Translation from Tripoli

Russell Valentino

“Shakespeare somewhere compares a woman’s face to sunshine in July,” said Dr. Ramadan. “She must have been very hot.” He was joking, of course, from a North African point of view, and being a little provocative, from a translator’s: if you were translating that into Arabic, should you change the month to April, or better yet, March? He suggested that even a Libyan November would be more pleasantly evocative than July. “She would be all sweaty then,” he said. Earlier in the day, Dr. Jamal, clearly troubled by my insistence that creating the authorial image in the receiving culture is in the translator’s hands, asked me if I thought it was okay to “change the author’s words.” Before I could answer, his colleague from Algeria, Dr. Rafa, came to my defense to point out that Arabic translators, and maybe Dr. Jamal himself, routinely do that when they change “Jesus Christ” to “the Prophet Jesus.”

That was different, said Dr. Jamal, because readers might not accept it if you left “Jesus Christ.” She shot back: “Those readers aren’t likely to be interested in a book with 'Jesus Christ' in the first place.” Then he said something quickly to her in Arabic, and two other people joined in, all in Arabic. I heard the words arabiyyat and englesiyyat and tarjamat, which, even without any Arabic, I’ve heard repeated enough times in the last two days to recognize. It sounded quite heated, but Dr. Khalil said later that they were just having a normal conversation. It’s true no one stormed out. This is the sixth annual translation conference, held on the tenth anniversary of the translation department at the Academy of Graduate Studies in Tripoli. It’s selectively international, with plenty of visitors from North Africa (eastern and western), and a few from Western Europe, but none from Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, or countries close by, like Turkey or Greece. The hall is as full this morning as I’ve seen it, with 200 or so people. I can spot the only other American in the room by her non-scarved red hair. I haven’t met her yet, though some of her English language students introduced themselves this morning to ask me how to handle “the cultural gaps” in translation. “One at a time,” I said.

Only one talk so far has irritated me (one that I understood that is—they haven’t all been delivered in English, and I haven’t always had the benefit of interpreters, God bless them, so I’ve missed a few). It was by a British-educated Libyan, and dealt with so-called error correction in teaching English. Partly I was bothered by having to shift gears from translation to language teaching, related but distinct activities, with very different assumptions about aims and practices. But the main problem wasn’t that. In his last category of “errors,” he gave examples of phrases that conveyed the sense but “would be better” like this or that. He wasn’t talking about style or rhetoric. The standard for something “being better” was its sounding like something a native speaker would say. Basically, this was BBC English, though he admitted that different accents of English were perfectly fine, Irish or Indian, for instance. He was talking about “native sounding structures,” he said. Here we were at an international conference, with dozens of non-native speaker participants, and he was talking about non-native “errors.” So I asked a question: “How might it change your project to think of 'native speakers of Englishes' rather than 'the native speaker of English?'" (Did he really want me to tell my colleagues here that their manner of referring to me and each other, in English, by a title with a first name was an error,” unless you wanted to sound like radio or TV pop-psychology gurus? I did not voice this question). He seemed to be operating with one correct form of English in his mind in much the same way that some participants had one correct form of Arabic in theirs.

It occurred to me that translation and teaching approaches here appear to be conditioned by translation of the Qur’an, which, technically speaking, cannot be translated. As a sacred text, it is a singular entity, unchanging, unchangeable, the Divine Word, “every letter of it,” according to Dr. Jamal. Of course it’s a generalization I can’t adequately support, an impression more than a claim, though I’ve tried it out on a few liberal-minded colleagues here, and they agreed with me, especially about some of their more rigid-minded colleagues, who would like to keep Classical Arabic untouched by foreign influences at all. Isn’t that, I asked, a recipe for killing a language rather than preserving it? Dr. Khalil agreed with me. It’s why young people don’t ever speak to each other in it, he said: it gives them no room to play. Dr. Nermen, who I initially thought was fairly closed-minded on such subjects, suggested an alternative way of thinking about this. While it’s true that one cannot translate the Qur’an, one can interpret it. Actually, what I might call the several existing translations of the Qur’an into English he calls “interpretations.” Well, but all translations are interpretations, I suggested. Dr. Nermen thought I was comparing the Qur’an to other works. No, no, the opposite. All other works are like the Qur’an, let’s say, received word if not Divine, but certainly unchangeable and unchanging—they’re the originals, after all, big “bullies,” as Minna Procter put it at ALTA last month—and that means that they function like the sources of nonfiction works for nonfiction writers. Someone else can always come to them and interpret them differently, then create a new version based on their interpretation.

So how about thinking that the event, or person, or place for the nonfiction writer, and the source text for the translator, are all, like the text held as sacred in a religious tradition, available for interpretation and explication, but not for inflicting severe damage on them by willful neglect or bad faith… Dr. Ramadan seemed to like this idea a lot and gave me his hand warmly. How could I voice the proviso that was on the tip of my tongue—“unless they’re in the public domain?” I bit my tongue instead.