In other words: four translators reflect on women in translation
For Women in Translation month (#WITMonth), and in anticipation of a special feature on translation in Wasafiri issue 99, we invited four professors and prizewinning translators to share what translation means to them and to comment on the state of translation today.
PROFESSOR REBECCA GOULD
Professor and Professorial Research Fellow, Islamic World and Comparative Literature, Principal Investigator for the ERC-funded project, ‘Global Literary Theory: Caucasus Literatures Compared’, contributor, Wasafiri issue 99
Why translate? The answer to this question is much the same as the answer to the question, Why write? Most uses of language are linked to communication. Writing, like translation, also links us to creation. I write in order to create, according to the structure of my language. I translate because translating gives me a form within which to create, the form of the original, which I transpose into the language I dream in and the language in which I live.
Even when performed alone, translation is not a solitary process. It involves constant conversations with the original. In this context, and in any discussion of Bijan Elahi (whose work we have translated for the upcoming issue of Wasafiri), I cannot neglect to mention the role of my co-creator, Kayvan Tahmasebian, whose words give structure to my own. He presented me with a skeletal version of how Elahi’s text should appear in English. Over the course of many months we exchanged draft after draft, amid constant debates about the nuances of specific words and phrases. Every decision had implications for how we relate to Elahi generally, in our translations of his poetry (forthcoming in September with The Operating System) and in our scholarship on Elahi’s translational practice and theory (forthcoming in Modernism/Modernity).
The biggest mistake when it comes to translation, it seems to me, is to separate it out from the other domains of our lives. We all translate, even if not professionally, whenever we shift from one way of using language into another. Translators are poets, editors, scholars, craftspeople, expert negotiators in the art and politics of cultural difference. They abide continually with the other: with the language(s), cultures, and people whom they have selected as companions in their lives. Through this labor of otherness, of learning to listen to and speak in registers that differ from their everyday speech, they extend their horizons, and make it possible for the societies in which they live and work to engage with other worlds.
I have been following with interest the literary career of Iraqi writer and translator Dunya Mikhail, who has been co-translated many of her Arabic books into English. Mikhail’s new book, In Her Feminine Sign (New Directions), is the first original work that she has produced in English (while a simultaneous Arabic edition is also being released, the English versions are, as Mikhail has described, a form of “writing it twice” that generates a “new original”). Yasmine Seale, the first woman translator of Aladdin (a story in One Thousand and One Nights which Seale is currently translating), is another translator I admire. Her collaborative translations of Ibn Arabi with Robin Moger are also of relevance to my collaborative work with Kayvan Tahmasebian.
Cultural critic, translator of the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Prize-winning short story ‘Death Customs’
Somewhere in This Little Art—an honest, deep, whole-hearted ode to translation, which I recommend to everyone—Kate Briggs quotes Roland Barthes (in her own translation) who writes that, ‘to want to write is to want to rewrite,’ and that to want to rewrite is to ‘want to add myself actively to that which is beautiful and that I lack.’ Translation, Briggs explains, is another way to add oneself to an existing work. It is one of the most shockingly simple truths of translation: as a translator, I can try to partake in the beauty of what I translate. And I can allow others to know that beauty.
There are other simple truths about translation that I find wondrous: it allows stories to travel to, meet and interact with new audiences, gaining new meanings and new lives in the process. It will forever be a bit of a crazy, miraculous practice to me. You set a story forth on a journey from one language to another and all sorts of unpredictable things can happen. You can’t quite know how it will be received, interacted with, understood, how it will become part of other people’s lives, minds, hearts, cultures. In the current (or has it always been this way?) sociopolitical climate, where othering difference and demonising otherness are on the daily agenda of world leaders, translation becomes a form of resistance. It proves the multiplicity of narratives that can (and should and do) co-exist. It proves at once the nuance and the universality of our stories. It proves also the great degree to which people and cultures are ready to receive one another, and to allow themselves to be touched and changed by one other. Briggs reminds us that translation is a way to engage with something, someone. Listening, reading, engaging with the stories of those who speak, think, live differently to us is an exercise in honoring our shared humanity.
The first translations I fell in love with were Anita Raja’s translations of Christa Wolf’s works from the German into Italian: Cassandra, Medea, Christa T., Che Cosa Resta, Trama d’Infanzia. I also recommend reading Raja’s beautiful essay on translation.
