Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 December 2009
Issue No. 976
Entertainment
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A new forum for translators

Rania Khallaf attended a seminar that promises new horizons for literary translations

Johnson-Davies

The American University in Cairo's newly established Center for Translation Studies (CTS) has held its first lecture series. In its first lecture held at the university's Oriental Hall last week, the CTS hosted the leading Arabic-English translator Denys Johnson-Davies, one of the most popular translators in the Arab world. In his lecture, Johnson- Davies spoke of his memories and encounters with Arab writers during his wide-ranging literary career. The writers included Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfik El-Hakim, Youssef Idriss, Yehia Haqi, Edward El-Kharrat, Tayeb Saleh and Salwa Bakr -- most of them Egyptian. "It is perhaps natural, having lived most of my life in Egypt, that I have given pride of place in my translating activities to Egyptian writers," Johnson-Davies commented. "The Arab world," he continued, "is made up of many countries and it is difficult to keep up with what is being published in all of them." "Despite this, I have endeavoured to introduce to the English reader a considerable number of Arab writers from both the Mashreq and the Maghreb."

Launched this year, the CTS aims to foster collaborative outreach programmes and research in translation and translation studies to enhance interaction and cooperation between the AUC and other Egyptian, regional and international institutions.

"We will focus on interdisciplinary work and will encourage the free exchange of ideas to promote translation as a cultural political practice that can enable innovation and generate new spaces for the development of individual societies and cross-cultural conversation," says Samia Mehrez, professor of Arab and Islamic civilisation and the center's director. Mehrez obtained her BA and MA degrees at AUC and completed her PhD at the College of Los Angeles, where her dissertation focussed on the works of the Egyptian writer Gamal El-Ghitani.

Ever since its foundation 90 years ago, the American University in Cairo has been seen by the public as a vital bridge between East and West. The AUC department for Continuing Education contains a vital translation programme which has produced an abundance of efficient translators. Mehrez told Al-Ahram Weekly that the new CTS would work in collaboration with the School of Continuing Education, and would focus on redesigning and restructuring the already existing courses. "We are not going to replace the school. On the contrary, it has the history and an infrastructure, and it will work as an active player in this new centre," she said.

Besides the lecture series "In Translation", the CTS will convene a yearly international translation studies conference. It will also hold theoretical, historical and practical thematic workshops and seminars for researchers, students, faculty members and professional translators. Another programme, "Translators in Residence", will be held each semester and will host distinguished translation theorists and practitioners who will have a teaching role in the theoretical seminars and practical workshops. There will also be an annual bilingual journal, In Translation, to announce the best student in translation, review translations in the market, and suggest works for translation and interview translators and publishers.

Mehrez believes the new CTS is different from other academic translation institutions in Egypt. "It combines theory and practice with a belief that they inform each other, while most existing institutions focus on practice," she told the Weekly.

"Our aim is not to produce translators. We are trying to construct a community of people interested in performing translation and also informed about its problematic issues."

During the session, which fell just short of two hours, Johnson- Davies discussed some of the challenges he faced when translating Arabic literature into English. The audience, which was relatively large for a cultural event, represented various groups including Egyptian translators, American students of Arabic literature and members of the general public.

Johnson-Davies, who has translated more than 25 novels and short stories and was the first to translate the works of Naguib Mahfouz, believes that publishers today are primarily business people who are risk averse, particularly in the case of books translated from Arabic. "Native English-speaking readers usually veer away from translated books," Johnson-Davies said, adding that he had always sought to find a reliable publisher, who would look favourably on Arabic translations.

In the centre's schedule are other lecture events by respected translators such as novelist and translator Ahdaf Sweif, and Humphrey Davies, who translated Alaa El-Aswany's The Yacoubian Building, and novels by Ahmed El-Aidi.

Next May the centre will host a workshop in collaboration with the AUC Institute of Women and Gender Studies and Women and Memory group. The one-day workshop will discuss problems that arise in translation, focussing particularly on gender studies, Mehrez announced. "By focussing on different topics in translation, a field that is being indispensable in any global conversation, we draw attention to an entire field that most people already knew very little about, and are used to seeing as non-problematic," she told the Weekly.

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