Cultural Bridges: The Author/Translator Relationship

Half an hour after the Mark Billingham session, I attended this one. Authors and Translators included Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi), Samer Abou Hawwash (Arabic translator of Life of Pi), Abdo Khal (Saudi author of a book called ‘Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles’; I’ve never heard of this book myself but the English translation of the title sure sounds weird) Anthony Calderbank (English translator of Khal’s book) and Denys Johnson-davies (writer and translator). This session was in Arabic and English- Khal and Hawwash were speaking Arabic and the rest spoke in English- and there were headsets of course with Arabic/English translation provided for those who didn’t understand one of the languages. The ironic thing about the start of the session though- which was pretty funny- was that the Arabic and English translations weren’t getting through the headsets properly, so you had Khal oblivious to the entire first 10 minutes of the conversation and then saying so in Arabic when he was asked a question. But once that got sorted, the session was pretty interesting. Apparently the authors and translators had never met before (it probably resembled a tweetup for these guys!), and so it was interesting to see them all discussing this topic. Khal’s first words- and a ‘woah’ moment for me- were ‘translation is a betrayal to the book’. That sparked alot of debate; on the one hand translation is indeed the bridge between cultures, but Khal’s point was that it distorts the vision that he, as an author, has for his book. Martel countered that with a good point too, saying that translators sometimes do make ‘mistakes’, but these mistakes are not as important as maintaining the fluidity of the story, and so he doesn’t see them as a really big deal. He also said (and I love this point) that if translators are treacherous, then the reader commits even bigger treachery because when they read the book what they imagine is shaped by what they already know and saw in their life. And I think he’s absolutely right- how I visualise a book in my head is probably very different from how you see it; and I’m sure that’s why so many of us get angry at book-to-movie adaptations- we all imagine things differently!

When they were asked what can be done to improve translation, Johnson-davys said ‘pay the translators better!’. Translators really do deserve more appreciation and attention than they receive. Calderbank (or was it Martel?) made a great suggestion- start educating kids in schools in the Arab world about Arabic literature so that they learn to have a better appreciation for it and so that would open up the market for Arabic novels even more, because foreign/translated books are a very small percentage of the market.
It will be interesting to see how Arabic-to-English and English-to-Arabic book publishing and distribution evolves in the coming years. I won’t say ‘watch this space’ though; if you want to read more about publishing and the like then check out Alexander McNabb’s blog– he’ll most likely cover it at some point (if he hasn’t already).

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