Mona Kareem on Translation: ‘Embrace Your Invisibility As a Superpower’

JULY 21, 2022 — As part of the 2022 BCLT Literary Translation Summer School that’s taking place this week, BCLT organizers commissioned a series of short talks by summer-school instructors. This series includes a talk by translator-poet Mona Kareem, as well as other instructors and contributors to the new Tilted Axis anthology Violent Phenomena: Translation and its Discontents.

In opening her talk, Kareem — who argues for treating translation as a genre of literature, not as a quasi-literary act of communication or a bridge — says she recommends her students read three texts to address the craft issues around translation. These are: “Poetry is Not a Luxury” by Audre Lorde, “An ABC of Translating Poetry” by William Barnstone, and “The Eight Stages of Translation” by Robert Bly.

In her talk, she balances the discussion of craft with a discussion of the politics of translation, including issues around the terminologies related to translation and the intertwined art and labor of literary translation.

“When are we going to begin to think about creating sub-genres of this genre?” she asks, as part of the talk, suggesting possible sub-genres of adaptation, collaboration, anti-translation, and rendition.

In the talk, Kareem also builds on her recent essay “Western Poets Kidnap Your Poems and Call Them Translations: On the Colonial Phenomenon of Rendition as Translation.” Part of why she calls for an end to the term “bridge translation” is not because she intends to prevent the practice, she said, but because names help “us understand literary interactions.”

Kareem’s BCLT talk is titled “Against Translation. Against Visibility,” and she says: “I’m saying ‘against translation’ because I’m suspicious of all this celebration” around translation, as the nature of celebration is often patronizing, shallow, and limited.

She further notes, about the particular context of Arabic-English literary translation, “When you go and read the catalog of literary translations from Arabic published in the United States . . . you will see that most of the translations are done by academics, they are published by literary presses, and often they are directed to benefit literary studies. Which is okay — what is not okay is that this is the dominant space only,” she says, noting that Arabic literature becomes “only material for the classroom.”

“You cannot be a translator from Arabic to English and not address this fact.”

Her call “against translation” — in a talk that is often enthusiastic about the possibilities of literary translation — is a call for being skeptical and interrogating where the translator stands. “Against visibility” is a similarly skeptical stance that addresses the movement to name the translator on the cover of books published in English, a practice that Kareem reminds us is commonplace in Arabic.

“I am really concerned that translators will buy into this visibility trap. Because that was always our magical power, that we are invisible.”

She adds: “I think there’s something that can be compromised when translators become too visible. I think visibility is a capitalist logic, as well. I think it has this individualistic logic to it, as well, and I would like us to consider this idea of diversity vs. democratization of literature. Of course we need diversity . . . but this diversity also needs to be ambitious. It has to think about transgressing and having radical potentials.”

She concludes by talking about translators as the perfect balance of laborer and artist, a meeting of both. Work collectively, be skeptical, and, “Embrace your invisibility as a superpower.”

You can watch the whole talk on YouTube, along with other talks commissioned for this year’s summer school.