Which Language to Translate?

The linguistic melange characteristic of postcolonial literature results in difficult decisions for translators. As Malika Embarek (2016:33), referring to the translation of Maghrebi authors writing in French, points out:

The translator who approaches any of the African literatures that emerged after the colonization of the great powers of the modern era, some of whose authors chose to write in the language of the former colonizer, must do so with caution ... [A]lthough the words are European, the voice and the look are different.

Laroui was not the first to mix French and Arabic in his novels. In an example of linguistic empowerment, the young people of the banlieues (suburbs) transformed French (the language of the country of their birth), making it their own through verlan, a type of slang resulting from the inversion of syllables. They were defined as bear (European-born people of Maghrebi descent), a code for initiates created by inverting the syllables of the word arabe, what the French call French nationals of Maghreb origin. This movement began in 1983 during the March for Equality and Against Racism, which became known as the Bear March, and resulted in the founding of SOS Racisme. There are already several generations of bear writers. (There is no consensus on whether the adjective is empowering or whether it perpetuates the ‘otherness’ of those of Maghreb origin.) One example is Faiza Guene (b. 1985), an extremely successful young writer who has been translated into many languages. A different example is Amara Lakhous (b. 1970), an Algerian who has been living in Rome since 1995, who goes beyond mixing the colonial language with dialectal Arabic or slang. He aims to ‘Italianise’ the Arabic language and ‘Arabise’ the Italian language, although it is not certain to what extent he has succeeded.

In Spain, the situation is further complicated, as authors of Arab origin can choose to write not only in Spanish, but also in the regional official languages. For example, Najat El Hachmi (b. 1979) writes in Catalan and is translated into Spanish (among others).

In addition to these hybrid novels, those written in Arabic alone present other singularities, as they may be written in standard Arabic or in dialect. While literary Arabic is most common, some writers introduce twists or local expressions, which may differ markedly from the standard language. A typical example is Mohamed Choukri’s (1935-2003) For bread alone, translated into English by Paul Bowles (1910-1999) and into French by Tahar Ben Jelloun. The translations enabled the publication of this great work of literature, despite its publication in Arabic being prohibited.

Translations from Arabic

Works written in Arabic are often translated indirectly. For example, Naguib Mahfouz’s (1911-2006) and Nawal El Saadawi’s (1931) works were translated into Spanish via English. Similarly, Leila Abouzeid’s (1983) novel ‘Am al-fil was first translated into English as Year of the elephant: a Moroccan woman’s journey’ toward independence (Abouzeid 1990) before being translated into Spanish as El año del elefante y otros relatos (Abouzeid 2008) by Grupo Alcalá. Abouzeid, who is widely translated into English, illustrates the relationship between language and empire in her strong commitment to the Arabic language, as opposed to French, which she regards as the colonial language.

Regarding the translation of Arab authors, differences between European countries persist, demonstrated in several initiatives to map translation between Arabic and European languages. Isabella Camera d’Afflitto (1997:2-3) observes that only about 90 Arab authors (writing in Arabic) were translated into Italian between 1945 and 1999, whereas over 100 French-speaking Arab authors were translated between 1984 and 1999. Similarly, Ana Díaz Garcia and Bachir Mahdjoub Radjeaa (2010) analyse data on translations from Arabic into the official languages of Spain (Spanish, Catalan, Basque and Galician) between 1995 and 2010. They highlight the small number of translations from Arabic compared to those from other languages such as English, the importance of literary translation (almost 70 per cent of the total) and the growing interest in works by women.

In 2012, A mapping of translation in the Euro-Mediterranean region was published, an initiative launched by Transeuropéennes with the support of the Anna Lindh Foundation. Their report stated that “translation, as a practice and intercultural goal, must become a long term EuroMediterranean priority” (Glasson Deschaumes, 2012:7), but revealed considerable quantitative and qualitative inequalities in what is selected for translation, how books are translated, and how translations are regarded in the media, bookshops and libraries. According to Glasson Deschaumes (2012:47), “cultural hegemonies are manifest not only in the prioritisation of languages and works translated, but in the mechanisms of legitimation of works to be translated, and in the process of translation via intermediary languages”. Glasson Deschaumes (2012:47) notes that translations from Arabic need institutional support, without which, “these efforts would be destined to disappear or to be vulnerable”.

Literary prizes such as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (n.d.) function as translation enablers. The website explains that “one of the main aims of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is to encourage the translation of Arabic literature into other languages.” Award-winning works are translated into numerous languages, including Chinese, English, Catalan and Croatian. Nevertheless, the total number of translations remains unsatisfactory.

In Spain, the number of translations has been growing only gradually. By 2006,100 works by Moroccan authors had been translated, but almost half were by two authors, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Fatema Mernissi (Fernandez Parrilla and Rodríguez López 2006:283). The reason lies in the Iberian historical context and colonial relations between Spain and North Africa.

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