Translating problematic attitudes

Illustration from the Bulaq text (Volume 1)

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?

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