A Bedouin George Bush, Rule of the British, and Other Tangles at the Inaugural Dubai Translation Conference

The first-ever Dubai Translation Conference was held October 20-22:

By Eman M. Elshaikh

Humphrey Davies and Ahdaf Soueif. Photo credit: Dubai Translation Conference.
Humphrey Davies and Ahdaf Soueif. Photo credit: Dubai Translation Conference.

At the inaugural Dubai Translation Conference, language played a trickster’s role: at times, it was a source of laughter, at other times, a source of frustration and debate. Talk and dialogue moved back and forth between English and Arabic, between fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) and many colloquial dialects, with live translation devices buoying those who were sometimes lost throughout the ever-shifting linguistic seas.

Leslie McLoughlin, who among other things has interpreted for the Queen of England and served as the Director of Studies at the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies (MECAS), began a session with “نبتدي بكلمة اعتزار. We are in a state of confusion because we don’t know whether to speak to you in English or in Arabic. But we came to a decision together: “اللي بيجي، ديمقراطية,” which was met with warm laughter. In the ensuing dialogue with Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif and Emirati author Noura Al Noman, mistranslations and rifts in language were sources both of humor and of consternation.

Indeed, as Ahdaf Soueif read some translations from English to Arabic, she noted how the original meaning of the text was often buried under heavy layers of overly formal Arabic, alienating readers from the text with each “من قبل” “ولقد” and unnecessary use of the passive voice. In order to be an effective translator, she argued, one must also have a writer’s sensibility and understand how to hold a reader’s attention and to maintain the voice of a character across languages.

And while translation creates numerous literary rifts, it also produces historical disjunctures. In conversation about his long career as an interpreter, Leslie McLoughlin recalled some problematic misinterpretations, such as when a British official delegation referred to Israeli settlements in Palestine as “تسوية” instead of the correct “المستوطنات”. Other misinterpretations, he noted, were due to differences in dialect, such as a British minister whose discussion of the “role of the British” of the Gulf in 1968 was misheard — and subsequently translated as —  the “rule of the British” due to the speaker’s Scottish lilt.

Solutions: New theories, a Texan accent

Clive Holes and Muhsin al-Musawi. Photo credit: Dubai Translation Conference.
Clive Holes and Muhsin al-Musawi. Photo credit: Dubai Translation Conference.

How do writers and translators contend with these tangles? The speakers and delegates at the conference had many intriguing approaches. Professor Muhsin al-Musawi argued that translation was an important and difficult process that required a sense of trust in the source text, an investment in understanding cultures, and the recognition that meaning does not arise in a vacuum. He also discussed what he called a paucity of currently available theories of translation and language, arguing for the continued interrogation of methods and histories of translation.

Professor Clive Holes alerted the audience to the imbalances in the canons of literature and the politicized nature of these imbalances, lamenting the relative obscurity of Arabic popular poetry and its relegation to the realm of folklore. He maintained that these works were the expressions of the lives of ordinary people and needed attention, and he put forth his own method of translating and reinterpreting them, and explained a few contemporary Bedouin poems.

Holes translated one poem by the Jordian poet Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya written from the perspective of George W. Bush into English, inflecting the poem with a Texan accent. This, he argued, was in the true spirit of the text; though the accent of course did not appear in the original, the translation did not completely convey the tone or voice without it.


Translating television and film

The problems of translation plague us in even the most commonplace spaces, including in the translation of television and film. In a panel about the subtitling industry, a lively debate ensued between author and founder of Scriptor Translation, Firas Al Shaer; founder and CEO of Rosetta International, Mohamed Hammad; and poet and filmmaker Nujoom Alghanem. They discussed the extent to which translators need to cleave to the fidelity of the text or take freedoms to reinterpret in order to promote greater understanding.

Aside from obvious mistranslations — and in a conversation with me, Al Shaer mentioned an interesting translation of a video game “joystick” — there are often more subtle problems, such as pacing and tone, dialect and style. Additionally, even differences in dialect require attention, as evidenced by the double subtitles in one of Alghanem’s films — one to help English-speaking audiences understand the Arabic, and another to help Arabic-speaking audiences understand the specific dialect used by a Bedouin Emirati woman.

The richness of the gaps

In a conversation with me, Ahdaf Soueif wondered whether the lack of the word “tarab” in English meant that that feeling did not exist for English-speakers. And yet, she noted, there is no word for frustration in Arabic, though the feeling is well-known among Arabs.  Though she does not think one can do away with these gaps, she considers them very rich.

In a conversation with Iman Ben Chaibah, Soueif read an excerpt from In the Eye of the Sun, in which the protagonist attempts to translate Sheikh Imam’s “Sharraft ya Nixon baba,” and finds herself mired in detailed explanations of cultural norms and styles, abandoning the translation after only a few lines. This kind of experience illustrates what Soueif means when she says it is, in a sense, impossible to translate. However, while it may be an impossible task, translation remains a necessary one.

Eman M. Elshaikh is a writer, editor, and artist currently based in Sharjah, UAE. She is interested in exploring revolutionary subjectivity and historical memory both in her academic research and her creative work.