16 More Rules for Translation: Elliott Colla & Richard Jacquemond

Elliott Colla is the translator of Ibrahim Aslan’s beautiful novel The Heron, Ibrahim al-Koni’s Gold Dust, and he occasionally translates work not written by non-Ibrahim authors. He has been a runner-up for the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literature.

Questions for translators, not rules. To be asked roughly in the following order:

1. Do you really have time to donate weeks or months of unremunerated labor, even if the cause is a good one?

2. Does this particular book really deserve a second life in another language? Why?

3. How would you compare the work to five other similar works in other languages?

4. Who is the English audience for the translation, and why would they be interested now? Do you have any evidence for believing this?

5. Are you doing this because of your love of Arabic literary culture, or your love of English?

6. Do you have a fool-proof system for knowing when you’ve gotten something wrong and when you’ve gotten it right? Would you share it with me?

7. Did you consider transposition, modulation, equivalence, adaptation or some combinations when working on the harder parts?

8. Did you ask the author about that thing you noticed in the original? How about all those other things?

9. How much of the third draft sounded good when you read it aloud to friends who know nothing of Arabic?

10. Did you ask the author again and again about every little thing thought might be significant?

11. How much of the fifth draft sounded good when you read it aloud?

12. Did you set your alarm for early tomorrow to make sure you translate a little before you go to your real job?

Richard Jacquemond is an eminent scholar and Arabic-French translator who has brought a number of Sonallah Ibrahim’s novels into French. Jacquemond spoke recently about translation at the AUC; you can watch a video of the event on YouTube.

1/ Read the previous installments of “translators’ rules.” They sum up the basics of the profession, both on the practical and the ethical side.
2/ Don’t get too serious about these translators’ rules. Rules are made to be transgressed. And translators are as much inclined as any other profession to live by the “do-what-I-say, don’t-do-what-I-do” principle.
3/ Fight for your rights. Translation, especially literary translation, is underpaid and underrecognized everywhere. Affiliate yourself to your national literary translators association if it exists, or to the closest collective body that represent literary translators. Check information and exchange with other translators on current rates, standard translation contracts, etc.
4/ Do something else. Not only because you cannot make a living on literary translation, especially from Arabic, but also and before all because it is constraining, exhausting, and it gets inevitably boring at one point or another, whatever excellent be the writing you are translating. You have to be obsessive to be a good translator, but you have to be able to slip out of your obsession, for its own sake!


  1. A.Z. Foreman
    March 13, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    “Who is the English audience for the translation, and why would they be interested now?”

    This question is particularly thorny, though (perhaps) not merely in the way its formulator intended, when translating from certain languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, Persian. I have many a reason to believe that e.g. this extremely short story by Abdulelah Abdulqader could attract an Anglophone audience for all the wrong reasons, simply because it happens to be in Arabic and about the sexual oppression and exploitation of (a) wom(a/e)n. I can all too well imagine that an unsophisticated Anglophone reader would read this as a commentary on Islam (because Arabic=Islamic for so many.) Indeed, a couple of (actually rather sophisticated) friends to whom I have shown my translation thereof seemed to read it in that way.

    More to the point (my point anyway), translators themselves -myself included- are not at all immune to this sort of thing.

    I would add a new question:

    “Why are you, the translator, interested in this work? How will a translation motivated by that interest do a service to the author of the original?”

    I once read a short story (which fortunately I didn’t translate) by Layla Al-Othman whose title ليلة القهر might be rendered in English as “The Night of Ruin”. A wonderfully wrought work of art, it treated themes such as women’s oppression, spousal abuse, the stench of the ladies’ room and women’s sexual frustration.

    It also contained a couple of Qur’anic allusions which I picked up on, and promptly seized on as pivotal to the story. I saw the title ليلة القهر as an ironization of ليلة القدر .

    In several bits that were clearly alluding to and syntactically echoing سورة القدر, I saw a sardonic commentary that mocked an overreligious patriarchy for its subjugation of women, deflating the male majesty that came at the expense of women’s ruination and exploitation.

    As the story described the dehumanizing treatment and psychological maladies that three women endured thanks to the pathetic specimens of humanity whom they were unfortunate enough to call their husbands, I did not see them as merely victims of misogyny, objectification and all the other ills of patriarchy. Rather, I perceived in this story a portrayal of these women as victims of religion specifically, but of religion more generally. When I learned, after a little googling, that Layla Al-Othman had in 2000 been imprisoned for two months for what the court called “statements hostile to religion and injurious to common decency” and that she had a fair amount of her writing banned in her native Kuwait, my inchoate impression turned into a staunch conviction. To my mind’s “I”, Layla Al-Othman was no longer just a talented writer. She was no longer herself, even, so much as my heroine.

    Then I had a conversation with an Arabic teacher about the story. He asked, quite simply, what was so sacreligious about it? These were women who were being denied sex by their husbands, whereas the Qur’an quite arguably countenances the opposite. The men were doing awful things to their wives, things which are by no means licensed by the relevant religious tradition(s) or scripture. ليلة القدر was not so much a sardonic backdrop as an honestly indignant one. A night that was the height of holiness was being used to show how UNholy these men’s behavior, and these women’s mistreatment, had been in the story.

    I debated with him along these lines for over an hour. Then the next day I woke up and realized: “hey, he’s kind of right. No wait, he’s completely right. ” I subsequently realized something far more disturbing. Namely, the reason why I had been wrong. I had not read the text, but rather the text that I wanted it to be. I saw in the author, the characters and their circumstances a virtuous unmasking of religion (and of one religion specifically) rather than just a damnation of patriarchy.

    The message of the story was in truth a far more direct feminist one, a far greater impeachment of a society that doesn’t live by its own rules. I had been ambushed by received ideas concerning sex, sexual taboos in gulf societies, and a whole range of unexamined assumptions passing inexcusably as common sense. I had not read the text, but read myself into the text. I should’ve really known better.

    So why didn’t I? Given the effort, however imperfect, which I like to think I expend trying to get past stereotypes, to see people as people, how could I have done this? More importantly, how many other times have I read a text in Persian or Arabic and done the same thing and not even realized it? How many literary translations had I already produced which were unwittingly informed and thus vitiated by such unexamined biases?

    Then I asked myself: why am I interested in foreign literatures anyway? Why did I put myself, and why do I continue to put myself, through the language-learning process over and over? What made me so eager for the foreign?

    The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my eagerness for the foreign was simply the foreign itself. Xenophilia.

    As J.E. Flecker has the characters Hassan and Ishak say in “The Story of Hassan of Baghdad”:

    Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,
    When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
    And softly through the silence beat the bells
    Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.
    We travel not for trafficking alone;
    By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned;
    For lust of knowing what should not be known,
    We take the Golden Road to Samarkand

    Whence the question: Did I just prove Eddie Said right? How could honest good will and curiosity lead to such a thing as I have described?

    The answer of course, is obvious: cultural narcissism caused by a combination of ignorance, prejudice, arrogance and thoughtlessness. I am not immune to these human vices. In fact, I, like most of our species -translators included-, instantiate them in various ways. Pretending otherwise to myself, as in this case, only makes me more susceptible to them. I quite literally had no idea what I was doing.

    I can but wonder how many translators, and how many translations produced thereby, bear the lowly stamp of such an origin.

    And it seems I’ve filled another of your comment boxes with a long rant. Apologies for my irrepressible prolixity.


  2. A.Z. Foreman
    March 13, 2012 @ 11:27 am


    “Rather, I perceived in this story a portrayal of these women as victims of *their* religion specifically, *as well as* of religion more generally. ”

    I should really proofread my prolixities more


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