Much translation is dependent on its economic context, but also on the political situation from which it emerges. In Egypt, there has been a renewed interest in knowledge production since the 2011 revolution, but also a sinking economy. New possibilities, but also new limits, are being felt out. In collaboration with Jenifer Evans (English-language culture editor of bilingual Egyptian website Mada Masr), Lina Attalah (co-founder of Mada Masr) questions Nael El Toukhy (novelist and translator from Hebrew to Arabic) and MF Kalfat (critic and English-Arabic translator) about how funding and political change affect translation and language more generally, and what, if anything, translation cannot do. How important is the agency of the individual translator in all this – from choosing a text and getting it published, to the political processes of choosing words, compensating for what’s lost in translation, and even leaving things out? Why do certain authors get translated at a specific moment, and is there anything that we cannot translate?
MF Kalfat: One product of the 2011 revolution is a new energy in the fields of knowledge production. For a direct political reason, there are more initiatives and more ideas, and this includes the field of translation. We now have collectives translating the intellectual heritage of anarchy, and I personally became curious about what’s been translated from feminist literature, in seeing a survey of what’s there, in learning why Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble hasn’t been translated to Arabic. Is it because it’s too challenging for translators?
It makes me wonder about how these critical histories come and go without passing through our region. I have this anxiety about how certain [foreign] thoughts never arrived here in the first place — like certain feminist trends, although we talk a lot about women’s rights. A few personal initiatives after the revolution have been trying to address these absences, but there’s an economic issue: people who translate articles voluntarily don’t translate books. A book demands a different kind of effort and investment.
Local institutions took up the translation of part of the Oxford Very Short Introductions series. Never before was the word “anarchism” uttered in Egypt as much as in the last five years, so I proposed Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction for translation. The response from the marketing department of the commissioning institution was—and this should make us think of economy and capital as rational and knowing creatures—“that book wouldn’t sell”. I’m curious about how that judgment was made. I know that we’re controlled by an arrangement that’s not innocent. That’s why a high percentage of what I translate is my own choice and not by commission.
Nael El Toukhy: Most times, translations result from a translator having a passion for a given book and proposing it to a publisher. The largest institution working on translations in Egypt today, the National Center for Translation, functions this way. I think the history of translation into Arabic is primarily based on individual interests, not institutional ones. This is the case too with languages that aren’t widely spoken, like Hebrew, which I translate.
Lina Attalah: Is the opposite also true, from Arabic to other languages?
MF.K.: It’s hard to say without having a full catalogue of what’s been translated.
E.T.: That’s the catastrophe. Because of individual initiatives, some people translate books that have already been translated without realizing it. There’s no effort made in the region to create an index.
MF.K.: In 2010, I wanted to read Crane Briton’s writing about the French revolution, which asks how revolutions happen. I ordered The Anatomy of Revolution and made a serious translation proposal after making sure it hadn’t been translated. But I’d looked for a straight translation of the title and found out later that it had been translated under a different title: Revolution, its Reasons and Consequences.
N.E.T.: I should say that the revolution empowered translation, regardless of the economic context. It became a sexier field and translators, like writers, are becoming well known figures. People utter the name of translator Soheir Saleh Almany from Syria/Palestine the same way they utter the name of Naguib Mahfouz. This has nothing to do with economic opportunities. We’re talking about a revolutionary stage, a fluidity, lots of damage, all happening in parallel with the strange phenomenon of a growing interest and love for the Arabic language in influential circles. The shops of the upper-income Cairo neighborhood Zamalek now have Arabic names, and they used to be English. There’s an interest in some kind of authenticity. Authenticity has become the new chic.
MF.K: Authenticity or ethnicity?
N.E.T.: Ethnicity’s cool too. You also see translators posting discussions on Facebook about how certain words can be translated, which shows there’s something you want to share, not just inquire about privately in an email.
L.A.: To what extent are you conscious of being political agents when translating? There’s a militant approach seeking to enlighten people people discover something they don’t know. In your case, Nael, you’re introducing the language spoken by the “enemy.” Kalfat, you’re introducing people to the colonizer’s language. You’re bringing the enemy home, and becoming a political agent in a collective imagination.
