Friday, December 24, 2010

ALECSO-SOAS symposium on translation of Arabic literature

Above: Rita Awad of ALECSO (R) with Banipal co-founder and publisher Margaret Obank

The recently-announced shortlist of six books for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, also known as the Arabic Booker) has triggered interest among translators and publishers keen to identify new titles for translation into English and other European languages.

One of the aims in creating the prize, launched in 2007 with funding from the Abu-Dhabi based Emirates Foundation, was to encourage an increased readership for Arabic literature through translation. As well as receiving a total of $60,000 in prize money, the winner is guaranteed translation of their novel into English; a number of the other shortlisted novels have also been translated.

The winner of the prize in its first year (2008), “Sunset Oasis” by Egyptian Bahaa Taher, has done well in its English translation by Humphrey Davies and has been translated into six other European languages. The English edition has been nominated for the world’s largest literary prize, the International IMPAC Dublin literary award worth 100,000 Euros.

The English translation by Jonathan Wright of the 2009 winner, Egyptian Yousssef Ziedan’s “Azazel”, is to be published by Atlantic next August. The novel has been translated into seven other European languages, and into Indonesian. The 2010 winner, Saudi writer Abdo Khal’s novel “Tarmi bi-Sharar” (“Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles”), is to be translated and published in English.

The role of IPAF in stimulating the translation and publishing of Arabic literature is just one sign of the growing international appetite for Arab literature in the two decades since Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz became in 1988 the first – and so far only – Arab to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

A three-day symposium on The Translation of Modern Arabic Literature into European languages held recently at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), London University explored many of the issues around the translation of Arabic literature.

The symposium was organised jointly by the SOAS Centre for Culture, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS), and the Tunis-based Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO).

In his welcome address the CCLPS chair Dr Ayman A El-Desouky (pictured) said the symposium represented “continual intellectual as well as institutional collaboration between SOAS and ALECSO”. It was the third SOAS-ALECSO symposium to be held since 2006.

Palestinian author and critic Dr Rita Awad of ALECSO said: “There is no doubt that translation is the cornerstone of cultural bridge-building and that literature, besides other artistic and cultural expressions, is the image and voice of the people’s spirit.” The translation of modern Arabic literature into European languages “will help in reforming the image of the Arabs and their cultures in the Western imagination, drawing a realistic human image in place of the long-prevailing stereotypes and their newly-drafted adaptations.”

The keynote address of was given by the Syrian Professor Sadik Jalal Al-Azm, Professor Emeritus of Modern European Philosophy at the University of Damascus on the subject of Translation and the Post-Modern. Professor Al-Azm was characteristically eloquent and challenging.

The participants in the symposium comprised around 20 scholars and experts from Europe, Russia and North America. One symposium theme was: “Are the works of modern Arabic literature received today only as the cultural production of a society in extremis, thereby confirming the zone of translation as a war zone, to quote Emily Apter?” (Apter, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at New York University, is author of the 2006 book “The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature”).

From the papers given by the two speakers from the US, Elliott Colla and Samah Selim, it appeared that the context of translation from Arabic to English in the US is more problematic and embattled than is the case in Europe.

Colla is Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC and is translator of several works of Arabic literature, including Libyan writer Ibrahim al-Koni’s “Gold Dust”. He said that while translation is often assumed to follow a path towards communication, comprehension and the deepening of cultural understanding, translation is “also a key part of how we conduct armed conflict. Indeed, translation is a routine protocol of modern empires, without which they would perish.”

Colla outlined the scope of contemporary military investment in Arabic-English translation, and depicted “the violent context in which, and against which us scholars and literary translators work in the present moment”,

In the past 10 years the US military and intelligence agencies have poured more than $10 billion into efforts to recruit, train and deploy tens of thousands of Arabic-English translators into the so-called Global War on Terror. According to one source, there are more than 10,000 military translators living in the Washington DC area alone.

In Iraq over 9,000 interpreters work for Global Linguist Solutions, the most successful of the various private firms who have received lucrative US contracts in translation and interpreting services. And the number of local Iraqi interpreters hired directly by the US army may be similar to this figure or even higher.

Samah Selim, the Egyptian born Assistant Professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages at Rutgers University, won the 2009 Saif Ghobash–Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for her translation of the collection of stories “The Collar and the Bracelet” by Egyptian Yahya Taher Abdullah.

Translation can be a lonely activity, and translators still sometimes receive less than their due acknowledgement. Selim spoke of “the intense work sessions, the daily grind, the moments of fantastic inspiration, the love-hate relationship to a text which is always a kind of paradox in that the text is one’s own and not one’s own. It’s a text that we as translators struggle selflessly to serve and at the same time selfishly to possess.”

Selim asked: “Why do we work so very hard as translators of Arabic for so little material reward? Now I think the answer is very obvious: let’s call it a labor of love – a visceral attachment to languages and their respective worlds, to the histories and places in which these languages are rooted and to the idea of culture as something, in Said’s words, to be fought over, tested and maybe even redeemed.” Translation is a vocation as much as a profession.

