Posts Tagged ‘translation’

Attarine is where you go when you want old things.

The district is kind of amorphously south of Shari3a Fouad, merging into Manshaya somewhere around the west end of the square. If you duck past the police station and sight a gothic edifice, you’re in the right place. A little deeper in, there are a series of labyrinthine alleys crowded with carpenters, furniture makers, and ironmongers that seem to always have work (though I can’t imagine that many people are buying the amount of furniture that they seem to make). There is a perpetual banging, as the woodworkers craft the mashrabayyat screens here, and ironmongers work to restore the blackness of iron newly forged from iron left to rust.

Every now and then there is a dust-covered shop that opens up; some of them have rusty tin signs that once where common advertisements for the mail, Stella Beer, and any number of whiskeys, tobaccos, and facial creams.

I was looking for cufflinks.

Depending on who you ask, the word for cufflinks is zuraar. Unfortunately, this is also the same word for “buttons,” so I ended up getting shown an interesting number of buttons that ended up from being from old livery uniforms during the Ottoman period. I bought two, and am determined to make them into my own awesome cufflinks.

I found two leather-boxed sets of the gaudiest cufflinks I’ve ever seen, thanked the shopowner, and left.

I found myself later in the antiquaire (his word) of George, who speaks a tolerable English (that I never hear), and only annoys me when he tries out his French. He’s been on Rue Fuad for ages, and knows pretty much every story I start telling about the colonial city. He’s a small man and wears an ancient paisely tie most times that I see him, his jacket a little too big for him and looking like the tired old houndstooth numbers you find in Salvation Army stores back in the states. His shop is a half-and-half mixture of books soaked through with tarred L&M smoke and badly restored or replicated antiques.

I forget how we got onto the subject, but we were talking about literature. We went from Arabic to French to English, to literature taught in Egypt, and how nothing post-Dickens is ever taught (seriously, students of English literature have never even heard of T.S. Eliot or James Joyce. Eliot! Joyce!). After an argument over T.S.’s nationality (American, definitely, despite the phony accent), he changed the subject:

“Do you like Komanjis?”


“Komanjis. He’s American. From the twenties, thirties. He’s famous.”

Don’t know him.

“How do you not know him? You studied literature, right?

He pulled a dusty paperback off the shelf. In Arabic script, the author’s name on the cover read: “Ih ih Kuminjz.”

e e cummings! He was talking about e e cummings!

I flipped out.

This is the first time I realized that certain things actually aren’t translatable….but people translate them anyway. There are no capital letters in Arabic; the language doesn’t even work like English (not a bad thing, just different). How on earth are you supposed to duplicate cummings’ emphasis on structure on the page, formatting, and the use of capitals and lowercase?

It was baffling.

Something to go back to later.

Until then, one of my favorites, just for you to chew on:

i am a little church(no great cathedral)
far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities
-i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april

my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are prayers of earth's own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness

around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope,and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains

i am a little church(far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature
-i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing

winter by spring,i lift my diminutive spire to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever:
standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)

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For this post, I’m going to refer you to this morning’s comment, made by a gentleman known only to me as “Mohamed.” Apparently he’s a rival translator in the Salah Jahin project and has a bit to say on the subject of translation. His main objection it seems would be the distinct meanings I’ve given to the word ‘agibi in each quatrain — which I’ve defined in my page dedicated to a brief background on the Rubaiyat, and he seems to be pretty enthusiastic about being the better man for the job. Be that as it may (and I’ll readily admit that perhaps I’m a bit precocious with my Arabic), it’s given me an opportunity to look over the bits of my undergraduate thesis relevant to the subject and collect my thoughts once more on the act — and true art — of translation. You’re going to have to indulge me here, because it’s one of three subjects I feel I’m somewhat qualified to go off on.

Texts in Translation

In my mind, not all texts are actually “texts”; by referring to a work as a text, the critic presupposes that the work in question is indeed original, and not derivative. Yet translations differ; though ostensibly the main text, a translation screens, focuses, and delivers the source text only obliquely. Antoine Berman suggests that a translation is “a work, but it is never The Work” (6). As such, it is predicated itself on a kind of derivative authorship, and its authority as a translation comes from “remaining derivative, distinguishable from the original compositions that it tries to communicate” (Venuti, Scandals 4). Both Berman’s and Venuti’s descriptions should remind us that nearly all translations are classified by their authors’ names, despite the fame of the translator: Omar Khayyam is still author of the Rubaiyat, even if Robert FitzGerald made him famous in the English-speaking world—Omar Khayyam composed the work that FitzGerald only transmitted. Though compositions of a kind, translations ultimately point not to themselves or their translator, but to their origin and author.