N.E.T.: I had a blog [titled “Thus Spoke Cohen” in Arabic for three years where I used to translate Israeli literature every week. I’d post a text with the writer’s biography. I was acting as a pure translator, working with books and writers with whom I disagree politically because I thought nobody knew them. I thought that there was a mission to introduce people to Israeli literature. When the revolution happened, I stopped and got busy with what was happening and took a two-year break. I then went back to translating, slowly but differently, only texts I liked. I wondered why it was expected of me to translate Israeli literature for [Egyptian] people. I’m a writer before being a translator, I thought. I translate out of passion, so I translate works I like artistically and which I’m convinced of politically. Why should I translate a regressive writer? Why should I be implicated in introducing Israeli literature to people rather than something I like?
That’s why I invested in translating Almog Behar’s Rachel and Ezkiel . It’s far from what’s imagined about Israeli literature in terms of spying, intelligence, and flying houses. It’s a very calm, almost boring novel about the suffering of a religious man. If there’s anything else I like, I’ll translate it too. In recent years, I found myself interested in Arab Jews and after that, everything I’ve translated including that novel and other articles published in the Beirut-based As-Safir daily, belong to politics and culture. I’m not interested in translating an article in Haaretz about Egypt’s political position, or being implicated in one position or another.
L.A.: How does political agency manifest itself in your translation work, Kalfat, as someone interested in the heritage of orientalism and colonialism?
MF.K.: At first, I was naïve. I thought I was translating for the people, stealing the fire of knowledge and giving access to non-English speakers, to those who can’t afford expensive English books—a conviction that gives the translator a noble mission.
On the level of political agency, invisible censorship is what’s problematic. I discovered this with a translation of Mark Twain’s children novel Huckleberry Finn, in which the protagonist organizes a gang to kidnap and kill. In Maher Nessim’s translation—part of the 1000 Books Project [a major translation movement in Egypt after Mohamed Ali]—there was no indication that it was an abridged or polite version. In the translated novel, children organize a group of conscripts to support the police. And it’s still [presented as] a Twain novel. The translator’s political agenda here was in total contradiction with Twain’s politics. Agency can also relate to personal opinions based on illusions.
My case is different from Nael’s because I translate from English, the lingua franca, which is also the language of the historic colonizer that no one even talks about today. I was close to a translator working on an orientalist work. Every time the author spoke about saints in the context of moulids [celebrations of religious figures], the translator would translate it as “qedees” [saint]. I’d tell her that that was a literal translation and that the author meant “awleya” [God’s appointed workers]. She said, “I know that’s what he means, but I want to tell him that awleya are saints too.” A translation that seems initially wrong will illuminate something of a political nature for the reader.
In some cases, I see a translator’s agency as a leap. I translated HIV/AIDS: A Very Short Introduction, and there was a sentence with both the words homosexuality and lesbianism. I thought it would be weird to translate it as “al-methleya” and “al-methleya” [since Arabic doesn’t have a word for lesbianism, which is linguistically conferred to homosexuality]. One solution was to use “methelyat al-zohour” and “methelyat al-unath” [male homosexuality and female homosexuality]. But what do we know about people wanting to be labeled as men or women? So I did some going around. I said lesbianism doesn’t even need to be translated because it’s a proper noun originating from Lesbos, the Greek island. I thought the Arabic word could be a proper noun around lesbianism, hence “lesbaneya.” I know I’m changing history here, but I feel there’s a certain necessity for that.
L.A.: To what extent do you make space for strangeness or “foreignation” in the way you translate?
N.E.T.: In translating Rachel and Ezekial, that question was present. I wanted to use a smooth language, and I feel that with some effort, Arabic is ready for a lot of things. You can always resort to deriving words from the linguistic triple root. In some cases, you need to use the foreign word, but in most cases there will be an Arabic word available. Migrating words can be located. For example, in the novel there’s the word “synagogue,” which translates in Arabic to “maabad.” But there is also “kanis,” used by Arabs in old times. It is close to today’s word “kanissa” (Arabic for church), but it also goes back to the Hebrew root “knesset,” which is the place where people congregate. Arabic is is rich in time and space. Even its colloquial forms have answers for us.
