What I Learned From Translating

I recently published a translation of Stoic Paradoxes, a work of ethical philosophy.  It was without doubt one of the most difficult projects I had undertaken, for reasons that I will try to explain here.  Translating is a vastly different experience from conventional “writing.”  You have to use an entirely new set of motor skills.

Here are some of the lessons I took away from the project:

Translating a work of literature is very different from translating something in the media.

To put it bluntly, it’s much harder.  The language used for the media is simpler, more direct, and less abstract.  Literature, especially philosophical literature, is very different.  In some cases, the original writer is writing for communities that no longer exist.  He may use specialized terminology, make obscure historical references, and assume things that readers centuries later may not know.

You have to work at it every day.

To produce a good translation, you have to get into the mind of the author.  You have to know him as a person.  You have to understand his goals, desires, background, motivations, and foibles.  The only way you can really get into the “rhythm” of the original work is to make it part of you.  You need daily exposure to the work.

You have to look more at the spirit of the words, than at their literal meaning.

Definitions can deceive you.  Free yourself from the dictionary when in doubt.  Before you even begin to try to render a sentence into English (or whatever the target language is), read the whole sentence or whole paragraph so yo can get a reasonable context.  Things are not all what they appear.

Set it aside, and then revise.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, you will get the feeling that a passage is not being given the right rendition.  This is natural.  If you get stuck, set it aside.  Let the mind rest.  Then come back later and revise.  You will be surprised at how clear things look after a good night’s sleep.

Know the history.

Every written work is a historical document.  The only way you can really divine the intentions of the author is to know the historical context.  Written works do not exist in isolation.  A good translator needs to be a historian, philologist, and a bit of a psychoanalyst.

When in doubt, make the call.

Sometimes certain passages are going to be obscure no matter what you do.  Some words seem to be inappropriate.  Go with the flow.  Make the call.  You are the translator, and the author is using you to channel his voice across the centuries.  He chooses you, not the other way around.  Does this sound mystical?  Maybe.  But so be it.

The rewards are worth it.

There is an incredible feeling of satisfaction in bringing something to life that has not had a voice.  One almost feels like a Re-Animator of sorts.  Your linguistic abilities will skyrocket.  You will be able to have access to treasures that you never had before.  And you begin to see how all cultures, across the span of time, have made similar efforts to solve life’s timeless problems.

Idioms can present difficulties.

Idiomatic expressions are words or phrases that, if rendered literally, do not convey the proper meaning in the original language.  Every language has these.  Learn to recognize them, as they are everywhere.  Many of them are not in dictionaries.  You will have to have some cultural knowledge to deal with idioms.

Set your ego aside.

When in doubt, let the original author speak.  You are the translator.  You are not there to rewrite the book.  You are there to allow the original to speak in a new voice.  I don’t believe much in “free” translations.

That is, I don’t think the translator should float in the breeze.  I believe he should aim to reproduce faithfully what the original author wanted to say, warts and all.  Don’t sugar-coat things.  Don’t bowdlerize things.  Let the original speak.  

English is not as great as everybody thinks.

English is just one language among many thousands.  It has its strengths and weaknesses.  It is not as compact, efficient, or as masculine as Latin, in my opinion.  By being exposed to different languages, you get a more full and balanced appreciation of your own native tongue.

A Professional Translator Speaks

On a somewhat unrelated note, I recently found an interesting article about an Iraqi translator named Ghassan Hamdan who discussed his experiences in translating Persian into Arabic.  It’s in the form of a dialogue.  The original article is here.  But here are some of the interesting questions and answers.  There are many interesting and relevant observations here:

Al-Monitor:  You were born in Baghdad, but you were raised in Iran, and now you translate famous Persian novels and publish them in Cairo. How did this start?

Hamdan:  I was born in Baghdad, but my family moved to Iran before the revolution, when relations were good between the two countries. After Saddam [Hussein] came to power in Iraq and the war with Iran started, we were expelled from Iraq under the pretext of being Iranian.

I was raised in Iran, and I think my experience is similar to that of all the other Iranians of my generation. During [President Mohammad] Khatami’s time in office, when there was greater press freedom. I became interested in literature, sociology, and I also started painting.


In 1999, I went to Syria and worked there for a while as an editor, first for a magazine and later in a publishing house. It was there that I started to translate modern Persian poetry and later began working as a translator in the [Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting] branch in Syria.

Finally, I started teaching Persian, both at the university and also at the Center for Foreign Languages in Damascus. Alongside teaching Persian, I have also translated more than 1,000 movies and TV series.

After the unrest in Syria, I had to leave, and I currently live in Baghdad. In Baghdad, I started working as a writer and TV producer. Now, however, I am translating Persian and Arabic novels, and I am also working on my own novel.

Al-Monitor:  How did you become interested in translating Iranian novels into Arabic? Considering that we know there is a strong literary movement in the Arab world, do you think Iranian novels would be well received in the Arab world?

Hamdan:  I was raised with and very much influenced by classical Iranian literature, especially Rumi. I was also interested in the poetry of Sohrab Sepehri, which is why I started my translation work by translating modern Persian poetry. I first started by publishing a selection of poems by Forugh Farrokhzad, then Sohrab Sepehri, and eventually Shamloo.

I also translated works of Akhavan-Sales, and it was ready for publication when my computer became infected with a virus. After it was formatted, I realized that the entire file had been deleted. This incident made me forget about translating poetry, and instead I started working on short stories.

I published a selection of works by Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, and this was how I started translating novels. Around the same time, I published the translation of the novel “Chashm Hayash” (“Her Eyes”), by Bozorg Alavi, for Syria’s Ministry of Culture. I have also translated a series of short stories by Sadeq Chubak, Sadeq Hedayat, Bozorg Alavi and even an anthology of short stories by female Iranian writers. I am currently looking for a publisher to publish these works.

At first, these works were not well received. The reason I chose Syria’s Ministry of Culture was because it was a government organization and had a budget allocated for translating and publishing world literature. The private publishers, however, were not interested. There are a couple of reasons why they were not interested: First, there is negative propaganda toward Iran.

Second, Arab readers are more interested in Western literature, and third, they don’t think Iranian literature is good enough! The same mentality exists in Turkey as well. In Turkey, people don’t think that Arabic literature or Iranian literature is worthy of being translated.

I don’t want to compare Iranian literature with Arabic literature, but Arabic literature is quite strong as well. Arab writers from Egypt, Lebanon and even Yemen, Mauritania and Sudan have good techniques. A lot of novels by famous Arab writers have been translated into English and French.

Now that we are done with the introduction, readers have recently become interested in Iranian novels, mostly because they are curious about Iran. Since, for political purposes, Iran is being constantly mentioned in the news, people have become interested in Iran and Iranian literature. Each country has its own unique history, mythology and culture, which in turn make its literature unique.

However, since Iranian literature is not widely available in the Arab World, sometimes what is being published as Iranian literature in Arabic magazines is in fact translated from English to Arabic, not directly from Persian to Arabic.

However, in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon, academic research has been done on classic and modern Iranian literature. The focus has been mostly on classical literature, but works by contemporary writers and poets such as Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, Sadeq Chubak, [Ali] Shariati, Shamloo and Forugh have been studied.

Al-Monitor:  Which Persian novels have you translated? How were these books received?

Hamdan:  Six novels have been published and two others will be published soon. However, aside from these eight novels, I have also translated another seven or eight novels, and I am looking for a publisher to publish them. The books that have been published so far are “Chashm Hayash,”​ “Karawane Islam,” “Roze-e-Ghasem,” “Rooye Mah-e-Khodavand ra Beboos,” “Nocturnal Orchestra of Woods,” as well as a selection of Jalal Al-e-Ahmad works.

Also, the two novels “Noon va Ghalam” and “​Modire Madrese” are about to be published. I am also looking for publishers to publish my translations of the following books: “Parande-ye-man,”​ “I Will Turn off the Lights,” “Suraya dar eghma,” “Bamdad-e Khomar” and “Zamin-e Sookhte.”

Al-Monitor:  You live in Baghdad, one of the biggest capitals in the Arab world, with a glorious history. There is only a 150-kilometer distance between Baghdad and the Iranian border, but you decided not to publish these books in Baghdad and instead published them in Cairo. Why is that?

Hamdan:  In Baghdad, unlike in other Arab cities, a unique book market exists. On Fridays, writers, publishers and cultural activists gather on Mutanabbi Street, which is a short, 200-meter street, and discuss books. There is no such thing in other Arab countries, and cultural meetings usually take place in coffee shops or bookstores.

As far as publications are concerned, yes, there are publications everywhere, even in the poorest Arab countries, such as Yemen, Mauritania and Sudan. Publication is not the problem. Distribution is. During Saddam’s time, the law forbade publishers from presenting their books at international fairs. Although Saddam was overthrown 12 years ago, some of his laws are still in force!

