Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Between words: Living language

While translation between Arabic and European languages has become an even more pressing concern given post-9/11 relations between East and West, it remains difficult to gauge how much translation work is being done in either direction, how relevant it is, and what conditions of production underwrite it. Judging by the lists of titles, the recent plethora of conferences and seminars about and prizes for translation of Arabic literature, it might seem that it is no longer the "embargoed literature" Edward Said wrote about in a 1990 article published in The Nation. Focussing on translation into English -- and bearing in mind that the situation differs with regard to other European languages -- a number of recently held high-profile meetings suggest that increasing attention is being paid to the subject. As the debates that have taken place among scholars and translators working from and into Arabic demonstrate, much remains to be accomplished in both directions. In the first of an occasional series of profiles of translators working from and into Arabic, Hala Halim talks to Roger Allen about the pleasures and pitfalls of translating modern Arabic literary texts into English

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Roger Allen

Arriving for my interview with Roger Allen at the Supreme Council for Culture (SCC), I find him amiably doing an off the cuff close textual analysis of a short story by Virginia Woolf, at the behest of a Cairene woman who is translating texts by the British novelist into Arabic. What had brought Allen to Cairo was the Supreme Council for Culture's Third International Conference on Translation, held in mid-February. Allen -- the British-born professor of Arabic and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, US, and a prolific translator of modern Arabic literature -- was one of 10 literary translators the SCC was honouring.

Translating modern Arabic literature has always been part and parcel of Allen's profile as a scholar, though his own account of his career unabashedly acknowledges a degree of serendipity in his entry into the field. As an undergraduate at Oxford he had initially chosen to study classics but soon gravitated towards studying Arabic. The decision was made "with no awareness at all; there was no Damascus gate experience where a conversion occurred". This was the early 1960s, when the Arab world was studied as a monolithic, unchanging Medieval entity. "I was shocked," says Allen, "that a living language was being taught as a dead language." But in 1963 "a revolution occurred," in the form of Mohamed Badawi -- also an honoree at the SCC conference -- who, after studying English literature at Alexandria University, "was the first Arab to teach Arabic at Oxford, and the first specialist in literature". It was under Badawi's supervision that Allen wrote his dissertation on Muhammad al-Muwaylihi's Hadith 'Isa Ibn Hisham, published in 1974 under the title A Period of Time, and then in a revised edition in 1992. That Allen's dissertation also comprised a translation of Hadith 'Isa Ibn Hisham provided an ideal exercise for someone heading towards a long engagement with translating modern Arabic literature.

Al-Muwaylihi's fictional narrative -- initially serialised in a newspaper, later published in book form in 1907 -- is a thoroughly hybrid text. The text represents a considerable translational challenge: it adapts the maqama genre from its earliest known practitioner, the 10th-century Badi' al-Zaman al-Hamadhani -- with all the classical stylistic and rhetorical devices this entails, such as saj', or rhyming prose -- for the purposes of a dialogised critical reflection on the political and cultural upheavals in Egypt at the end of the 19th century, with many neologisms and loan-words, some of which are now quite dated. If, given the status of this particular translation -- as an academic exercise following an exhaustive study of al-Muwaylihi in which stylistic qualities receive ample discussion -- some aspects of the text did not carry over (trying to reproduce saj' would be cumbersome if not altogether alienating), translating Hadith 'Isa Ibn Hisham undoubtedly honed the young scholar's skills for a wide-ranging translation career.

Allen's practice as a translator -- ranging over genres, and registers and styles (from the historical novels of Moroccan writer Bensalem Himmich, linguistically and intertextually steeped in the pre- modern canon, as in Al-'Allamah and Majnun Al-Hukm, translated respectively as The Polymath [2004] and The Theocrat [2005], to the quotidian imagery and verbal accessibility of Egyptian novelist May Telmissany's Dunyazad [English translation 2000]) -- received a valuable, if indirect, tribute in 1988 when Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Among the Mahfouz texts mentioned in the Nobel citation, says Allen, was the selection of short stories God's World which he had co- translated with Akef Abadir (1973).

It was in 1970 that professor of English literature Magdi Wahba invited Allen to meet Naguib Mahfouz at the latter's "great dark office" on Al-Maahad Al-Swissri Street, at a time when the novelist served as "a very strict censor of films". When Mahfouz asked Allen whether he had an interest in more modern Arabic literature after al-Muwaylihi, the latter remarked that he had translated two of Mahfouz's short stories which he had yet to publish, whereupon the novelist suggested he jot down a list of texts he would like to translate. The result was the collection God's World. Later Allen would also translate Mahfouz's Al-Maraya ( Mirrors, 1977) and Al-Simman wa 'l-Kharif ( Autumn Quail, 1985). The anecdote illustrates an aspect of Allen's work, his close contacts, sometimes friendships, with Arab writers and critics. And it is not merely a matter of scholarly "field work" and the translator's need to secure permission from the author before embarking on a project.

If he speaks of his close contacts with the authors whose works he has translated as "a pleasure and an honour", there is also something more than good working relations at stake: the acute need, experienced by everyone who has worked on translating Arabic literature, for the professionalisation of the field. "At this point," says Allen, "I do not translate any text by an author I have not met and [do not] know personally. I chose this route as a reaction against previous practice, whereby translators had virtually no contact with the author (and often were not acquainted with literary trends in the Arab world in general and the specific countries in question)."

