Translating problematic attitudes

Dhat al-Dawahi is described on Night 93 as a ‘passionate lesbian.’ I know this is a modern translation, but I think that phrase in this context is an anachronism—it no longer carries the negative connotations that would have originally accrued, and which the original authors would have intended. What is now an entirely neutral sentence seems slightly out of place when set alongside negative phrases of treachery and foul breath.

Burton translates the passage as “for she was given to tribadism,” which he footnotes with a long, disparaging aside about homosexual women. 

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not complaining about Malcolm Lyons’ translation here. Nor am I saying it is right that the word ‘lesbian’ should be imbued with negativity. Of course not.

I just make the note because it highlights an interesting translation conundrum: does one choose the obvious translation; or something that may be more circuitous, that nevertheless is closer to the tone and attitude of the original? What does the translator owe the author in terms of fidelity to meaning? And what are they to do when textual accuracy and tonal accuracy are not the same? 

Should the translator preserve the artist’s prejudices? Or should they act as a sort of advocate for the author, translating passages in such a way that brings the new audience on-side?

Back in 2014, I chaired a fascinating discussion on this subject at the British Library as part of the International Translation Day Conference. Acclaimed translators Sasha Dugdale and Alice Guthrie explored the issues.

Sasha pointed out that “when you’re translating, it’s never as simple as ‘faithfully convey’ the message. It’s not possible to translate a single word in a faithful way beyond any doubt… there’s always a hundred choices.” She gave an example of translating a series of plays from Russian, to be performed in English at the Royal Court. She found that the earlier plays were received as being particularly ‘angry’ in a way that many Russians felt was unrepresentative. So in later translations, she dialled down the anger, just a little, to allow other aspects of the work to breathe.

Alice said that sometimes it was important to translate the voice of the character, rather than the precise words. So a young character speaking colloquial Arabic in the original may begin using swear-words in English. And sometimes the translator has to step away from transliteration of (say) the description of a gesture, and simply describe that gesture using English words.

She also described a fascinating conundrum when translating an important text about North African migrants. The author, writing in Arabic, had littered the piece with some thoughtless descriptions of other Africans, and also women. Should she leave in those offensive descriptions, and risk the author being misinterpreted and discarded by an Anglophone audience that is sensitive to that sort of prejudice? Or should she edit and correct, revealing and concentrating on the essence of the piece? In the end, the racist asides she was able to edit out, because they were based on factual inaccuracies. But the sexism she left largely intact.

One audience member at the event pointed out that sanitising a writer’s language, to remove bad attitudes, might mean that they achieve greater acclaim than they might deserve.

When the author is a contemporary, one can always ask them what they meant, or what sentiments they hoped to arouse in the reader (though Alice pointed out that sometimes those authors are less help than one might expect).

The calculus is different for dead authors, with whom one cannot consult. And it’s also different for celebrated texts like The Arabian Nights or (to pick a Russian example) the work of Chekov, where many competing translations exist. Each version is a different translator’s interpretation, just as there are different actor’s interpretations of Madame Ranyevskaya or King Lear, where one can heighten the humour or the tragedy of those characters.

And one can certainly imagine a version of The Arabian Nights that foregrounds the prejudices of the age in a way that Malcolm Lyons does not. There are other choices he could have made for phrases like ‘black slave’ and ‘concubine’ for example.

Illustration from the Bulaq text (Volume 1)
Illustration from the Bulaq text (Volume 1)

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