Why Translation Is Like Cooking & More from maia tabet

In celebration of the KITCHEN issue of ArabLit Quarterly, guest-edited by Nour Kamel, a look back at this interview with professional chef and translator maia tabet:

Acclaimed translator maia tabet has brought works by Rula Jurdi Abisaab, Elias Khoury, Zakariya Tamer, Hisham Bustani, and Sinan Antoon, among many others. She spoke to Middlebury Assistant Professor Dima Ayoub about her practice and craft, and a part of their discussion appeared in the “How Things Started” section of the first-ever issue of ArabLit Quarterly in fall 2018. 

Here, a short piece from their discussion — about translation and recipes — two rules, and five translations by the gifted maia tabet.

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.

On failure:

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.

And tabet, in her 10 More Rules for Translation, on translating with a partner:

– From limited experience, I would say work with a partner who has different strengths but similar sensibilities.

– The process of translating is like navigating the ocean – how close do you cleave to the original, how far do you stray in order to convey an image in the idiom of the target language, how to circumvent the inevitable treacherous passages: what in Arabic sounds very natural might in English come across as excessive wordiness, repetition, or hyperbole. Translating with a partner provides a sounding board and an echo chamber which are invaluable when navigating such perils.

Five translations by tabet:

An excerpt from White Masks, by Elias Khoury (or, if you prefer, maia and Elias reading on YouTube)

From Leila Baalbaki’s ‘Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon’

Hisham Bustani’s “Crossing” (and many more stories by Bustani in tabet’s translation)

An excerpt from Camera Obscura, by Rula Jurdi

Elias Farkouh’s short story “A Man I Don’t Know

1 Comment

  1. Many thanks for this enlightening and entertaining piece! To view translation in terms of cooking is a brilliant analogy!

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