She examined the status of Arabic literature as “embargoed literature” as described by Edward Said in a 1990 essay of that title. This embargoing “depends on the silencing and, or, demonization of the voice of the ‘Other’ in order to succeed”.

There are in the US a number of institutions and organizations whose job is to police the ideological wall which was first raised up by the US versions of Orientalism, and by Cold War politics, and which has been greatly extended and reinforced by the events of 9/11. “There are real institutions with real sources of funding and real agendas that exist to continue this embargo.”

Selim distinguished the humanist translator from the committed or activist translator. To break the embargo requires “a different understanding of our role as translators and teachers as well as the ways in which conventional publishing restricts our ability to reach our full potential.” The committed or activist mode of translation depends on communities of activist translators working together.

As an example of committed translation Selim pointed to the Babels network of volunteer interpreters and translators, born out of the European Social Forum. Another example is the recent collaboration of Adalah – the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel – and the Palestine Education Project in New York on an anthology of contemporary prison writings by young men and women from the occupied territories.

The participants in the symposium included some of the most prominent translators of Arabic literature into European languages over the past two decades. Hartmut Fähndrich has translated more than 40 titles of contemporary Arabic literature into German. In 1984 he was appointed as editor of the Arabic Literature series of LENOS publishing house based in Basel, Switzerland. In 2009 he won a King Abdullah International Prize for Translation.

Among the many points Fähndrich made was that translators “get texts that sometimes leave very much to be desired.” There are often mistakes, or passages that are unclear in meaning, in the original Arabic. A main reason for this is that “Arab publishing houses lack editors.”

The Italian scholar and translator Isabella Camera d’Afflitto, Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at La Sapienza University in Rome, has translated authors including Naguib Mahfouz, Abd al-Rahman Munif, Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habibi and Latifa Zayyad. In her paper she examined the many choices that translation from Arabic involves. (She is currently a judge of IPAF 2011).

Like some other participants in the symposium, Isabella Camera d’Afflitto was involved in the groundbreaking project of the Amsterdam-based European Cultural Foundation, Mémoires de la Méditerranée, between 1994 and 2001. The project led to the publication of 50 translations of 12 Arabic titles prepared by nine translators working in different European languages. Eight workshops brought the Arab authors and their translators together at the Escuela de Traductores in Toledo. She spoke warmly of working in such a workshop with the novelist Abdul Rahman Munif on the translation of his book “Sirat Madina” (“Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman”) into English and six other European languages.

Gonzalo Fernandez Parrilla, Associate Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at Universidad Antonoma de Madrid gave a Spanish perspective on the history and current state of translation from Arabic. He has translated into Spanish works by authors including Moroccan Rachid Nini and Egyptian May Tilmisani and is the author of a history of modern Moroccan literature.

Yves Gonzalez-Quijano of the Institute Francais du Proche-Orient in Damascus spoke on his long experience in translation and promoting publication of Arabic literature in French, including creating for the French publishing house Actes Sud in the 1990s the Mondes Arabes collection of translated works of modern Arabic literature.

Marilyn Booth, Iraq Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh and co-director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, focused on the relationship between the original author of an Arabic literary text and the translator.

The emergence of Translation Studies as an academic discipline has led to “a welcome accenting of the translator’s creativity and autonomy as a producer of aesthetic culture.” But this new valuation of the translator as cultural actor, “as, indeed author”, may have effaced recognition of the other forces that go into production of the published text. Editors, and the publicity apparatuses that frame the published text, have a hand in producing the text as does the original author.

The relationship of first author to translator is “often intimate, sometimes tense”. It is no secret that Booth and the Saudi author Rajaa Alsanea fell out when Alsanea, without consulting Booth, made extensive changes to Booth’s translation of Alsanea’s debut novel “Girls of Riyadh”.

Booth had been attracted to the novel by its “linguistic poly-exuberance and structural experimentation” which she tried to reflect in her translation. Booth considered Alsanea’s alterations to her translation resulted in a blander and more clichéd translation, and diluted the novel’s experimentation.

Despite this experience, Booth thinks that author-translator negotiations and relationships are in most cases “not only positive but lead to ongoing collaborations and even wonderful friendships.”

Booth has been conducting a survey of fellow translators of Arabic literature into English and other languages. She contacted 25 translators, of whom 12 have so far responded, and she quoted some of their observations. One translator said “I think Arab authors sometimes think they know English better than they do.” Another comment was: “Generally, the greater the writer, the more humble he is.”

Booth said “this humility is likely to be enhanced if the author is also an experienced literary translator herself or himself.” After Booth translated Egyptian writer Somaya Ramadan’s novel “Leaves of Narcissus”, Ramadan wanted some rewrites. Booth found her experience of working with Ramdan on the rewrite very positive, “largely I think because the author is herself a translator and thus understands the process and all that goes into it.”

