Arabic and English differ in more than just their alphabets: they follow different grammatical patterns, have different rules for word formation and are written in opposite directions. Translators, tasked wth bridging languages and cultures, bear enormous artistic and political responsibilities.
Next Monday, Caroline Seymour-Jorn, an associate professor of Arabic literature at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, will join Assistant Professor of Arabic Qussay Al-Attabi to discuss translating Arabic literature in translation. The event will be hosted by the Kenyon Review and the departments of English, Modern Languages and Literatures and Middle East and Asian Studies.
Their conversation, moderated by Professor of Spanish Katherine Hedeen, will focus on the current state of Arabic translation and the professors’ own research. Al-Attabi is translating colloquial poetry from southern Iraq for an anthology and Seymour-Jorn has translated the work of prominent female novelists in Egypt such as Etidal Osman and Ibtihal Salem.
In an email to the Collegian, Seymour-Jorn wrote that her interest in Arabic began during a comparative religions course she took at Kenyon with the late Professor Denis Baly before she transferred to The Ohio State University.
For Seymour-Jorn, translators and publishers have immense power in shaping how people consider a foreign language text. For her, a major factor is Western misperceptions about women in the Middle East.
“People are often surprised that there are women writers in the Middle East,” she said. “By translating something by a woman, you are opening up a new world to many people who assume that women in that region cannot speak for themselves.”
Just as Seymour-Jorn’s work calls attention to Egyptian women novelists, Al-Attabi’s work in progress gives a platform to poets in Iraq’s poorer, southern agricultural region. These poets would not otherwise have that platform, since Arabic colloquial literature, written in local dialects rather than the standardized formal dialect, is often considered second-tier. His project would therefore be the first translation of colloquial Iraqi poetry.
Both professors see clear political implications of their power as translators.
“When a work is translated from a given cultural tradition, it may be taken as representative of that tradition,” Seymour-Jorn said, “even though the translator does not intend it to be that way.”
For example, she pointed out that there is a pressure to sell books, so even in translated Arabic works there is an emphasis on themes of sexuality and violence. These depictions reinforce negative stereotypes about Arab people and culture.
Al-Attabi agreed, saying, “Publishers want to publish sexy topics and that usually involves themes and tropes and instances that we as translators do not necessarily agree with.”
For Al-Attabi, all translation is political, because all translation happens within certain power relations.
“The choice to translate colloquial Iraqi poetry is itself a consciously political decision,” he said, “because I am promoting this kind of literature that in the canon of Arabic literature has a secondary status, but what I am doing is actually pushing it up.”
The significance of translating colloquial poetry lies in the fact that Arabic is what linguists call a diglossic language, meaning it has a formal dialect and a colloquial dialect for everyday communication.
Translating colloquial Iraqi poetry is political on two levels: First, the very act of translating gives the poetry a status as literature that goes against the diglossic framework. Second, translating colloquial poetry into a language that is not diglossic means translators have to sacrifice this division between formal and colloquial.
Al-Attabi remarked that this mitigates the secondary status colloquial poetry has in Arabic, “giving voice to those poets who would not otherwise have their voices heard.”
The two translators will come together to discuss the responsibilities a translator has and also to appreciate the artistic value in their work.
“Any good translation is an echo of the original in a different language,” Al-Attabi said.
“There are traces of the original in the translation,” he said, “but a translation should never be, nor should it be expected to be, an exact copy of the original.”
“Arabic Literature in Translation” will take place in Cheever Room in Finn House on Monday, Feb. 26 at 4:30 p.m.