Linguistic and cultural issues in literary translation
The article is a discussion of a case study of translating a short story from Arabic into English. The discussion revolves around the translation process and its reconstruction focusing on some of the linguistic and cultural issues encountered in the original and how they were resolved in the translation.
This paper is based on my translation of a collection of short stories "A night in Casablanca" by the late Moroccan writer Muhammad Zefzaf. The critical introduction offered here is informed by translating a number of his short stories. These short stories come from two of Zefzaf's collections part 1 and part 2 published by the Ministry of Morocco (Publications of the Cultural Affairs, Manshurat Wizarat Alsh'un Althakafi'ia) 1999. The specific discussion of the translation process and its reconstruction, however, will revolve around only one of these short stories: The Nests.
Zefzaf is well known in the Middle East and particularly the Northern African part of it. Owing to the special cultural ties between France and North Africa, some of his works have been translated into French, but, in general, little is known about him in other western languages. My rendition is the first translation of Zefzaf's stories into English, and there could be no more urgent cultural need to introduce writers like him to the American reader.
Since the events of September 11, 2001, the western world has developed a consuming interest in Islamic life and culture. However, since then most of what has been written about the Islamic world by the so-called experts on Islam and the Middle Eastwho claim to tell us the real truth about Islam and its peoplehas often focused on war, political turmoil, and religious conflict and has often been colored by ideological orientations.
As Edward Said (2002) points out, however, only good literature is particularly capable of dispelling "the ideological fogs" that has for so long surrounded the Middle East and obscured its people from the West. Said argues that the West needs the kind of literature that can open up the world of Islam as pertaining to the living and the experienced rather than the ideological books that try to shut it down and stuff it into a box labeled "Dangerousdo not disturb". And Zefzaf's stories are examples of that kind of literature.
Zefzaf's stories, represented here by The Nests, offer a unique window into the everyday, domestic life of ordinary people in a Muslim world steeped in its own context, unfiltered by western sensibilities. In his stories, we are able to see ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary characters unfold from the inside out. We see men and women who struggle to survive and understand the meaning of life in a culture startlingly different yet glowing with universal glimpses of love, hate, jealousy, fear, cynicism, pathos, disappointment, regret, and bursts of insight into the human condition.
1. Narrative Style
Realism and attention to details in simple stark style characterize most of Zefzaf's stories and this aspect poses no problems to the translator. In some of his stories, however, Zefzaf is more experimental in his use of literary styles. The Nests, for example, stylistically makes use of free direct style as a narrative technique. Congruent with this narrative style, Zefzaf probes into the character's multifarious thoughts and feelings without paying much attention to a narrative sequence since the emphasis is not so much on the external events as it is on the character's thought-events at a single moment. Particularly challenging from the translation point of view is handling the extensive use of free direct speech merged with the narration without any overt indication by a reporting clause or a switch to indirect speech. The following quote illustrates this point:
"He threw the letter under his feet and started to cry. How many nests were built and destroyed! My God! What can a man do with himself?"
Here we have a descriptive sentence prefaced by the narrator's third person pronoun 'he' whereas the next exclamatory statement can be an expression of the character's consciousness or a commentary on this consciousness. The following question, however, starts with the first person possessive 'my' in an exclamation phrase, an indication that the utterance represents the subjectivity of the narrated subject. In other words, two different subjects of consciousness are present at the same time, but how do we know whose perspective or subjectivity is represented at a specific point in the discourse? This is a question that the translator of this literary style has to face throughout the story.
The translation of this kind of literary style has to pay particular attention to certain linguistic uses. For example proximal deictic adverbs and demonstratives such as now, here, there, this, these, etc. invite the inference of a speaking subjectivity. Other features like the use of third-person pronouns and past tense suggest the presence of another voice (Wright, 1995, p.153). Zefzaf relays some of the subjective impressions of his nameless character through the consciousness of that character, and, at the same time by using the latter features, he manages to maintain the narrator's perspective. Here is another example that illustrates this interaction or tension between the two perspectives:
"He picks up radish roots, takes a drink and looks from behind the window at the vases of flowers and the couple of doves flying together in return to their place over the roof. Maybe they have a nest there. Every couple above or under the earth builds some kind of nest for themselves, but it might get destroyed before they leave each other or after their deaths. Every nest is destined to be destroyed and people fight with all possible means to destroy their nests. But he is not positive what the two doves have on the roof, a nest, a hen, a cock or nothing. Whatever is hidden, no one else can know when it is hidden behind walls or barriers."
The initial narrator's stance is indicated by the use of the third person pronoun in the first descriptive two lines. In the following italic part, this presence is dominated by the character's perspective, at least in terms of the explicit features of narration. The passage, then, can be understood as expressing the narrated subject consciousness. However, the experience is not just narrated but also mediated by the narrator's didactic and intrusive presence. As typical in this style, in many parts of the story the author portrays the subjectivity of his character from the vantage perspective of the reporting narrator and, through a process of empathy, identifies himself with the character (see Brinton, 1995; p.173-175).