It is not that the government is not aware of this, but since the administration is made up of people belonging to different parties, they have not yet managed to come to an agreement regarding these laws, and therefore, the old laws are still in effect.

On the other hand, Egypt is the cultural center of the Arab world. The first publishing house in Egypt was founded by Napoleon Bonaparte when he invaded Egypt. Also, considering the number of intellectuals, poets and writers who live in Egypt, publishing books is very important there. In addition, the press is also very strong in Egypt, and according to Egyptian law, the government is not allowed to shut down a newspaper even if said newspaper has insulted the president!

I should also add that aside from Egypt, I have also published books in Lebanon. Lebanon is Egypt’s rival, but the difference between them is that Lebanon is more active in distributing books in Europe. Lebanese publishers have been active in book fairs in Egypt, Tunisia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The other thing that I should mention is that the Iraqi publishers are not very good distributors and cannot pay the translators’ fees. However, after I became better known in Egypt and Lebanon, two Iraqi publishers contacted me and showed interest in publishing my translations. However, since they do not distribute books in other Arab countries, I decided not to work with them.

Al-Monitor:  Let’s talk a little about Iranians themselves. How familiar are Iranians with Arabic literature?

Hamdan:  According to research conducted a few years ago about Persian and Arabic novels, only 2% of the novels that have been translated into Persian in modern time were Arabic novels. Those Arabic novels that have been translated into Persian usually have historical and religious themes — for example, works of Jurji Zaydan, who is also popular because he has a simple writing style and uses an easy and understandable language.

Gibran Khalil Gibran is also popular among Iranians, because the mystic theme in his books interests Iranians. There have even been articles written in Iran about Khalil Gibran, and he has been compared with Iranian poets such as Sohrab Sepehri.

Of course, after the Arab writer Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize, Iranians became interested in Arabic literature, but not all of his writings have been translated into Persian.

Because of political reasons, Palestinian writers have received a lot of attention in Iran. Their works have been translated into Persian, and numerous meetings and discussions on the importance of Palestinian resistance literature and how it has influenced the literature of the Islamic Republic were held in Iran.

There have also been meetings and talks regarding the importance of Palestinian children’s literature. However, since only a certain group of Iranians are interested in these works, the Palestinian writers and poets have remained unknown to Iranian society at large.

Aside from the anti-Arabism that exists among some Iranians and the political struggle in the region, the fact that Iranians have a religious culture different from that of the Arabs has resulted in translators being less interested in translating Arabic works and readers less interested in reading them.

Also, in Iran, students of Arabic literature are educated in a more traditional and conservative fashion, and thus are unaware of new developments in the Arabic language and new Arabic literature, including plays and short stories. This has resulted in Arabic literature not having a good position, even among academics.

In recent years, however, a few important Arabic novels have been translated into Persian, and we should thank people like Yousef Azizi Bani-Torof for this. Bani-Torof translated works by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, Naguib Mahfouz and the Syrian writer Hanna Mina, among others, but he eventually withdrew from cultural activities because of political reasons. Others active in this field are Mr. Reza Ameri, Mr. Rahim Foroughi and Ms. Amel Nabhani.

I have also translated three novels from Arabic to Persian, and I hope I can publish them in Iran in the near future. Of course, we should mention that translators have been more interested in translating poetry than prose. Works by contemporary Arab poets such as Nizar Qabbani, Ghada al-Samman and Adunis have been well received by Iranian intellectuals.

Al-Monitor:  How about Iraq? Are you hopeful about the future of literature in Iraq?

Hamdan:  ​The country of Iraq has a very rich and long literary history.  Until late 1970, Iraq was known for having lots of publishers, poets and readers. Today, however, because Iraq has suffered a long dictatorship, has been attacked by the coalition forces and many of its writers have immigrated, its literature is mostly nostalgic literature and resistance literature.

Writers such as Burhan Shawi, Ali Bader, Hamid Alaghabi, Sinan Antoon, Hassan Blasim, Shaker Al Anbari, Ahmed Saadawi and myself are trying to capture the changes that Iraq has gone through.

The majority of these writers have immigrated to other countries, and so far we have not had a new generation of novelists. People are more interested in poetry. However, we never know. It is possible that a new generation of famous writers will emerge.

In any case, literature moves forward in Iraq although the memories of the past decade are quite heavy.

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