Rasheed El-Enany, Professor Emeritus at Exeter University, and editor of the Edinburgh Studies in Modern Arabic Literature series, spoke on translations of Naguib Mahfouz’s works. Of Mahfouz’s 35 novels (counting the three novels of the “Cairo Trilogy” separately), all but three have been published in English translation. The three missing translations are to be published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press by the end of 2011 – the centenary of Mahfouz’s birth. They are “Al Hubb Tahta al-Matar” (“Love in the Rain, translated by Nancy Roberts), “Qalb al-Layl” (“Heart of the Night”, translated by Aida Bamia) and Mahfouz’s final novel “Qushtumr” (“The Coffeehouse”, translated by Raymond Stock) published in 1988.

El-Enany has some concerns over the translation of the complete works of Mahfouz in English. “I don’t think that the entire oeuvre of Naguib Mahfouz deserves to be translated,” he said. “His 35 novels are of varying quality and artistic achievement. Some of them are hardly read in Arabic now and he was the first to admit, with his usual modesty, that he had written some very negligible fiction in order to deal with an issue of the day that he felt he needed to make a statement on.” But El-Enany acknowledged that even Mahfouz’s lesser works are still of socio-political interest.

El-Enany has encountered problems with some of the Mahfouz translations which he thinks are “symptomatic of the big majority of translations of Arabic fiction into English.” They include difficulties in translating dialect and colloquialisms, and in conveying the “religious register” of Arabic conversation. There is also a loss of the symbolic significance of proper character and place names.

Stefan Wild, Professor Emeritus in Semitic Languages and Islamic Studies at Bonn University, investigated in his paper “Translating Religion” the challenge translators of Arabic face in deciding how much Muslim vocabulary needs to be explained to the non-Muslim reader.

Banipal, the London-based magazine of modern Arab literature, has played an important role in bringing Arab writers to new readerships through translation into English from languages including Arabic, French, German and other European languages. Next February Banipal marks the 13th anniversary of the publication of its first issue in February 1998. So far the magazine has in 39 issues published no fewer than 650 Arab authors in English. It has also launched a book publishing arm and a translation prize.

Banipal’s co-founder, publisher and former editor Margaret Obank spoke on the Banipal experience. Among the things that interested symposium participants was the way in which Banipal had brought four young Arab authors for a tour of the UK, giving them direct contact with new readerships at local venues such as public libraries, bookshops and theatres.

The growth in translation of Arabic literature over the past 20 years has coincided with developments in Translation Studies and Translation Theory, including US translation theorist Lawrence Venuti’s depiction of “foreignisation” versus “domestication” translation strategies.

While “foreignisation” communicates linguistic and cultural differences in a translation, rather than removing them, and intentionally keeps a sense of “foreginness”, “domestication” adapts the translation to the target culture as far as possible.

Christina Phillips, lecturer in Arabic Literature and Media at the University of Exeter, noted that “domestication” has come to be regarded by some as “reductive and deceptive”, while “foreignizing” translation strategies have gained favor. But Phillips argued that “the domesticating approach can be extremely effective in some cases while foreignization, even as it achieves its goal of disrupting target cultural norms and assumptions, can be self-defeating and obstruct cultural exchange”.

Phillips explored the differences between the two translation strategies through references to her own published translation of Mahfouz’s “Hadith al-Sabah wa’s-Masa’”, which could be seen as a “foreignized” translation, and to Lebanese author Hanan Al-Shaykh’s memoir of her mother “Hikayati Sharh Yatul” translated into English by Roger Allen. The London publisher Bloomsbury successfully “domesticated” the translated book for a Western readership by extensively restructuring and repackaging it, under the title “The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story”.

Although translation of modern Arabic literature into English and other European languages has increased, the amount of literature in translation remains relatively small. Publishing expert Peter Ripken [pictured (R) with Hartmut Fähndrich (centre) and Stefan Wild), who was for many years associated with the Frankfurt Book Fair, put things into perspective with his figures on the availability of Arab literature into German. There are some 600 books by Arab authors in print in German, of which some 450 are translations from Arabic and other languages while the remainder were written in German by authors including Syrian- born Rafik Schami.

The figure of 450 translations is less than 0.3 per cent of all books in the German fiction market, which is 40 per cent translated. Even in the German-language literary arena, which has done more than most to support translation and publication of Arab authors, translated Arab literature still has only a relatively modest presence.

Although the symposium was primarily concerned with Arabic literature in translation, attention was also paid to Arab authors who write directly in English and other European languages. The increasing presence of such authors may help promote interest in Arab literature in general and encourage translators and publishers to search for fresh Arab voices. But at the same time the growing availability of works from Arab authors written in European languages may not be good news for Arab authors whose work needs to be translated. In the German-language market the dominant position held by the prolific German-writing Rafik Schami who could lead German readers to think his voice is the voice of Arab literature.

Susannah Tarbush