In the United States, the number of books published in translation is famously low. A popular estimate is 3% of all literary fiction and poetry. A translator’s name is usually included in small print on the title page of a printed book — rarely on the cover — and even the most prolific translators often remain in the shadows. Many people can name a favorite author, but how many of us have a favorite translator?

Yet despite having a job that, by nature, goes relatively unseen, translators wield incredible power. They are, in a sense, trusted to write anew the great works of others. Nobel prize winner José Saramago once said, “World literature is created by translators.” And the stakes are high indeed: the 1989 fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie’s death in response to the publication of The Satanic Verses led to the murder of Rushdie’s Japanese translator and the attempted assassinations of his Italian, Norwegian, and Turkish translators.

Even on the page itself, a translation can mean the difference between life and death: Constance Garnett, who was responsible for bringing Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov to English readers in the early 20th century, worked so quickly that she had a habit of skipping or changing lines that gave her trouble. A 2005 New Yorker article describes Nabokov’s reaction to a Garnett translation: “where a passage in the Garnett of ‘Anna [Karenina]’ reads, ‘Holding his head bent down before him,’ Nabokov triumphantly notes, ‘Mark that Mrs. Garnett has decapitated the man.’ ”

For translators long familiar with the paradoxical work that is literary translation, and for the rest of us to whom such travails are wholly unfamiliar, we sought to ask a wide swath of translators about their work. From those working in Icelandic to those translating from French, from those just beginning their careers to those long-established, we survey the ferrymen and women who battle the tide to bring literature to foreign shores.

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Photo credit: Margaret Obank

Photo credit: Margaret Obank

Humphrey Davies is an award-winning translator of some twenty works of modern Arabic literature, among them Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and the novels of Elias Khoury. He has also edited and translated older works such as Yusuf al-Shirbini’s, Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded (c. 1686) and most recently Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s seminal Leg Over Leg (1855; for the Library of Arabic Literature, NYU Press). He read Arabic at the University of Cambridge, received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, and, before publishing his first translation in 2003, worked for social development and research organizations in Palestine, Tunisia, Sudan, and Egypt. He lives in Cairo and is affiliated with the American University in Cairo.

What is the most recent problem you ran into in a translation (a sentence, a word, a phrase)? How did you solve it?

An author wrote that a character had spent a period of at least 48 hours on a ship and hadn’t been able to relieve themselves because the ship had “no latrine.” I thought this sounded implausible so I queried it with the author, suggesting that “no proper latrine” might make better sense it. I await the author’s response.

Translators have enormous power over a text. How do you respond to this power? Can translation ever be unethical?

I’m not aware of that power when translating. I’m not saying to myself, “H’m, shall I play it this way or that way, and what would be the consequences in either case?” or “Shall I be Mr. Nice Guy and dress up a dawky sentence or leave it be?” I simply try to hear the author’s voice and reflect in English what I think it is saying and how I think it sounds.

There’s that famous Italian expression, “Traduttore, traditore” (a play on the words for “translator” and “traitor”). And the poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop writes, “Translating is not pouring wine from one bottle into another. Substance and form cannot be separated easily . . . Translation is more like wrenching a soul from its body and luring it into a different one. It means killing.” Why is it that the concept of translation can inspire such violent comparisons? To what extent does your own translation work feel like an act of destruction?

Personally, I don’t get it. I feel more like I’m constructing, coaxing, listening. One wonders sometimes if there isn’t something a bit self-aggrandizing about these histrionic statements (“We translators too have our sturm und drang!”) Does an actor “kill” the text he enacts? Oh, and by the way, that Italian should be hung!

The word “faithful” often comes up in discussions of translation. To whom or what is a translation faithful? Is a faithful translation good? Is a good translation faithful?

If a translator doesn’t aim to be faithful, I guess he should declare himself an author and not a translator. To me being faithful means translating in such a way that another person with knowledge of both languages can understand why the translator used those words, even if “black” is represented as “white.”

When do you know that a translation is finished?

When I have to submit it to get paid.

What kinds of books and genres in your source language(s) are translated into English most often? What are the books, genres, styles that you would most like to have translated?

My unscientific impression is that the novel far outstrips poetry and the short story. I would certainly push for publishers to give the short story more attention but don’t have high hopes given that even short story collections by English writers are apparently difficult to sell. Modern writers who are no longer living and pre-modern Arabic literature have also received less attention than they deserve, though this may be rectified in the latter case by the new Library of Arabic Literature series.

Why do you translate?

In order to understand (I mean, like, really understand).


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