My favourite monster
There is something maddening about translation. Perhaps the right word is “eye-opening”: it makes you realise just how impossibly separate the mental categories of two languages can be. I speak, in particular, of Arabic and English, that double-headed monster which, staring long and hard into my intellectual looking glass, I sometimes glimpse laughing at me.
Like an invisible friend – or, rather, a ghost whisperer – that bilingual creature sits behind me every time I attempt to translate my own work, one bloated head over each shoulder, sniggering at my futile efforts to make two things into one, reminding me that, by working simultaneously in two languages, all I have managed to do is internalise some two centuries of chronic misunderstanding and mutual abuse, with the vague promise that some day, maybe, such chronic conflict will have been resolved – enough for my work to make positive, universal sense.
I write in Arabic, one version of which – the Cairo dialect – is my mother tongue. I also write in English, of course, but Arabic is the language in which I produce the poems, stories and essays that I tend to think of as my gift to posterity. And then, remembering that the vast majority of the world’s readership will have access to no such gift, I panic and berate myself for not making it available in English, which is so much more widely understood and appreciated.
That is when I sit down to translate my work. “Good luck,” I can almost hear the double-headed monster yelling every time, his giggles just audible enough in the background. “You will not discourage me,” I respond. And, armed with a range of dictionaries and the willingness to take a word out here, replace an expression there, reinvent the flow and the rhythm of the text, I sit down and block out every distraction.
Later, when I have shown the results of this exercise to English readers whose judgement I trust all the more because they have no Arabic, they have pointed out so many peculiarities, unclear turns of phrase and incomprehensible allusions that I have had to question my knowledge not only of English but of Arabic as well.
Yes, I would think, what on earth did I mean by that?
It would eventually come to my attention that, to really present my works of genius to English-speaking posterity, I must rewrite them entirely or, to be more precise, I must write them anew – in English. And then what will I achieve? They will have become something profoundly other than what they are, as estranged from themselves as Arabic is from English.
It is then that, glimpsing the double-headed monster in the looking glass, I have been tempted by violence. So far, I have resisted the temptation.
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