By Tony Calderbank

13 September 2018 - 13:26

Person standing in front of bookshelves
'Translation is the circulatory system of the world’s literature' Photo ©

Radu Marcusu used under licence and adapted from the original.

Tony Calderbank has been translating from Arabic to English since 1992. He shares some of the knowledge he has acquired along the way. 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

An Arabic poet might compare thee to a day in spring. Summer in the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, or the hinterland of Najd in Saudi Arabia, is very different from summer in the Cotswolds in England.

When I taught Arabic-English translation (and translation theory), this was my favourite way to show a translator’s challenges. You can translate the words from English into Arabic, but what about the meaning and feeling? Would it be appropriate for the translator to change the season from summer to spring?

Translation is about taking decisions, choosing a word or phrase that is close to the original or creating a version that sounds more natural in the target language. Keen readers will scrutinise a translation and point out the things the translator has misunderstood or mistranslated.

I have been translating Arabic literature into English since 1992

Each new text brings its own challenges and demands. Sometimes I decide to leave Arabic words and idioms in the text, to give the English-speaking reader a taste of the source language and culture. Other times, I make the text sound more originally English.

When I translated Wolves of the Crescent Moon by Yousef Almohimeed, I kept many of the Arabic names for the trees that appeared in the desert scenes. I also kept words for items of clothing that have no English equivalent, or that would require a description. In similar cases, the translation might contain a glossary or footnotes to explain the Arabic terms.

Some things are impossible to translate

I once translated a novella by Egyptian writer Miral El Tahawi which describes the life of a young Bedouin girl. It contains many passages where the characters are all women. The original Arabic contains the feminine plural form for verbs which uses the letter 'n' (in Arabic it’s called nun al niswa, or 'women’s n'). This feminisation operates a bit like the -ess in Goddess, with every noun, pronoun, verb and adjective. In English, women and men are all 'they'.

The distance between languages affects translation

It is easier to translate from German into English, for example, than from Chinese or Arabic into English. Translators of classical Chinese poetry have the challenge of the absence of subject, number and tense in the original Chinese. The rhythm of the monosyllabic characters and the different tones exist in Chinese, but not in English.

Then there is the aesthetic of the poem written in calligraphy. Poetry not just spoken and heard but seen too, each line of five characters making a perfect rectangle when hung on the wall.

Arabic and English poetry have much in common despite their linguistic differences

The qaseeda, the poetic form which grew in the Arabian Peninsula in the sixth century just before the advent of Islam, probably evolved into the sonnets and odes of European poetry. This may be because the flourishing of Arabic culture in Andalusia attracted the attention of Europeans, who borrowed and adapted many aspects of the culture of the Muslim inhabitants of Spain.

Scholars of Arabic literature such as Reynold A. Nicholson have traced the journey through the Islamic conquest of Spain, the blooming of Arab culture and the arts in Andalusia, and the adoption of Arabic poetic forms by the troubadours who brought them to the attention of wider audiences in Europe.

These pre-Islamic qaseedas have metre (rhythm) based on long and short syllables, metaphor, alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhyme. Each line of the poem, for example, ends with the same letter.

In one qaseeda, the poet Imrul Qays describes his horse as mikarrin mifarrin mudbirin muqbilin ma’an (swift wheeling retreating advancing all together). The rolled Arabic r’s and the n’s recreate the sound of hooves on hard ground. He completes the description with an image of strength, power and movement: kajalmoudi sakhrin hattahu s-saylu min ‘ali (like a boulder tossed by the flood from on high).

The translator needs to understand the text both linguistically and culturally

A linguistic understanding alone is not sufficient, because it is important to understand why the writer uses a certain word or expression.

Most translators from Arabic into English have spent time in one or more Arabic-speaking countries. The translator into English also needs to write English well.

Generally, we translate into our mother tongue. People who can translate from Arabic to English and from English to Arabic have a great professional advantage.

Share your understanding of the text

Ideally, work with the author themselves, or with other readers.

Choose your audience. When I started translating literature in Egypt I would ask a native speaker when there was something I didn’t understand. I soon learned that being a native speaker doesn’t necessarily mean that you can explain a poem.

So, if you’re translating a poem, talk to native speakers who read poetry.

Spending time with the author is a good way to understand the text

Another great way to ensure that the translation reflects the original poem is to collaborate with poets from both languages.

They don’t have to know the other language, but can use what is known as a literal ‘bridge’ translation made by the translator. That is a word-for-word translation of the original, without making any changes to accommodate the culture or conventions of the target language. 

Sometimes the translator misunderstands or misreads the Arabic

Arabic does not have short vowels in most texts, so the written word are sometimes ambiguous. For example, the word jzr could be read as jazar (carrots) or juzur (islands) or jazr (ebb). The context often clarifies the meaning, but not always.

Translators also misunderstand idioms and allusions, or miss the writer’s irony or sarcasm.

I once translated a chapter from a novel by Saudi writer Abdu Khal entitled Tarmi Bi-sharar about the city of Jeddah. I knew, by chance, that the title was part of a verse from the Quran describing Hell.

I found the verse in one version Spewing sparks as big as castles. I made it the title of the novel, and I used it when I submitted the chapter. The editors kept it, but some commentators thought it was too long for a book title. I wondered if I should have used something more directly describing Hell.

Translation is the circulatory system of the world’s literature

It means you can read literature from any place and any period in history. Thanks to translation, you can read Gilgamesh and the Bible, Homer and the Bhagavad Gita not to mention a Hundred Years of Solitude or Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

Great civilisations have had translation schools and movements. In Baghdad in the tenth century, translators put Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic into Arabic. A translation school flourished in Toledo in the twelfth century. Many of the Arabic philosophical and medical texts that had been translated into Arabic in Baghdad were translated into Latin in Toledo. They may have contributed to the revival of learning in Europe, and the Renaissance.

When I studied Arabic in the 1970s, very few translators worked in the field

The few Arabic to English translations were made by academics rather than experienced literary translators, so the quality was variable.

Over the last three decades, more young people in the English-speaking world have opted to study Arabic at university and spend time in the Arabic-speaking world. The British Academy’s March 2018 Mapping of Arabic Language Provision in UK shows that there are 1,400 students of Arabic in UK higher education institutes now. There are 145 at the University of Manchester. When I studied Arabic at the same university from 1978 to 1982, there were around 20. In my final year I was the only one studying medieval Arabic poetry. 

In the wake of the 2011 revolutions, Arabic poets and writers are writing about politics, gender, sexuality and many other global issues. And of course, social media and digital technology have significantly increased opportunities to publish and access literature.

Poets from North Africa and the UK writing in Arabic, English and Tamzight are translating one another’s work into each other’s languages at a workshop in Tunis this week, organised by the British Council. Their translated work will be published in Modern Poetry in Translation in the first quarter of 2019.

You might also be interested in