maia tabet: Translation and Cooking, Context and Failure

maia tabet, acclaimed translator of works by Laila Baalbaki, Elias Khoury, Zakariya Tamer, and Sinan Antoon, among (many) others, spoke to Middlebury Assistant Professor Dima Ayoub about her practice and craft. A part of their discussion will appear in the “How Things Started” section of the Fall 2018 ArabLit Quarterly. But here, to accompany her translation of Baalbaki and in recognition of Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), tabet and Ayoub talk about translation, cooking, context, and failure:

Dima Ayoub:  Do you enjoy translating?

Maia Tabet: Yes, of course. Like any process of writing, it is both pleasure and pain combined: there’s the pleasure of nailing something, finding the mot juste, the satisfaction of feeling in that moment that you’ve managed to capture something. And then there’s the pain, there’s grunt work, there’s sentences that are complicated, and writers who don’t write clearly. At times, it’s just a slog, in that moment, but overall, there’s a very profound satisfaction that I derive from translation, and I find it creative. I’m not generating something entirely novel, but I am generating something.

For me it’s a little bit like cooking; people say, “if you’re following a recipe then you’re not creating anything.” I don’t agree; you are creating something, you’re creative even if you’re following a recipe. It’s a process of alchemy, you’re transforming one thing into another thing. In cooking, you’re transforming a bunch of ingredients that are all separate into a finished product which hopefully is tasty and delicious and pleases people. In translation, you’re transforming something which was in one state into something that is sort of parallel or a mirror image, but the beauty of the accomplishment doesn’t only depend on your knowledge of words, it depends also on your own literary ability and sensibility.

DT: The example you gave in our earlier conversation, about “ya Allah” having multiple meanings, is very compelling. Some writers and translators have articulated a burden unique to the transmission of Arabic into English, that there is a particular charge that goes hand in hand with the reception of the Arabic language or Arabic in general in the Euro-American context, and I wonder how much of that burden you’ve felt. I know at the beginning you were saying how there is something really beautiful that you wanted to convey in English, which is also a language that you love, so I wonder how much of that—I’m calling it “burden,” but it doesn’t have to be that—how much of that politicization or stature of Arabic in the English context do you find colors your reading of the text, and the way that you then translate it?

MT: It’s definitely very politicized And I’m very, very careful. There are ways that we say things in Arabic which, if one were to translate them closely or literally, would sound to an English ear as being either sectarian, or religious, or “backwards,” if you want to put it that way. But the way that I work with it when I run into this sort of problem is that I look to Shakespeare. In English, we no longer speak the way that Shakespeare does, but in Arabic we do; even if you’re secular, and have nothing to do with religion, and you’re a committed atheist, or whatever you want to call it, we invoke God a million times a day: “Insha’allah” and “Alhumdulillah assalami” and “Allah yasalmik”… even those expressions that do not invoke God directly such as “mabrouk” or “nai’man,”  all have religious undertones, they’re blessings, they’re expressions of auspiciousness. That spirit, which [also] inhabits Shakespearean English, no longer inhabits the English language we speak now, and so sometimes I go back to Shakespeare, and just read to get inspired. Obviously, I can’t use the Shakespearean register, because that wouldn’t resonate with modern English speakers and readers, but I go there to remind myself that there is a way to make the connection.

Something which is more political is that there’s a way, and I don’t believe it’s anti-Semitic, in the common vernacular that you refer to Israelis as “yahud,” and you don’t mean “the Jews,” because you’re not talking about “al-yahud,” you’re not talking about Jewish people in general, you really mean Israelis or Zionists. We don’t say “al-israyiliin,” we’d say “yahud,” during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon for example…in English, if you say “the Jews” it doesn’t work, because there are different connotations, a different history, so you have to use the word “Israelis” in English even if the Arabic text says “yahud.

