geographical; to illustrate how muddy things could get, the moderator dwelled on trying to translate the idea of snow into a language and culture that has no lexical references to express such a concept.

The following are some excerpts from a stimulating, well-attended and linguistically diverse session that attempted to render the complex simple.

What is translation?

After highlighting the oral and written dimensions of translation, McLoughlin prefaced the rest of his answer with the saying “The translator is scared.”

He clarified that this could be — and is — the case at times, as the “translator has to feel the emotions precisely and distinguish himself in having an exact mutual understanding with another language. It’s not simply enough to understand the language, but one needs to feel it in all its aspects in order to transfer its meanings.”

McLoughlin made reference to a piece that he himself struggled with from the very first page. As he is an established Arabist, it was somewhat comforting to hear that he still encountered a translation conundrum now and again.

Suleiman echoed McLoughlin’s sentiments by emphasizing that it is the transfer of effects to which the translator attempts to stay committed. “You are transporting the effect of the original text to the reader. Each text has an effect. It can make you cry, laugh, and so forth. You are trying to reproduce that same effect on the reader with your translation.” It was interesting to hear him refer to translation as a process of transporting the entire text as a whole, rather than piece by piece, word by word. The feeling linking the entire text together is what should take precedence when undertaking an exercise in translation.

Kachachi linked the question to her novel, American Granddaughter, which has been translated into English. She confessed that after having had some of her work translated, the thought of what her novel would sound like in English started to affect her writing process. However, she quickly realized that as her “novel is for the Arab reader,” she would focus on writing for them.

Is it possible to truly master two languages to the point of fluency? Doesn’t one language harm the other?

Photo credit: Sawad Hussain.

Suleiman offered himself as a case study in answering this query. Being a native speaker of Arabic who has translated texts from Arabic to English on a number of occasions, he intimated that he has faced particular occasions that dictate to him which language to use. For example, if he were to give a speech, it would be in English, but if he were to write a letter or email announcing good news, it would be in Arabic. A follow-up question was then posed, asking which language he flirts in. Feeding off the audience’s laughter, he convivially noted he could do so in either, but that he does so with his wife in Arabic.

Kachachi voiced her concern that, with translators, it’s not just about the question of mastering the language, but that one must be steeped in the cultural context as well. She gave an example from a novel of hers that has just been translated. There is a particular phrase in this novel – kana nasiraan – that was translated to mean “[H]e was a Christian extremist,” whereas she merely meant “[H]e was a supporter of Nasser,” or Nasserist. She said this showed the translator’s lack of knowledge of the culture she was referring to in her novel, driving home the need for cultural fluency on the part of the translator.

What about literature written by Arabs – Moroccans and Algerians, for example – but in another language? What literature is this? Arab? French?

After considering the works of Ahdaf Soueif, Anton Shammas, and Georges Schehadé among others — whose non-Arabic language volumes dwelled on topics that resonate particularly with Arabs — it was unanimously decided that such categorization of Arab, French, or English literature is not based on context. Rather, it was the fruit of politics of the highest order. Thus, leaving ambiguity in definition was the safest place to situate such books.

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Whether one had been translating for a number of years, just started, or was considering how to enter the field, the insights into the process were valuable in helping focus on what translation is actually all about: striving to create the same reaction in the reader that they would have had if they could read in the source language itself.

Sawad Hussain is an Arabic teacher, translator and litterateur residing in Dubai.