Yesterday I attended a salon on the subject of translation
(with special focus on Arabic-language fiction) at a local bookstore. The featured readers/speakers were Adam Talib, who has translated works by Raja'a Alem, Fadi Azzam, Mekkawi Said, and Khairy Shalabi; his wife Katherine Halls (who co-translated Alem's novel The dove's necklace
); and Rebecca Johnson, who translated a work of Sinan Antoon's.
The whole discussion was fascinating, but a couple of points particularly stuck with me. One was the revelation from Talib that many Arabic-speakers have told him they prefer to read Arabic texts in translation rather than the original, which--as he put it--rather upends their idea of who they're translating for. One of the authors (Alem) reportedly even composed the novel in English (though "not an English that you could publish", as Halls delicately put it) and then translated it into Arabic.
When I asked him about this, he ascribed it to a couple of things. One was the educational system, which puts emphasis on reading works by European writers. He quoted Ahdaf Soueif (an Egyptian novelist who writes in English) as saying that the narrative voice in her head is English even when describing the unfolding events of her own life. I asked if availability factored in and he offered the observations that he'd had an easier time buying one novel in Arabic in Paris than in Cairo and that one of the books he'd translated was already out-of-print in Arabic whereas his English version could be easily downloaded for Kindle.
Another point that Talib made forcefully in response to a question about MSA vs dialect was that range of acceptable narrative style (as he put it, "the range of narrative styles we're willing to accept in a novel") was much more compressed in English than in Arabic. In fact, he went on to say that one of his reasons for translating literature from Arabic into English was to hopefully expand that range.
He seemed to think most people make too much of the gulf between MSA and the dialects, saying he was comfortable translating from any dialect and that MSA has a range of registers from casual to extremely formal, just like English. (He gave Shalaby as an example of someone who writes in what is "as close to dialect as you can get in [MSA]" and Antoon as someone with an "extremely florid style".)
From a practical standpoint, it was interesting to see the range of interaction between the translators and the authors--everything from "That's nice, good luck" (Shalaby) to forwarding all their e-mails to the French and German translators (Alem). Johnson started working on Antoon's manuscript as a personal favour without any idea what she was getting into. (Besides being florid, his style is dense with récherché diction, wordplay, and allusions. She had to ask him questions about everything.)
Topics we didn't have time to get into included how publishers choose covers and titles ("It's all driven by Amazon keywords"--Talib). And it was interesting to see how many people assumed Talib was a native speaker on account of his surname and appearance, when actually he was born in California and learned the language at university just like his blond English wife.
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons