‘Translating for Bigots’: One Author’s How-To Guide

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Adam Talib recently gave a talk at the American University in Cairo on “Translating for Bigots.” Talib, who is working on his fourth translated novel, posed the question — how should one translate for a prejudiced audience? 

Talib began by saying that he didn’t want “to stereotype the bigot. I don’t want to say his address is in Cleveland.” After all, Talib said, one doesn’t translate Arabic literature into English for a North American or British audience, but for an audience of English-language readers worldwide.

Publishers, Talib said, can sometimes package books for bigots (see right). This packaging might be one reason why readers leap to particular conclusions about an author’s narrative. On the other hand, Talib added, he doesn’t necessarily “blame” the publishers, as he also wants to get translated Arabic literature out to a wide audience, and this might be one way to do it.

So who is this wide audience? Talib briefly touched on studies that measure Islam- and Arabophobia, remarking on a time when a British-Egyptian filmmaker he knew was asked by a UK audience member: “Can women in Egypt use the Internet?”

This question, although a particular head-scratcher, is “evidence of a cultural gap between the specialist translator and the potential audience,” Talib said. “Should a translator keep this in mind? I personally have a hard time not keeping these things in mind.“

These prejudices are an issue with any Arabic literature in translation, but they were most at hand, Talib said, when dealing with Arab women writers and Arab women characters.

“Translating Arab women characters is…extremely fraught. Why? Because if you’re a reader of modern Arabic literature, you know that what happens in modern Arabic literature. People date in modern Arabic literature; people have sex in modern Arabic literature; people drink and take drugs. And a lot of times, you will just translate what you find on the page, and you’ll find that reviewers find this peculiar.”

If a reviewer — who Talib sees as a proxy for the reader — finds an Arab woman not wrapped in ten layers of fabric, forced to marry her cross-eyed cousin, and pushed to the back seat of a car, then, “the reviewer says, ‘What an unrealistic depiction of Arab women.’”

“There is a hostility in the reader’s mind” to characters who don’t fit particular stereotypes, Talib said.

Moreover, he said, normally strong readers can lose their bearings when looking at Arabic literature. He pointed to Mekkawi Said’s novel Cairo Swan Song, which has a distinctly unlikeable protagonist. English-language readers are more likely to conflate this protagonist with the author, Talib said, and “you’ll find less tolerance for this sort of psychological depiction in Arabic literature than you’ll find in English literature.”

“For some reason, there is some obstacle to sophisticated reading when you’re dealing with translated literature.”

Talib also wondered if there was a way to compensate for readers’ stereotypes in the language. Certainly, translators can help by bringing out the power of the author’s language, which — in a best-case — should help to re-create the author’s authority.

The talk ended on a discussion of a section of Khairy Shalaby’s The Hashish Waiter. The novel, Talib said, had a section abridged in the French edition because a few of the characters were discussing the use of Holocaust narratives as propaganda. In so doing, the characters brush aside the great sufferings of Jews and others during the Holocaust. This section could be read, at a stretch, as Holocaust denial, and thus it was truncated in the French.

Because Shalaby is an Arab writer, Talib guessed that people are predisposed to read the characters’ views as his and to see him as an anti-Semite. “I don’t want Khairy Shalaby to be read as an anti-Semite.” But how to change the reader’s expectations? The question remained open.

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