Another area of sensitivity in the translation of this story is semantic or discourse prosody (Baker, 2000; Stubbs, 2001). This is the aura of meaning acquired by a lexical item "through its repeated association with other items in the language (Baker, p.24) or "a feature which extends over more than one unit in a linear string" (Stubbs, p.65). The pivotal word nest/s in the translated story for example occurs 27 times and interacts with a number of different mainly positive collocates such as the adjective happy (5 times) and the verb build or rebuild (8 times). By looking at the textual environment of this word, however, we find that the author skillfully conveys a negative attitude towards its content by infusing it with irony and casting doubt on its traditionally pleasant connotations. Examples:
"Keeping his nest so people could say he has a happy nest...What matters is that the nest is believed to be happy. Cheers to all, all is well...How many nests were built and destroyed."
The overall effect is that the idea of the nest is a mythical construct that people tenaciously believe in when they know that it is not true. The challenge of the translation here is to capture the tone, the discourse coherence and the attitudinal meaning served by this semantic prosody.
Zefzaf's use of Standard Arabic throughout his stories is a feature of his writing that facilitates the task of the translator. In spite of the standard Arabic prose style, however, he could be a quirky writer especially in the areas of syntax and punctuation.
The original literal arrangement of the clausal elements in the opening of the story reads as follows:
[He] sits by the window. [He] lonely looks at that bright sky. The sky might not be clear later. Some clouds or flocks of black birds might pass by. But he got used to all that.
In the translation, these five sentences were compressed into two to produce an acceptable English text with flow:
"Lonely, he sits at the window looking at the bright blue sky. The sky might not be clear later when clouds or flocks of black birds pass by, but he got used to all that."
In many cases, for the sake of clarity, I needed to shorten and simplify without sacrificing the deliberately repetitive quality of the style. At different places in the story, moreover, there was a need to sacrifice some stylistic idiosyncrasies since these peculiarities were sometimes hard to preserve. Calquing too reverently or following the distinctive syntax too closely would impede comprehensibility and yield unidiomatic results.
Another challenging task is the less standardized and more fluid nature of Arabic punctuation compared to English. The uses of commas, periods, and paragraphing in Arabic are more subject to the writer's discretion and do not necessarily have a one-to-one relationship with English. Moreover, a series of question marks and a combination of a question mark and an exclamation point is possible in Arabic to produce a dramatic effect. These conventions, or lack thereof, are capitalized on in Zefzaf's writing but they were normalized in the English translation so as not to violate the norms of the target language.
Finally, there is the issue of grammatical gender, which is more marked in Arabic, and how to render it into English. Gender distinctions operate massively and persistently in the Arabic language with the masculine being the unmarked form as opposed to the neutrality, or at least the apparent neutrality, in English. In reference to people, Zefzaf uses man and the generic he, as is the convention in Arabic. However, he makes a nod to the feminine pronoun in the following passage:
"They try to give the impression that they live in happiness. They lie to themselves until the time people say God bless his or her souls."
This unusual nod, however, was not taken up after that and the Arabic text reverted back to the regular use of the he-language. All the italicized references in the immediate following passage contained overtly masculinized singular references. In the English translation, it was deemed appropriate and consistent with the spirit of the story to de-genderize and pluralize these references. Even though the pronoun 'them' in the third line as a reference to the antecedent 'deceased' in the second line might sound ungrammatical from a prescriptive point of view, (that is if we consider the antecedent singular) , it was considered a safe option:
"If they were well off, they would have a small obituary on a newspaper page written by a poor journalist reading: "The deceased [man] (May he [or she] rest in peace) departed this world to be with God." But who gave them rest or peace? Only the One who can give rest and peace and grant protection to the human soul knows why the lie of grieving the dead [man] is over few days after their death, just as the lie of conjugal happiness becomes revealed in time."
A literary translation is a device of art used to release the text from its "dependence on prior cultural knowledge" (Herzfeld, 2003; p.110). However, it is not an easy task to transplant a text steeped in one culture into another. Particularly demanding from the translator's point of view is the use of culturally specific metaphors and allusions.
Zefzaf's use of metaphors or similes is sparing and the few used pose no significant problems in translation. The italic noun phrase at the end of the following quotation might not be crystal clear but it is connotative and, therefore, was literally translated:
"Always he sits there in the same place smoking, drinking, and trying to remember many things that might take him back to the naked childhood."
Other than that, Zefzaf's metaphorical language seems to be affected by the western idiom. And no more is this point well illustrated than in the following italicized simile from the ending of the story:
"In a moment, he fell off his chair near the window bumping his head against the wall. The sky remained bright while he was grunting like a hog in a sty."