Strangeness is needed sometimes. In Rachel and Ezekial, the characters talk about God a lot, so I translated it as “Al-Rab,” not “Allah,” although Jewish rabbis used the word Allah in the Middle Ages, in the Arab world, when translating from Hebrew to Arabic. But I wanted to instill a sense of strangeness. Al-Rab is how Christians translated God in the Old Testament. It’s a way to remind the reader that this is about Jewish spirituality, not Islam. I try to find Arabic words as much as possible, and I try to make it smooth as much as possible, but I have to remind readers that this is about Jewish Arabic, not Islamic Arabic. “Al-Quds” was a complex one to translate for me. Al-Quds is Orshaleem in the Old Testament. Orshaleem/Jerusalem/Al-Quds comes in the novel in a religious context, but also sometimes in an everyday life context. So it’s a city but also a spiritual space. I decided that in the novel’s religious contexts, where there’s prayers for example, I’d call it Orshaleem — Orshaleem the city of God, etcetera — and in the everyday life situations, I’d use Al-Quds, especially in parts where the writer talks about East Jerusalem, which is Palestine. Orshaleem would alert people that we’re talking about Judaism; it’s a spiritual choice, while Al-Quds, despite all the spirituality that exists in the Arab nationalist discourse, we can treat as a city [that exists in the world].
MF.K.: So this name choice turned them into two cities, even though they’re one space.
N.E.T.: Yes, and sometimes it becomes confusing and it makes me wonder: does he mean the religious sense, or are the two totally enmeshed? They are not always separate. Sometimes it becomes Al-Quds-Orshaleem. I spoke to the writer about this and he welcomed it. Al-Quds is what attracts his attention because he’s used to Orshaleem. Orshaleem, the more distant word for us, is what he’s used to.
MF.K.: It’s not straightforward at all. The first time I saw the word Orshaleem, it was shocking. It was in a street in downtown Cairo where buses take off to different cities. One goes to Israel. It had on it: Orshaleem—Al-Qahera (Cairo). That associated Orshaleem with negative connotations because it tells the enemy, “that city is yours.”
N.E.T.: Right, and Orshaleem for me is the Old Testament, spirituality.
L.A.: How do you play out foreignation or strangeness, Kalfat?
MF.K.: My conscience is my main reference. In 2010, I started translating Edward Lane’s Description of Egypt, which contains the word “barge.” He’s on a trip at sea, and so many words describe forced labor. In modern times, barge started being translated as “al-barega,” which has such a strong Arabic echo that you feel it’s an Arabic word, but isn’t, it’s a translation of barge. Just like “al-warsha”; people forget that it’s not an Arabic word, just a translation of “workshop”. That’s skillful, but it also hides important histories. I opted for “barega harbeya” (military barge). I thought to myself, what did they call it back then? One concerns was, will I be translating Lane with the Arabic of his time, which would be fraudulent, because I don’t speak that Arabic? Can I do something that simulates the Arabic of his time to invite the readers to that environment? The other extreme would be to translate as though Lane were writing in 2015. What I did was a mix between the two.
But in the process of translating barge, I found through extensive research — although good luck, coincidence, and the Internet all play key roles in these searches — that the word in use was “ibriq,” a word you don’t find in dictionaries anymore. If you look into old Arabic texts, you’ll find it. Of course, a word like “ibriq” entails strangeness, but a strangeness that takes you somewhere, that makes you feel time.
