15 More Rules for Translation: Chip Rossetti and Michelle Hartman

Readers flocked to the first “rules for translation,” from Humphrey Davies and Jonathan Wright.

So while magazines and newspapers are not (yet) banging down the gate for access to these treasures, I thought I’d share two more.

Michelle Hartman is the award-winning translator of Iman Humaydan Younes’s Wild Mulberries. Her translation of Always Coca Cola, by Alexandra Chreiteh, is forthcoming this fall from Interlink.

1) Choose a text you love.

Choose a text to translate that you want to convey in another language for a reason other than “figuring out what it means” or “unlocking its secrets.”

If you don’t feel strongly about a text, don’t translate it.

2) Don’t translate something you don’t really understand.

This sounds obvious, but it isn’t. Most Arabic-English translators also have day jobs. We are often critics, professors and writers and asked to translate things far from our areas of knowledge. “Understanding” doesn’t mean just language and grammar. Don’t translate a text that you can’t relate to, get close to, care about deeply or feel that you yourself could somehow have lived—at least in an imaginary world.

If you are offered such a text to translate, say no.

3) Respect the text.

As much as today we vaunt our lack of invisibility as translators, translation is not the same as creative writing or composing poetry. Translation is creation but it is also interpreting someone else’s creation. This doesn’t mean that we must adhere to an exaggerated notion of the authenticity of the original or that we are not producing our own creative works– we are.

Think about translation in ethical terms.

4) Respect the author.

I’ve been lucky to have formed strong relationships with the brilliant, witty and insightful women whose novels I’ve translated. Our author-translator relationship is based on mutual respect. You need not share an author’s vision of the translation or follow every suggestion she gives you. But respecting the author’s ideas, opinions and view of her own work can offer you invaluable insights.

Listen to how the author speaks about her/his text.

5) Respect your editor.

Engaging in lengthy conversations with an editor doesn’t sound like fun. As translators, we are often defensive about our choices and feel that editors do not understand our labour. But a good editor is a professional who likely has more experience than most of us who translate and can offer sound advice. This doesn’t mean that you must make every change she suggests. But it can be the difference between a mediocre and excellent translation.

Consider your editor’s suggestions seriously; follow them when you can.

6) Translation doesn’t have to be lonely.

Talk to as many people as you can about the book in its first language, what kinds of translations they like to read, how they see this translation working. Like writers and poets, translators should do background research. You can discuss the work as a whole, specific lines and passages, word choices that the author made, those that you as a translator may make and so on. Translation is already a conversation between texts and authors—broaden it as widely as possible to enrich your work.

Ask for opinions, advice and help !

7) Accept imperfections.

No one can produce a perfect translation. The nature of translation means that it is a process of making choices and compromises. As translators we must try to produce the best version of a text that we can that we feel does the work we want it to do. There will be words, passages, lines that do not work perfectly. There will be others that are brilliant and inspired.

Embrace translation as a process and do not get bogged down by perfectionism.

8 ) Read more than you translate.

Voracious readers make good writers and this is true of translators as well. Read in Arabic, read in English, read other translations and pay attention to writing. Knowing what is being written by the author whose work you are translating but also by other writers will deepen your understanding of the text you are working with. Knowing the literary scene of the language into which you translate as well as from which you are translating is extremely important.

Read everything you can, whether it seems immediately relevant or not.

9) Immerse yourself.

Becoming a part of the work you are translating is crucial to conveying it. The more holistic your understanding of the text, the more intimate your engagement with its intricacies. This intimacy is often what produces the best translations.

Get to know everything about your chosen work and the world around it.

10) Be an advocate for translations and translators.

Translation is not glamourous work yet everyone uses translations today. Translators as a corporate body can improve the level of Arabic translations, their accessibility and their diffusion, continuing the hard work of Arabic-English translators who came before us, by being advocates and activists.

Talk about translation whenever you get the chance.

Chip Rossetti has translated the novels Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers by Bahaa Abdelmeguid and Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik, and he won a PEN grant to translate a collection of short stories by Mohamad Makhzangi.

1) If you’re a novice translator of Arabic literature, I don’t have much in the way of technical advice to give, other than to keep your Wehr, Hava, and Lane dictionaries handy. Good colloquial dictionaries in Arabic script are harder to find. If—like me—you happen to end up translating a lot of Egyptian fiction, Hinds-Badawi is invaluable. For Iraqi colloquial, Rifa’at Ra’uf al-Bazargan’s Mu’jam is helpful too, although short.

2) While Arabic dictionaries are crucial for a translator who is not a native Arabic speaker, just as crucial for me is Roget’s Thesaurus—a text I rarely (OK, never) dipped into before I started translating, but came to love. You should learn to love the thesaurus too: you’ll be surprised at the difference it makes in your translations.

3) Dictionaries aside, my primary advice is one I’m sure you have heard elsewhere: namely, to put your translation aside for a while and read it again later when the Arabic isn’t fresh in your mind. When you’re putting together your initial draft, there’s a version of the text floating in your head: you know (or think you know) what the author is trying to convey on the page, you know why he or she selected a particular Arabic phrase or drew on a culture-specific motif, and you know how this text situates itself within the broad canvas of Arabic literature. Not even the best translation in the world can fully reflect all of those elements, and your first draft will never be your best. It will be more like a clunky reproduction of a pale shadow of a good translation. In fact, chances are it will be ugly as sin and far too literal. As a result, my first re-reading always involves a lot of cringing on my part, and a good deal of crossing-out. Painful but necessary.

4) The next step is to show your translation to the right person. It should be someone who is a regular reader of fiction or poetry, but who hasn’t read the original and perhaps doesn’t even know Arabic. Someone who won’t feel shy about acting as your editor, ruthlessly pointing out your awkward phrases, clunky sentences, or too-clever-by-half attempts at replicating something from the original. For me, my wife fits the bill in all the above particulars: hopefully you will have a friend or friends who can do the same for you.

5) Unfortunately, the audience for your translation will not consist solely of bilingual Arabic-English readers to whom you can retroactively justify your word choices. Despite your own underlying fidelity to the work (however that gets expressed in your decisions about things like foreignization vs. domestication), keep in mind that your translation will ultimately have to stand on its own. Take your responsibility to the text seriously, but not slavishly.

Good luck!


  1. Salma Ahmed
    July 30, 2011 @ 5:30 am

    These are v.useful tips, thanks alot!


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