Yesterday, responses to this question by Yardenne Greenspan — a Hebrew translator and the Asymptote editor-at-large for Israel — and I were placed together, as though we were debating the question. Really, though, we speak about quite different things:
Greenspan writes about how to deal with the Hebrew slur kushi, and indeed, moving racial slurs and other insults from language to language is a mess. She looks at several different possibilities: What if the writer is being inadvertently racist? (Ugh.) What if the writer is putting the slur in the mouth of a racist character? (Well, that should be fine.) And what if the writer is just a flaming, drop-the-ball-and-kick-it racist? (Well….)
These are good questions, and could also be applied to Arabic, or English. But I came at the essay from a different angle, the (possibly problematic) context into which it’s being tranlsated.
The most important decision a translator must make is: Will I translate this text?
Being an essentially freelance profession, translation has a mountain of drawbacks, but it does make a bit more allowance for choice. The injunction to “translate only what you love” works—as long as you have a stable income outside of translating. I prefer Samah Selim’s version: “Never translate a book you don’t like unless you have to.” Or my own: “Never translate a text you think you’ll regret (unless creditors are outside the window).”
Yet what makes for a “politically problematic” text may have less to do with the text itself and more to do with context. Propagandists thrive on selective translation. The MEMRI “media monitoring organization,” described by Guardian reporter Brian Whitaker, is perhaps the largest ongoing Arabic-English translation project. Some of the individual news and cultural texts that MEMRI translates might be innocuous, but the project as a whole furthers a political agenda.
Literary translation is a somewhat different beast—most editors and publishers probably don’t have a ten-year plan to shift public opinion. Nonetheless, they may still choose translations to fit a particular view of Africans, Arabs, Muslims, Chinese, or Estonians, either because that’s what resonates (“ah yes, the oppressed Arab woman who comes West and finds freedom!”) or because that’s what sells (“another 1,000 units of oppressed Arab woman comin’ up!”).
Translators know their literatures are enormous. Arabic literature has not just a fifteen-hundred-year history but also a geographic spread over two dozen countries, with a roiling sea of literary and semi-literary works from each century and sub-region. New books, magazines, and Facebook pages are being written, published, criticized, and argued over every year, and we hear about only a tiny pinch of them. The sliver is even smaller for major literary languages like Urdu, Bengali, and Malayalam.
What appears in the tiny sliver we see? Often enough, it’s what we expect to see.
Mostly, we don’t choose to translate fascist-nationalist or racist stories. Mostly, chosen texts are not “politically problematic” on their own. Instead, they become so in the way they are framed, foreworded, and discussed. Nawal al-Saadawi is a wonderful writer-activist in Arabic, but in English often appears outside her context, as part of a troubling “White Women’s Lives are the Best!” narrative. Boualem Sansal is an accomplished storyteller, but also attractive to Western readers because of his assertive linking of Nazis and Islamists.
So: Is a translator responsible if people with problematic politics wave the flag of his work? Unless he’s gone and signed up with the equivalent of MEMRI or Jihad Watch, probably not.
But choice is still key. What if the book is mostly wonderful, but has a scene or two that make the translator queasy? These are the quandaries I hear about most often: a rape scene, a racial slur. Every translator I’ve known has felt a sense of responsibility for that scene: If the words come from her pen, she too owns them. And I think it’s best that way.
Of course, what reads like a “slur” in one language or time period will not in another. A few years back, translator Humphrey Davies talked about removing a slur from a book without consulting the author. When the author discovered it, the author was annoyed, and the slur went back in.