Most of the books I’ve ever read were written in English.  Of the translated books I’ve read, the majority were originally in western European (spec. Germanic /Romance) languages.  I can recall only a few actually-foreign language books I have read in translation: Anna Karenina,  a couple by Haruki Murakami, the Tao Te Ching. 

As part of my autodidact degree I’m focusing on translation studies and theory.  It’s something in which I’ve been interested for years but never really had a reason to delve deeper. I’ve been casually gathering some overview reading to get a sense of how the world of translation sees itself, and comparing that to how I experience translation.

On one extreme, we have Issa J Boullata with “translation as violence” (A Case For Resistant Translation From Arabic To English, 2003). 

Another way these ideas have been described is Domestication, contrasted to Foreignization strategies (Lawrence Venuti, have not yet read this book but will.)

As I understand it, the question being asked is: should foreign texts be translated into another language in a way that is easy to read- or should they be translated in a way that takes concerted effort to comprehend?

I’ll state my opinion, as I’m just starting this research project: Texts should be translated to convey the intentions of the author.  If the author wanted it to be hard to read, then let it be hard to read. If the author was writing popular literature, let it be that.

By “hard to read”- I’m mostly talking about hard-to-read in translation. If a book hasn’t been conveyed adequately into the target language, it will not read like the target language, and pose an additional layer of discomfort that the author may not have intended.

Obviously, many, many excellent books are written in English, so there’s not a huge need for me to read translated books as entertainment. And when I do, I prefer that the translation be invisible. I’ve tried to read exactly three* translated books Arabic -> English, and gave up on all of them because I did not enjoy the reading (one was by Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel Prize winning author).  At this point in time I don’t have the skills in Arabic to determine if I just didn’t like the books, or if the translation was obfuscating them too much.  This doesn’t blame the original author, but it questions translation choices. If a piece of literature doesn’t read like it was written in the language in which it is being published, there will be a commensurate decrease in enjoyment and readership.

So, when I read these opinions about translation strategies of resistance and obfuscating, I wonder if the translators are doing a disservice to the authors.  Because really, how many authors have agreed to a translation with the goal that their stories remain unpopular in the target language?

(An aside: Here is a translation of a couple chapters from استخدام الحياة – this is a book that got the author imprisoned in Egypt this year.  I’d say the English translation truly reads like English.  Granted, the fact that the setting is contemporary helps.)

So, my long-held suspicion is: translated books are harder to read (in English) because the storytelling techniques, the paragraph building structures, and the general style of writing differ from culture to culture.

I’ll point out that I find it a total pain to read Shakespeare too. It might as well be French or German. Now, I’m talking about “ease of reading” for a reason: ease of reading = spread of ideas. (When Shakespeare was writing, his language was modern. His English is not my English, just like biblical English is not my English. )

Comprehensibility = popularity.
Comprehensibility = not-just-for-the-elite.
Comprehensibility = money.

So, on the side of famously-incomprehensible, I’ve just begun reading Derrida (en anglais, désolé).  And as it turns out, I’m enjoying his writing-in-translation, enough that I’d like to see the French version.  Derrida writes with joy. 

2016-03-22 16.10.43

*Books I’ve tried to read translated Arabic -> English:
Children of the Alley, by Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Peter Theroux
Absent: A Novel, by Betool Khedairi, translated by Muhayman Jamil
The Square Moon: Supernatural Tales, by Ghadah Samman, translated by Issa J. Boullatta



Posted by:Brook DeLorme

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