Where is the translator’s voice?
As a long-time translator, teacher and reader of contemporary Arabic fiction, and as one of this year’s judges for the Saif al-Ghobashi-Banipal Prize, I read with delight David Tresilian’s report on the London Book Fair’s focus on contemporary Arabic fiction (“Fun at the Fair,” 24-30 April 2008). It is wonderful that those attending the Fair could hear writers, publishers and critics discuss the state of Arabic fiction and its afterlives in translation. As Tresilian’s report suggests, there is lively debate across Arab societies about the socio-cultural importance of the novel in its home territories, as there is discussion of how best to communicate what is going on in Arabic fiction to readers around the world.
Tresilian speculated, reasonably, that the unanswered question at the Fair was whether a new world-class talent from the region was about to emerge on the world literary scene, in the wake of popular success that a handful of novels of Arabic provenance have recently (and sometimes controversially) enjoyed. After all, the Fair exists first and foremost as a marketplace of texts and personalities–fictions and their authors–available for promotion and circulation by multinational publishing conglomerates based in Europe and North America (and it is no surprise that some pundits in the West assume the role of trying to tell Arab writers what to write).
As usual, to judge by Tresilian’s report, translators were mostly absent in London Book Fair sessions, although publishers weighed in on what gets translated and why. It is equally important to attend to the how of translation. For the translator is crucial to a literary work’s success (a point that ought to be obvious but is often occluded, in discussions, reviews and publishers’ choices).
If a good translation cannot guarantee the success of a novel, a bad translation can guarantee lukewarm or negative reception. Yet translators are more often than not ignored if not vilified in the process. Writers and critics need to understand what we translators do and what our constraints are in an increasingly globalised, multinational, profit-seeking publishing business. Writers and publishers alike must respect our art and our expertise if they hope truly to put Arabic literature on the global map.
By way of example, I want to highlight–and contest–one of the few references to translation in Tresilian’s article. He noted that Saudi author Rajaa Alsanea “said that she had collaborated on the English translation” of her novel. Indeed, her name appears on the English version’s title page as one of the translators; I am the other. But if Alsanea did use the word “collaborate,” she misrepresented what actually occurred.
Translation should be a process of respectful collaboration among translator, author, editor and press, but Girls of Riyadh and Rajaa Alsanea are not a shining example of that ideal. When I was asked by Penguin Books to translate the novel, I made it clear that I wanted and needed the author’s input, particularly in handling local idioms and youth-culture expressions. Beyond one or two questions early in the translation process, Alsanea did not respond. Rather, after I had submitted the entire manuscript, Alsanea informed Penguin Books that she did not accept my translation and wished to work on it herself. The editors at Penguin Books let her do what she wanted.
She made many changes and deletions that not only added many clichés to the text but, more seriously, detracted from the spirit and the political resonance of the novel, part of which surfaces through a politics of young people’s language use, which I worked to convey in my translation. Alsanea’s changes, which in my view also muted the original novel’s gender politics, may have contributed to what have been generally and understandably negative reviews of the English translation.
The situation is highly ironic, for in my view (and many critics disagree), Banat al-Riyadh is a clever, original and deeply political work of literature, but Alsanea’s intervention as “translator” has neutralised much of that, rendering Girls of Riyadh far less interesting. In any case, I was given no opportunity to voice my opinion about Alsanea’s alterations to the translation–no opportunity, in other words, to “collaborate.” The only decision I was permitted to make was whether I wanted my name on the title page! (Readers interested in the differences between my translation and that published by Penguin may read my essay on the topic in the July 2008 issue of Translation Studies published in the UK).
The highly unprofessional manner in which Penguin Books and Alsanea treated me is an extreme but not unprecedented case of the tendency to minimise and devalue the importance of the translator’s work, as a creative artist and as a cultural, linguistic and literary expert. As publishers look for marketable “star” authors and as authors seek fame, this devaluation of translation–the literary process that must take place if the work is to garner a “world audience”–may become, sadly, even more pronounced than it already is in the literary marketplace.
The changes that Alsanea made are in line with the sort of easy hybridity that publishers think readers prefer, as opposed to an engagement with the original text and culture that compels readers to move outside of their comfortable notions about the rest of the world: to learn something new. It is a vicious circle, of course. If English-reading audiences are led to expect that they need not engage with other cultures on those cultures’ own terms (for example, in Banat al-Riyadh, the ways Saudi youth verbalise global consumer culture in a local idiom), they will remain in their own comfortably isolated cultural easy chairs, unaware of the rich cultural specificities, political nuances, and beautifully jolting reading experiences passing them by.
I believe that readers want more than that. And it is not just a question of what gets selected for translation. It’s also a question of how an Arabic literary work becomes an English literary work, and of what threads are left out as the novel’s texture is woven anew.
In my long experience as a literary translator, I have found the great majority of writers and editors to be deeply respectful of my work and to value true collaboration. Most authors are neither arrogant nor unethical, after all; and most have respect for translators’ unique skills. Many novelists, indeed, are also experienced and sensitive professional literary translators. (Alsanea is not one of them.) But I fear that in the current haste to find the next “Arab bestseller,” the translator’s special and crucial role in creating lasting art will become a victim, to the detriment of writers and readers everywhere.