Apart from the insight and insider knowledge that working with the author affords the translator, there is the added asset, in the case of translation from Arabic specifically, of the text receiving editorial attention withheld from the original because of the absence of editors. Typos and misprints can be weeded out, and all manner of facts checked. (See my review of No One Sleeps in Alexandria, the English translation of Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid's La Ahad Yanam fi 'l- Iskandariyya, Al-Ahram Weekly, issue of 9-15 March 2000.) But editorial interventions on the part of the translator, in collaboration with the author, beg the question where to draw the line, and according to which criteria.

In an article published in Al-Hayat on 25 March, 2006, Ghalia Qabbani cites comments made in an interview by the Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh during the Arabic/English Translation Seminar, organised by the British Council in partnership with the Arts Council (London, 7-9 March), to the effect that she has several times introduced changes to her texts in the process of their translation into English. Al-Shaykh explains that these changes were sometimes undertaken at the request of the English publishing house, as when an editor of an English translation suggested a different ending to a novel, which gave her the chance to introduce other alterations in keeping with criticisms of the Arabic original. Conceding al-Shaykh's right, as the owner of the text, to introduce changes, Qabbani nevertheless finds it indicative of the "appalling situation of Arab creative writers in a publishing world from which specialists are absent and only the seller and the buyer come to the fore".

I ask Allen -- who happens to have just finished translating al-Shaykh's Hikayati Sharhun Yatul (My Life: An Extended Narrative) -- if, in working with authors on translations, he has introduced alterations to the text. In the case of al-Shaykh, with whom he went over the translated memoir for many hours, Allen says that "there is a point of interest here in the different tolerances and expectations of readers. In this work Hanan does not use names, but descriptions: one of her brothers is 'the lute-lover', and another is 'my gloomy brother'... When we gave the English translation to Hanan's agent in London she said she found the constant repetition of these descriptions in the English version tiresome. Hanan then agreed to use the actual names of the people involved... but... I have striven to keep those changes to an absolute minimum." By contrast, he says, when he co- translated with Adnan Haydar the Palestinian novelist Jabra Ibrahim Jabra's Al-Safina ( The Ship, 1985) and Al-Bahth 'An Walid Mas'ud ( In Search of Walid Masoud, 2000), "we made no changes at all. Even though Jabra's knowledge of English language and literature was quite unbelievable, he left it entirely to the translators."

But to return to the question of pressures brought to bear on translation by the hegemony of the Anglophone global marketplace, what criteria guide Allen's choice of texts, a perceived "transferability" into the target language or a resistance to the expectations of the receiving culture? He says he only translates works that he finds "not only enjoyable to read but also excellent and/or original contributions to modern Arabic fiction [even though] opinions on that will differ..." And, in recent years he has had "a tendency to prefer to translate works of Arabic fiction that will explore different avenues from those found in other world fictional traditions, and particularly avenues that are a reflection of pre-modern characteristics of Arabic and its literary heritage (thus, several historical novels, for example)."

For Allen the problems faced by a literary translator from Arabic "are totally practical; translation from Arabic is not a profession in which there are any degrees or standards or rewards. The best you can say is that nobody translates Arabic unless they are an 'amateur' in the original sense of the word, in the sense of 'lover'." The translator's concerns are as basic as "persuading any publisher to publish a translation and market it, and also persuading anybody to read the book". He places the responsibility for this lack of interest in publishing and disseminating translated Arabic literature squarely at the door of "representatives of the Arab world in the capital cities of the world, such as cultural attachés, who are supposed to project Arab culture [abroad] but seem to be totally unqualified and unequipped and unwilling to promote the literatures of their homelands". Concurring with a number of translators working into different European languages who were present at the SCC conference, he says that "the [2004] Frankfurt Book Fair [where the Arab world was guest of honour], from this point of view, was a massive failure on every level". The representatives and cultural attachés of the Arab world in Europe and the US, he adds, "may need specific instructions and funding -- but this should be available."

Asked about the status of the translated Arabic text in "World Literature" and Comparative Literature courses in the American academy, Allen comments that, in addition to the general turn to non-Western cultures, after Mahfouz's Nobel "the availability of a much larger repertoire of translated Arabic texts -- and in most literary genres -- means that it is now possible to offer a variety of courses under the general heading of 'Arabic literature in translation'." But when the conversation turns to the future of Middle Eastern Studies in the US and the pressures brought to bear on it post-9/11 by, for example, the neoconservative Campus Watch web site which monitors and seeks to stifle dissenting voices in the field, Allen is far from optimistic. He mentions, nonchalantly, that he was recently quoted on Campus Watch: "my 'sin' is to say that I think that the American government and the American academy have different views about the way to embrace Arabic studies, and that people making decisions on that level are not qualified to make them... Arabic is [now] a major government priority, and so there's a pressure to produce students to work in the government. I want to make sure that even in this atmosphere we maintain academic standards and priorities. I'm afraid that there will be a reduction in the number of students who study literature in favour of political science to enter government service. It's too early to say, but I'm watching closely."

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