Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 February 2006
Issue No. 782
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mitigating resistance

Isabella Camera d'Afflitto, Italy's leading translator of Arabic literature, speaks with Hala Halim of the strategies she employs in translating -- and promoting -- contemporary literary texts

photo: Sherif Sobol

Isabella Camera
photo: Sherif Sobol

Spirit of Toledo

At a roundtable discussion during the conference on "Translation and the Knowledge Society" organised by the Supreme Council for Culture (SCC, 11-14 February) one of the participants remarked that in Italy publishers expect a translator from Arabic to render any reference to God as "Allah" -- one of many examples demonstrating the exoticising perception of Arab culture. The speaker was Isabella Camera d'Afflitto, professor of Arabic language and literature, University of Rome, and the foremost Italian translator of Arabic literature. January's winner of the 2006 Grinzane Cavour translation prize, she was also one of the honorees at the SCC translation conference.

"That I received two awards in the space of one month, one from Italy and one from Egypt, makes me happy, particularly because it is good news for the new generation of translators," she says. A gracious statement, certainly, but one that also attests to the hurdles she was forced to overcome in deciding to dedicate the larger part of her career to translating modern Arabic literature. At one of the conference sessions she had remarked that when she entered the field there were barely any modern Arabic literary texts available in Italian, the few exceptions being such canonical works as Taha Hussein's Al-Ayyam. But "Naguib Mahfouz's luck [in winning the Nobel Prize for Literature] was my luck," she quips, her words a measure of the distance between the situation of Italian translations of modern Arabic literature in the 1970s and now.

To what extent has her base in academe enabled her practice as translator? Is her translation work ever factored into her academic promotions? Whereas she ultimately uses her academic post to subsidise her translation work, she answers, this was by no means an obvious formula. As a graduate student of Arabic literature her professors were traditional orientalists for whom the field meant the classical period, and who frowned on her interest in modern Arabic literary texts, more so because what she chose to focus on in her doctoral research was something as current and political as Palestinian literature. In terms of translating she devised a legitimising strategy, first presenting academic research on the subject; it was after she had done doctoral work on Palestinian novels and short stories that she went on to translate writers such as Ghassan Kanafani and Emile Habibi.

Camera d'Afflitto says that before the Nobel was awarded to Mahfouz she had translated, in addition to five Palestinians writers, an Iraqi, Fouad Al-Takarli. But the translations were for small publishing houses since mainstream publishers until then expressed no interest in Arabic literature. But when Mahfouz became a Nobel laureate, she continues, being the only translator of modern Arabic literature in Italy meant that she began to be contacted by publishing houses about translating his work. She promptly got going on Miramar and "then I discovered Arabic literature from the Gulf to the Ocean!"

Since then she has founded and continues to edit a series of contemporary Arab authors in translation produced by the publishing house Jouvence. Most of the translators come from a younger generation than their editor, and some were her students. The list of translated Arabic titles from Jouvence is geographically comprehensive, covering as it does texts all the way from Morocco (Mohamed Shukri), via Egypt (Bahaa Taher, Edwar al-Kharrat, Ibrahim Aslan, among others), Palestine (Ghassan Kanafani, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and Sahar Khalifa), Lebanon (Rashid Al-Daif, Elias Khouri, Hoda Barakat and Hanan Al-Sheikh), Syria (Hanna Minah and Sa'dallah Wannus) and Iraq (Abdel-Ilah Abdel-Qadir) to Kuwait (Laila Al-Uthman), as well as at least one transnational, transcultural figure -- Lebanese Etel Adnan, translated from French.

Camera d'Afflitto says she enjoys scouting for new texts: she was in Beirut when Algerian writer Ahlam Mosteghanemi's Dhakirat Al-Jasad ( Memory in the Flesh ) first came out, and once back in Italy overcame a publisher's reservations about translating the then unknown writer with the result that the novel was translated into Italian before Mustaghanemi won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal from the American University in Cairo and Dhakirat Al-Jasad was translated into English. In addition, she says she edited and translated an anthology, in two volumes, of Arabic short stories, Scrittori Arabi Del Novecento (1996), brought out by Bompiani, one of Milan's leading publishing houses. The collection was reprinted in 2002. Conceived as a panorama both generationally and geographically, the anthology, she adds, enables her to direct graduate students towards authors they might want to work on by suggesting that they select the writer who interests them from the sample given in the volume.

Whatever Camera d'Afflitto's own successes in the field of translation, and in getting those translations into print, she remains fully conscious that a great deal of work still needs to be done in terms of the reception of Arabic literature in Italy. "In Italy we are geographically close to the Arab world but we think of ourselves as far from it," she commented at the conference.

How would she compare the impact of Italy's colonial role in Libya on the reception of Arabic literature to France's vexed relation to North Africa, specifically Algeria? It is a past, she says, that is not fully acknowledged and still constitutes a trauma, more so than in the case of France vis-à-vis Algeria; the film Omar Mukhtar (or Lion of the Desert ), for example, is only ever screened late at night on television and is not readily available in Italy. Nevertheless, she has had Libyan writer Ibrahim al-Koni translated and has proposed that he be invited to the book fair in Turin. More broadly, she suggests that while Arabic literature is more readily available than before, the interest in Arab culture does not seem to have picked up accordingly, a discrepancy due to Italian perceptions of cultural superiority.

Given her comments at the roundtable about her own practice in relation to the exoticising perception of Arab culture in Italy, I ask her how she views the translational approach prescribed -- in the American context -- by Lawrence Venuti, where domesticating the difference of the original is to be guarded against in favour of a strategy that retains the foreignness of the text and keeps in view its status as a translation. It is an approach the applicability of which to the Arab context has been critiqued -- by, among others, Michael Toler -- on the grounds that it can act to reinforce Orientalist perceptions. She says that whereas she is not familiar with Venuti, she adopts the opposite strategy, that of making the original accessible: in place of a footnote explaining who the Al-Mutanabbi referred to in the text is she will insert the phrase "classical poet", does away with glossaries, works against the tendency that the Arabic, no matter how modern, should be rendered in a more archaic version of Italian, and seeks to place her translations with commercial publishing houses so that they can reach a wider audience.

It is an approach, she asserts, that is crucial in Italy where books about the Middle East that sell tend to be of the kind that carry keywords such as "women and the desert" in their titles. Camera d'Afflitto recalls a woman reader who once reproached her about a translation of hers with "but it sounds like Italian," her own response being "why shouldn't it?" Yes, there is a call for cultural dialogue, she concludes, but this cannot take place except through translation, and more translation.

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