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Translations are About Culture, 
Not Just Language

Emily Meredith / 1 March 2009

DUBAI – UAE residents see it all the time. The restaurant name transliterated into Arabic script that carries the sound but no meaning. The book containing samples of literature originally written in Arabic that, when translated into English, seem amateur at best.

In order to be successful, translators need an understanding of the culture they will be translating into, said Ibrahim Al Koni, a Libyan author who has lived and worked in Moscow, Warsaw and Switzerland.

Speaking Saturday at the International Festival of Literature in Dubai, Al Koni recounted one of his early experiences with translation.  One of his short stories was translated from Arabic to Russian. When the editors of an international literary magazine were unable to find his original script, they translated the Russian text into English, French and back into Arabic. After seeing his retranslated Arabic text, “I thought it was better for the writer not to translate at all than to translate badly,” he said.

Translation to and from Arabic is a problem for many writers. Abu Dhabi’s Kalima foundation aims to translate international titles into Arabic, but its website only lists nine titles so far, in part because good translation is a long process.

For the last fifteen years, Al Koni has worked with the German translator Hartmut Fahndrich, a scholar whose work originally focused on translating medieval Arabic medical texts rather than modern literature. Al Koni and Fahndrich collaborate on translations, particularly when Fahndrich has doubts about what the text conveys.

“When Hartmut Fahndrich is suspicious about a sentence, we must meet,” Al Koni said. Many translators are not as conscientious or they do not have the luxury of a well-established relationship with the author, he said. When translators are unsure of a meaning and make assumptions, they risk losing the meaning. “Over self confidence in such things in translation is very much dangerous,” Al Koni said.

Al Koni said poor translations can turn off entire audiences to a new author, alienating him or her from an entire language. 

The relationship is two-sided though, and Al Koni recalled a conversation with Fahndrich, where Fahndrich urged the author to be patient. “’You as an author can write whatever you want,’” he said Fahndrich told him. “’But I am a translator. I am a prisoner of your thoughts.’”


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