Jonathan Wright: The Journalist as Literary Translator

To be a proper blog, the photo must be blurred and amateurish.

The AUC translators series, which hosted its third speaker last night, invites interesting comparisons.

Journalist and translator Jonathan Wright spoke yesterday at the university’s downtown campus, addressing issues of translation alongside the first author he’d translated, Khaled al-Khamissi.  Wright addressed translation in a very different manner from Humphrey Davies, who spoke in the AUC series last month.

Interestingly, both Wright and Davies have argued that they don’t have a literary voice when they translate, but instead try to speak with the voice of the work.

Davies has said that he tries to “hear the voice of the novel,” while Wright said yesterday that the voice of the book appears to him after a series of questions and doubts. “In the end, you usually do find the voice in which to write. It creeps up on you as you progress.”

But from that point of agreement, Wright established himself as a very different sort of literary translator.

Whereas Davies talked at length about a love of books and language, Wright described much of his career as that of a straightforward working journalist, when he “didn’t think much about” the translation he did.

After all, a journalist has to work quickly:

“If you’re about to put out an urgent story, you’re not going to hold it up while you debate whether to use this word or that.”

Wright said that he hadn’t intended to work in literary translation, but when he came across Khaled al-Khamissi’s best-selling Taxi, it was at a time when journalists were gabbing a great deal about the Arab street. Taxi seemed like a book that would address this (perhaps “forensic“) Western interest.

Wright said that Taxi seemed like an excellent “vehicle for explaining to the world the diversity of Cairo. Not of Cairo, of the world in general. … In fact, they [the characters in Taxi] are just like ordinary people, except in the context of Cairo.”

Wright’s long history as a journalist certainly has shaped his take on translation. His attitude seemed far more “get it done” than some of Taxi‘s other translators. Author Khaled al-Khamissi described the Italian translator, Ernesto Pagano, as rendering literary (fos’ha) Arabic in a more classical Italian, wheras the colloquial dialogue (a’meya) was written in Neapolitan dialect.

Wright said he’d briefly thought about rendering the conversations with taxi drivers in Cockney slang. Fortunately—as this surely would have been disastrous, particularly for the American reader—Wright said he decided: “Why bother?”

At times, Wright’s push toward a standard English has the effect of flattening out the text. Wright said that he felt, for the English-language reader, “religious references are in general problematic.”

“I just say that insha’allah (God willing) is ‘I hope.'” Wright explained his thinking: “If you load the work [with religious references], it does begin to look as though you meant it as a religious tract.”

At times, al-Khamissi and Wright disagreed—particularly about the possibilities of “literal translation,” which Wright defended—and at times Wright seemed to disagree with himself.

At one point in the evening, Wright spoke quite eloquently about how what an Arabic-English translator needs most is not perfect fluency in Arabic but “what you have to learn most is how to use English.” He spoke of leaps of the imagination required when there is no good semantic overlap; for instance, he found no “exact” word in English for an Arabic term describing the sound of a grinding millstone. He said he just had to imagine for himself the sound a millstone makes as it turns.

But at another moment, he insisted that he didn’t see the translator’s work as being creative, and claimed that it was “pleasure, without the hard work.”

It will be interesting to see his translation of Yousef Ziedan’s dense and philosophical Azazeel; unfortunately, Atlantic says they won’t have it out until the summer of next year.

What’s more:

The Wright Talk Continued: Arabic Translators and Dictionaries



Categories: translation

7 replies

  1. Respected Incharge,
    Assalamu Aalikum ,
    I am Humaira Nazeer from Muslim family and I have completed my all Islamic study from IslamicInstitution of Toba Tek Singh . Today I have visited your website.Its realy wonderful work.I have desire to become the part of your Organization . I am able to do translation work.If you have translation work this is my request kindly contact with me. I am able to do Translation and recording work in some Pakistani Languages.
    Our National Language is Urdu and some other Provinces Languages. I do Islamic Translation work in Low and proper rates in Urdu, Punjabi , Sindhi , Arabic and Saraikie.I am also able to do Recording work.
    I see on your site that you have working on different Languages in different countries.
    Hopefuly you will Contact with me soon.
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    Humaira Nazeer
    Pakistan .

  2. I find this article very interesting, especially as I am currently working on a scientific paper entitled THE INTERFACE OF JOURNALISTIC TRANSLATION AND LITERARY TRANSLATION.

    TMA

  3. Dear Sir
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    I’m very interested with literature (English &Arabic ) If you still need someone to translate any text or subjects from Arabic to English and vise versa please contact with me by my email
    regards
    Tahseen

Trackbacks

  1. The Constant Conversation | Different Ways of Translating al-Khamissi
  2. The Wright Talk Continued: Arabic Translation and Dictionaries « Arabic Literature (in English)
  3. What’s a Better Translation: Faithful, Literal, Enjoyable? « Arabic Literature (in English)
  4. Ahdaf Soueif on ‘Truer’ Translation « Arabic Literature (in English)
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