Humphrey Davies on ‘Representational Translation’ and the Uses of Urban Dictionary and Google Translate

During his talk about Leg over Leg on Saturday’s Library of Arabic Literature workshop in Oxford, Humphrey Davies discussed the “hardest challenge for me as a translator in this book”:

UD-logoThis was, he said, the lists of words that are like a “magical invocation” in Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s text, through which “an almost surreal affect is achieved.”

“In the middle of a sentence,” Davies said, “you may get a list of words with no definition. Obscure, arcane words; words he did not expect you to know.”

An attempt to achieve a one-to-one correspondence of these words, Arabic to English, would be doomed to some kind of failure, Davies said. Indeed, researching the meanings of words and trying to map them to English just didn’t work. “Even if the English language has 248 words for pudendum, you can be pretty much certain that those 248 words will not map accurately onto the words you found in Shidyaq.”

“So I started experimenting with other approaches.”

In the middle of one list, where the narrator is speaking of the charms of women, he also gives antonyms, some of which Davies read off on Saturday: “runts, trolls, long-necked pinheads…”

“And I took these from the Urban Dictionary online,” he said.

In another occasion, Davies said, “I took the Arabic words, and I put them through the Google Latin translate facility and came up with words that have some claim to reflect the meanings, but which are very strange to hear, which was the intended effect.”

The final strategy Davies discussed for these lists was “representational translation.” In this, Davies said he took a list of the Arabic words, arranged them in subgroups, and then found words in English in the thesaurus, grouped such that they have “some internal logic, and then present that as a representational translation.”

Davies did footnote it every time he used a “representational translation,” as contemporary readers do have an expectation, he said, of literal, one-to-one correspondences in their translations, whereas Davies’ translation was moving more toward conveying what the Arabic did for the reader.

He also wanted to make clear:

Despite all these pyrotechnics, we must never forget that this book actually was not just about being clever, and that it’s one of the most intellectual engaged, one of the most surprisingly modern sensibilities…he talks about human rights, he talks about the stupidity of trying to persuade people to your point of view through violence, he talks about his fears of his wife’s infidelities, his wife’s fears, his fear of erectile dysfunction. … It’s not just about word games.

Also, from yesterday:

What Does It Matter If ‘Leg Over Leg’ Is the ‘First Arabic Novel’?

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Categories: Library of Arabic Literature, translation

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