Such transparent similes pose no problems in understanding to the western reader.
The occurrence of allusions, however, is more challenging. Not only does the translator of Zefzaf have to cope with the usual linguistic difficulties of translating from such a foreign language as Arabic, but he also has to handle different references and allusions. In some of its parts, the text of this story is interspersed with diverse references: Qu'ranic, historical and cultural. The following excerpts illustrate this point:
"How many strange things the human body carries without our being aware of them! There are two angels for example, one on the right shoulder recording the good deeds and the other on the left recording the bad deeds. The human body may also be inhabited by devils, and in this body there is also a spirit whose essence we cannot know since it is from a command of the Lord."
In this excerpt, there is more than one allusion. The reference to demons possessing human bodies is almost a universal superstitious belief shared in many cultures and is in no need of explanation. The other two references to the angels and the spirit, however, are more Islamic in their nature and the English reader needs to be made aware of their scriptural origins: "When the twin keepers [angels] receive him, the one seated on his right, the one on his left, each word he utters shall be noted down by a vigilant guardian" (Surah 50, verse 17). And "They ask you about the spirit, say: "The spirit is from a command of my Lord and I have only given you [people] a small amount of the knowledge" (Surah 17 verse 85); Qu'ran (trans) Dawood 2000).
These references, and other similar in nature, are part of the prior cultural knowledge taken for granted by the author writing for a predominantly Muslim Arab audience. To give the closest approximation of the source language, therefore, it was necessary to opt for 'glossing' or using explanatory footnotes. Here is another example with an historical reference that also requires the use of a footnote:
"When they divorced, he didn't think she would do that, but he soon knew that a woman is capable of doing anything. Didn't she cause Adam to be dismissed from Eden and waged a war against Ali (May God be pleased with him)?"
The first reference to Adam and Eve in Eden is a biblical one and needs no commentary to the western reader. The second allusion, however, derived from Islamic history, might be a vague one to the western reader. It refers to A'ishah, one of prophet Muhammad's wives and daughter of his first caliph (successor). She played a significant role in supporting those who were fighting against the fourth caliph Alia revered figure in Islamic history especially for the Shiite sect. These cultural and historical allusions give a certain density to the language and need to be explicated in the translation to bring forth the richness of the text for the new readers. Footnotes, however, can be rather intrusive, and, therefore, their uses were minimized as much as possible. Sometimes, explanatory notes were deemed unnecessary or were integrated into the body of the text. The following citation is an example:
"His wife was pretty, and he used to buy her glasses, pottery, sweets and rabbits slaughtered and live. And sometimes he even preferred her to his two young children. But she used to hit him, beat her cheeks and thighs [as some women do when they mourn their dead]."
The cultural reference to a husband buying pottery and rabbits slaughtered and live as gifts to his wife are indicators of the local culture. Keeping this reference adds a foreignizing fidelity and gives the original flavor of a different culture. The reference does not need a footnote, however, since it is clear from the contextual surroundings. The second reference is to the custom of some women in the Middle East who beat their cheeks and thighs as an ultimate sign of sadness when they are mourning their dead. The bracketed note was inserted in the text to ensure that the significance of this humiliating act on the part of the wife is not lost to the western reader.
It is a great challenge dealing with a language that has a different feel and nuance embedded more in culture than in literal meaning, but I hope that this reconstruction of the translation process sheds some light on some of the linguistic and cultural issues that might be encountered in literary translation in general and from Arabic into English in particular.
Baker, Mona. (2000). Linguistic perspectives on translation. In The Oxford guide to literature in English translation. (Ed) Peter France. Oxford University Press. Oxford, New York. Pp.20-25.
Brinton, Laurel. (1995). Non-anaphoric reflexives in free indirect style: expressing the subjectivity of the non-speaker. in Stein Dieter and Wright Susan (eds.) (1995). Subjectivity and subjectivisation: Linguistic Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge and New York. Pp.173-194.
Dawood, N. J. (Trans). (1956, 2000). The Koran. Penguin classics. London, New York.
Herzfeld, Michael. (2003). The unspeakable in pursuit of the ineffable: Representations of untranslability in ethnographic discourse. In Paula G. Rubel and Abraham Rosman Translating culture: Perspectives on translation and anthropology. Berg: Oxford. New York.
Said, Edward. (2002). Impossible Histories: Why the many Islams cannot be simplified. July 2002 issue of Harper's Magazine.
Stubbs, Michael. (2001). Words and Phrases: Corpus studies of lexical semantics. Blackwell Publishers Inc. Massachusetts.
Wright, Susan. (1995). Subjectivity and experiential syntax" in Stein, Dieter and Wright Susan (eds.) (1995). Subjectivity and subjectivisation: Linguistic Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge and New York. Pp.151-172.
I would like to express my gratitude to Peter Owens from University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth for his advice and help in translating this short story.
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