Translator, writer, co-winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize with Olga Tokarczuk, for Flights
A year ago, the wonderful writer Preti Taneja had the brilliant idea of collecting women’s responses to the four-day hearing on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States. My own response reaffirmed to me the importance giving voice to other women has always had in my life. My first translations from Polish, in 2004 and 2005, were of women poets Marzanna Kielar and Julia Fiedorczuk; I soon found prose writers Hanna Krall, Olga Tokarczuk, Sylwia Siedlecka, not to mention the Ukrainian genius Natalka Sniadanko, the brilliant Argentine multimedia star Romina Paula and many more.
My experience of childhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma was one of always being muffled, of men and women patronizing me, not listening to me, not caring what I had to say. I’ve also tried to address this some in my memoir, Homesick (Unnamed Press), which I originally wrote in Spanish as Serpientes y escaleras (Entropía). Because women’s voices have been so marginalized throughout history, it remains supremely important to prioritize them, and I can think of no better way to do this than through translation.
Some of my recent favorites have been Eve out of Her Ruins, by Mauritian writer Ananda Devi, gorgeously translated from French into English by Jeffrey Zuckerman; the endlessly intriguing Memoirs of a Polar Bear, which Susan Bernofsky has translated playfully and wonderfully from Japanese-born author Yoko Tawada’s German; and Umami, by Mexican writer Laia Jufresa, translated by the extraordinary Sophie Hughes, whose translations of anyone I would recommend to everyone
Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World, translator, co-winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize with Jokha Alharthi, for Celestial Bodies
I discovered the tough joy of literary translation many years ago, as I was writing an undergraduate honours thesis on some 1920s writings by Lebanese essayist and feminist Mayy Ziyadah. A few years later, I began translating fiction for publication, motivated partly by my frustration that Arabic works by female authors circulating in English were sparse. A project I remain proud of is a collection of c1980s short stories by eight Egyptian women that I curated and translated (My Grandmother’s Cactus: Stories by Egyptian Women).
Many authors writing in Arabic, women and men, have appeared since then in English translation, but of course many more have not. One welcome aspect of the 2019 Man Booker International award to Jokha Alharthi’s (and my) Celestial Bodies is that it brings attention to the literature of Oman, anciently a home to Arabic poetry, more recently to fiction – a literature almost entirely unknown to readers outside the Arabophone region, and not very well known within.
The fortunes of literature translated into English from all other languages, and certainly from Arabic, remain patchy. I say ‘fortunes’ deliberately: it’s partly a matter of chance and luck what gets published, and then noticed. (Before Celestial Bodies won, it was just as good a work of fiction as it is now, and just as good a carried-over work into English, but almost no one was reviewing it and most bookstores weren’t carrying it: to hear it now called ‘a literary event’ is both great and sobering!). We must celebrate this, but there’s a lot more work to do.
Across the Arabic-speaking region, an enormously varied set of societies (and Arabics) from Oman to Morocco, both literary activity and enormous deterrents to it – particularly political repression and violence – abound. Much of the fiction produced in Arabic, indeed, confronts the very obstacles to its flourishing, an audacious move but also a survival strategy. It’s important that publishers support such works while also seeking to publish those shaped equally by existential questions but not so explicitly by crisis. I’m also concerned that an understandable desire to bring out ‘the latest thing’ makes it hard to sell publishers on amazing works of Arabic fiction published previously. For instance, without more translations of works published one, or five, or ten decades ago, understandings in the Anglophone world about the rich history and legacy of Arab women’s writing, and their contributions to feminist thought and action (and other kinds of activism) will remain sketchy, contributing to the persistence of stereotypes about speakers of Arabic and their histories.
The brilliant and dedicated literary translator Edith Grossman’s passionate and powerful book Why Translation Matters (2010) argues that less than ever can we afford to ignore what other human beings are writing in a disturbingly decreasing but still large number of world languages. As a citizen of the US living in the UK, very concerned about the linguistically and racially exclusionist views expressed in both societies, I find what she wrote a few years ago even more urgently relevant now, the need for translations of contemporary creative writing and its vibrant antecedents greater than ever.