It’s also a generational thing. I know Palestinians who have said to me, “I will not pronounce the word Israel.” For our English-speaking/reading audience at the journal where I work, the Journal of Palestine Studies, I’m not going to use the term “the Zionist state,” everytime someone writes “al-dawla al-sahyuniyya.” I’m just not going to do it, because that’s not  the language we use in an academic publication in English. There are times when I think it is okay to use “the Zionist state,” depending on the context. If you’re addressing a conference on imperialism or Zionism as racism or settler colonialism, and all the people that are there are in post-colonial studies, then it might make sense to use the phrase “the Zionist state” because you want to make it very clear that you’re talking about a state structure that is based on a particular ideology.

That’s why you can’t be a literalist in translation because it all depends on context. It depends on your readership or audience, it depends on the context in which you’re speaking, whether it’s academic or literary, and it depends on the thrust of what you’re trying to convey. So, in one context, “Zionist state” is the right way to do it, and in another context, “Israel” is the right way to do it; in one context it’s best to use the word “Israelis,” and in another context it’s okay to say “the Jews.” That’s why we have registers of speech. If you were to talk at a conference about the problems or the situation of Appalachia in the American social context, you would say Appalachia and the Appalachians, but if you’re living in West Virginia and you are from there, people from Appalachia don’t call each other Appalachians.

DA: I am very intrigued by the question of failure in translation – and not necessarily in a negative sense – how would you characterize a failed translation?

MT: I’m not an academic, and I don’t translate for a living, but it would be interesting to look at the same book, or the same piece of work, translated over time. One of the ones that comes ito mind immediately is A Thousand and One Nights: if you look at Richard Burton’s translation and some of the modern translations, they’re miles apart. For me, failed would be when the translation doesn’t evoke what the Arabic can evoke in the reader, if it’s not moving you, and making your heart go “pitter-patter” when you read a passage or a sentence—and when it is offensive to the ear. To me, language is music; I know that’s kind of cliché, but it is a musical and an auditory medium. Even if we’re reading, we’re reading in our heads, we’re hearing, it’s not like poetry which is recited but inside myself when I’m reading I’m enjoying the musicality of the language.

DA: A lot of people who study translations from Arabic to English have talked about this concept of “domestication” and “foreignization,” and I don’t want to linger on that terminology because I find it a bit limiting, but when you transliterate an Arabic word or sentence in the English text, would you characterize that as a form of failure—albeit creative or in the conventional sense of the term— or is it something else?

MT: No, I don’t think it’s a creative failure, I think that there are some words that don’t resonate the same way in English. For example, take the word “shabab” in Arabic, the literal translation of which is “the youth,” or “the young men.” In a context like that in al-Jabal al-Sagheer, there’s a whole chapter which is located in the mountains in Lebanon during the war and there’s a bunch of militia guys, who are in schlepping through the snow trying to reach a certain place to put a military post in place. And these are young men, who are typical of so many modern rebel or liberation movements, if you like. They’re usually very idealistic, sometimes they’re trigger-happy, but they’re committed to whatever cause it is, and they are referred to collectively as “al-shabab,” the “shabab.” Using “the youth” in English every time that word comes up, and it might come up ten times in a page, just doesn’t work. That’s where I might use the word “shabab —the first time I would gloss it, and then I would just use “the shabab” because the connotations in Arabic are of camaraderie, of some kind of esprit de corps, there’s so much more to “shabab” than youth… you know what I’m saying?

DA: Yes, absolutely. 

MT: In English, “youth” is young people but in Arabic depending on the context there are all sorts of political connotations and undertones. When there are checkpoints on the streets, a character in a story might say that he’s got to keep the “shabab” happy—and you know that he doesn’t mean that he’s got to keep the youth of the country or community happy. There’s a whole subtext in there that they may be armed, that they might fly off the handle, resort to extortion or kidnapping or other means of pressure, and therefore that in your daily life you have to interact with them in a certain way to stay on the right side of them: hence “keeping them happy.” All of that is connoted in “shabab,” which “the youth” just doesn’t capture.

This is the middle of a three-part discussion between Dima Ayoub and maia tabet. The first part, about tabet’s beginnings as a translator, is set to appear in the fall 2018 issue of ArabLit Quarterly: Beginnings, with the third part to follow on ArabLit.