Every time I translate to Arabic, I feel I’m being a pan-Arab nationalist, which I’m not at all, but there’s inevitably this struggle. With time, and the desire to simplify and reach wider audiences, I feel that we’re killing the dictionary — I know that’s a violent expression, and I’m not saying it because I’m attached to authenticity and identity. But think of “maktaba,” which translates into English as “stationary,” “library,” “bookshop.” The interchangeability between these different words is frightening. When I see Syrians use the word “qortaseya” (stationary shop), I realize how problematic it is to have one word for so many functions. The person reviewing the Lane translation who’s older than I wanted to go for simple, smooth choices, while I was going for more complex ones. There is what Nael was referring to, that newborn passion for Arabic from young people. It’s interesting how the older generation wants to be modern, while we want something different. Perhaps we’re more conscious of the problem of the flattening of words that serve different meanings? Killing the dictionary entails killing both new and old words through simplification. The innocent intention to simplify can actually be a form of censorship, exclusivity, and closure of important discussions.
There’s also the issue of colloquialisms. I never found a satisfying translation for “hack.” I only found “karwata” — I know hacking is originally related to horses, and karwata can be connected to carts, as in horse carts. Could they be related? I don’t know. There’s no etymology. It’s a maze. If we had a map of what’s been translated, an etymological map and a map showing how words are said in different countries in the region, I’d have choices and wouldn’t have to go on tiring trips to find the right words.
N.E.T.: But aren’t these trips also entertaining?
MF.K.: They are, but the word for which you receive 25 piasters ($0.03) takes how long to be written? It’s an economic choice.
L.A.: I’m interested in impossibility, compromise, and whether these have a ceiling — is there a moment where we say: let’s not translate? Do we sometimes say we should save a text by not translating it?
N.E.T.: For me, it’s always a challenge. I’ve never reached an extreme of saying it is impossible to translate. It will just be a more challenging and entertaining adventure. I was having a discussion with another translator about poets Salah Jaheen and Fouad Haddad, and he was saying that Jaheen can be translated to all other languages but Haddad can’t, and that a translator should be aware that Haddad’s impossible to translate. When I was on a residency in the US, we had a shared space where we sang and read poetry. So I read out to them a poem by Haddad called Hayou Ahl al-Sham (Salute the People of the Levant). There were writers from all over the world and they didn’t understand anything of what I was saying. They were impressed by the poem’s sound and rhythm. I told them to just listen. When I tried to explain what was in the poem, I started from the simplest theme: “al-messaharati” (the man who calls people from the street to wake for their last meal at dawn before the Ramadan fast begins). It took me ages just to explain that we have a ritual around Ramadan once a year and so on. And that’s the poem’s easiest part. Poetry has rhymes—it’s impossible to translate that. In this case, I guess it’s O.K. to say no, although I haven’t reached that point yet, maybe because I’m translating from Hebrew.
MF.K.: Some clichés take on their own lives and become a curse. We know Haddad, and there are other famous examples, like the impossibility of translating James Joyce. But we have translators everywhere feeling very challenged by that and wanting to translate him. We have two Chinese translations of Joyce, for example. There’s also the Brazilian [João Guimarães Rosa’s] Grande Sertau, which has been translated to English as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, but also used as a model for untranslatability. It was written to be understood by Brazilian Portuguese speakers, not Portuguese people or people who just happen to know Portuguese. Guimarães Rosa invented something. Yet all these things have been translated.
Robert Frost once said that poetry is what is lost in translation. That’s such a strong sentence. How can we translate poems when what’s lost is poetry? The sentence lived in me and there’s something comforting in it. But with time, I realized that it’s full of problems. I came to realize that the truth is in the opposite: poetry is what survives translation. In Walter Benjamin’s text about translation, translatability is not tied to the presence of a potential translator who’s not necessarily here in this place or in that time — our judgment has to follow other elements. So in my opinion, Fouad Haddad’s translator does exist. But sometimes I wonder what’s the use of translating an author like Joyce, adding footnotes after footnotes that take away from the enjoyment of reading? It’s not just a text in English that you’re reading, but a piece of writing that requires some knowledge of Irish history and Christian culture. But these are very special cases. The potentials of translation and its cycles are wide. If you come to think about it, how did things like the Bible get translated? Every translation starts from a certain impossibility.