Consequently, the translator’s commentary—except when explicitly cross-referencing another work—addresses not only the translation text, but the source text behind the translation as well. The translator has a different use for these paratexts: he has no need to “map out” the “correct” interpretation of the text with commentaries and footnotes and introductions: the interpretation already exists. He has already done that in the translation, as one interprets in the very act of translation: “interpreting is any activity aiming at bringing about comprehension, and translating has the same aim, but normally involves a different language in which comprehension is to take place” (56). Venuti posed the term “domestication” in order to stress how the target language appropriates the source text:

A translation always communicates an interpretation, a foreign text that is partial and altered, supplemented with features peculiar to the translating language, no longer inscrutably foreign, but made comprehensible in a distinctly domestic style. Translations, in other words, inevitably perform a work of domestication. (Scandals 5)

Here, Venuti essentially addresses the common phrase “lost in translation”: that complete reception, comprehension, and synthesis from a fluent source text to a fluent target text must “alter” and “supplement” certain elements that create the difference—constituting an interpretation. This is a two-step process—but an intricate and involved one. Initially, the translation must identify and comprehend of the source text in the source language: then judge unspoken linguistic codes (tone, irony), evaluate social register of the speech, analyze context, and determine the message’s value (whether or not it is worth translating)—among other things (Bühler 60-62). The process then is becomes one of target synthesis: the translator identifies the author’s thoughts and intentions, considers the overall linguistic arrangement and structure, infers the inexplicit, and, finally, most importantly, determines the best fluent equivalent target text (60-64). The translator engages in choices of how to, in the earlier words of Benjamin, “turn Hindi, Greek, English into German” (22). The “domestication” of a text is, in essence, how a source text is received wholly and completely into the target language—“the intention or the meaning of the foreign text—the appearance, in other words, that the translation is not in fact a translation, but the ‘original’” (qtd in Munday 144).

Not a pipe

This process not only “rewrites” the text according to the translator’s judgment, but also cuts the target audience off from the source text and potentially allows readers to mistake the translation for the text itself. This divorce from the source text gives us what Venuti terms “the illusion of transparency”—that the fluent translation “sees through” to the source text itself. To make an analogy from the art world, this echoes something of the effect of Magritte’s La trahison des images: we think we see a pipe, but in reality, we only see an image of a pipe. Venuti’s remarks regarding domestication were meant as a critique to what he saw as “the translator’s situation and activity in Anglo-American culture” (qtd in Munday 144); by rending a foreign work fluently into the target language, the target language culture erased the foreign identity of the source text and “conceal the act of translation” (144). Once translated, it is not “The Work” that can actually be read, but a interpretation of it.

This is, I think, what led Walter Benjamin to conclude that the best kinds of translations of the Bible were “facing” ones — translations set across the page from the original, so that the reader would be aware that the composition he was exploring was just that: a composition. There was an original. I expect that Benjamin’s ideal reader would also be one that read both the source text and the target text as in conversation with one another: looking at the translation first, and then the original, and seeing how each word or phrase matches up.

Killing the source text

As for the criticism that translation kills all other meaning for the source text, I’d agree — if only to an extent. Benjamin’s ideal readership exists — but such readers are rare. I’m more of the mind that (with literature, poetry) the target text is what matters; the final product should be released from the obligation of “doing justice” to the original. Just as Barthes called for the death of the author, there must be another death, the death of the source text, in order for translation to really come into its own. Barthes objected to the adherence of academics to biographical criticism, where critics tried to reconstruct the author’s life from fragments left behind, or actually asking the author the direct meaning of a passage. By doing so, the author governed the meaning of his work. “Killing the author” was a way of opening up criticism to an infinite number of interpretations, instead of the one “correct” one approved by the prescription of the author’s biography. This is the modern, “readerly” approach to literary criticism.

In the same respect, I’d say that the act of translation itself is an active interpretation: it is the interpretation of a single reader, the translator: I daresay, a criticism. By regarding translation as something more than a simple “transmission” of a text, it allows for multiple translations to occur, rather like multiple criticisms of the same Shakespeare play or Eliot poem. Translations themselves become compositions predicated on the same foundation, but from different perspectives. I think that’s what has kept translation from being regarded as real literature in and of itself. Once we start to regard it more as criticism, perhaps we’ll have a few more FitzGeralds, a few more Burtons.


Barthes, Roland. Criticism and Truth, trans. Katrine Pilcher Keuneman. U of Minnesota P: Minneapolis, 1987.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator,” trans. Harry Zohn. The Translation Studies Reader. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Berman, Antoine. The Experience of the Foreign. New York: SUNY P, 1992.

Bühler, Alex. “Translation as interpretation.” Translation Studies: Perspectives on an Emerging Discipline. Ed. Alessandra Riccardi. Cambridge UK: Cambridge U P, 2002.

Foucault, Michel. Ceci n’est pas une pipe, trans. & ed. James Harkness. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.

– – – . “What is an Author?” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York NY: Norton, 2001.

Munday, Jeremy. Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Tymoczko, Maria. “Post-colonial writing and literary translation.” Ed. Susan Bassnett. Post-colonial Translation. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Venuti, Lawrence. Scandals of Translations. New York: Routledge, 1998.

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