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The Tiff: Is the Translator Responsible for Political Problem Texts?

2015/3/26 — 15:10

【Text by M. Lynx Qualey et al.】

Yardenne Greenspan and Marcia Lynx Qualey on the choices we translators can make

M. Lynx Qualey: The most important decision a translator must make is: Will I translate this text?


Being an essentially freelance profession, translation has a mountain of drawbacks, but it does make a bit more allowance for choice. The injunction to “translate only what you love” works—as long as you have a stable income outside of translating. I prefer Samah Selim’s version: “Never translate a book you don’t like unless you have to.” Or my own: “Never translate a text you think you’ll regret (unless creditors are outside the window).”

Yet what makes for a “politically problematic” text may have less to do with the text itself and more to do with context. Propagandists thrive on selective translation. The MEMRI “media monitoring organization,” described by Guardian reporter Brian Whitaker, is perhaps the largest ongoing Arabic-English translation project. Some of the individual news and cultural texts that MEMRI translates might be innocuous, but the project as a whole furthers a political agenda.


Literary translation is a somewhat different beast—most editors and publishers probably don’t have a ten-year plan to shift public opinion. Nonetheless, they may still choose translations to fit a particular view of Africans, Arabs, Muslims, Chinese, or Estonians, either because that’s what resonates (“ah yes, the oppressed Arab woman who comes West and finds freedom!”) or because that’s what sells (“another 1,000 units of oppressed Arab woman comin’ up!”).

Translators know their literatures are enormous. Arabic literature has not just a fifteen-hundred-year history but also a geographic spread over two dozen countries, with a roiling sea of literary and semi-literary works from each century and sub-region. New books, magazines, and Facebook pages are being written, published, criticized, and argued over every year, and we hear about only a tiny pinch of them. The sliver is even smaller for major literary languages like Urdu, Bengali, and Malayalam.

What appears in the tiny sliver we see? Often enough, it’s what we expect to see.

Mostly, we don’t choose to translate fascist-nationalist or racist stories. Mostly, chosen texts are not “politically problematic” on their own. Instead, they become so in the way they are framed, foreworded, and discussed. Nawal al-Saadawi is a wonderful writer-activist in Arabic, but in English often appears outside her context, as part of a troubling “White Women’s Lives are the Best!” narrative. Boualem Sansal is an accomplished storyteller, but also attractive to Western readers because of his assertive linking of Nazis and Islamists.

So: Is a translator responsible if people with problematic politics wave the flag of his work? Unless he’s gone and signed up with the equivalent of MEMRI or Jihad Watch, probably not.

But choice is still key. What if the book is mostly wonderful, but has a scene or two that make the translator queasy? These are the quandaries I hear about most often: a rape scene, a racial slur. Every translator I’ve known has felt a sense of responsibility for that scene: If the words come from her pen, she too owns them. And I think it’s best that way.


Yardenne Greenspan: For a translator, not all words are created equal. For some Hebrew words I automatically have the proper English equivalent. Other words I have to look up. Then, of course, there are the ones whose translation varies, and depends heavily on context. Finally, there is a fourth genre, the irregulars: words that give me pause, no matter how frequently I’ve come across them. One such word in the Hebrew language is kushi.

Plainly, this means, “a man of Kush,” the ancient African kingdom, located in what is today Northern Sudan. Practically, this word is used to denote a black person of African descent, regardless of his or her country of origin. It is not a politically correct word, but neither is it anywhere near as offensive as its American English parallels. But it isn’t innocuous, either. It is an unfounded, decontextualized term that many Israelis—including intelligent, liberal Israelis—still unthinkingly use, unaware of its potential to offend the very small minority of Israelis of African descent and the increasing number of African refugees and migrant workers.

When translating the word kushi, the first thing I must do is consider the intention. Who is using this word? Is it a character, the narrator, or the author? What kind of person are they? What tone are they utilizing? This process isn’t significantly different than the one required for most any other word in the text, but it is, naturally, a much more fateful decision for a translator to make. If the author is using the word kushi out of force of habit rather than negative intention, I would be hesitant to use an equivalently offensive term in English, which would misrepresent his or her intentions. In principle, translators shouldn’t be judged for authors’ foibles, but, like it or not, we are in the business of context, and our duties often include protecting an author from his or her own subconscious choices. Thus, I’ve found myself, at times, translating kushi as black, two local blondes as two local women, and Filipina as caretaker. Such initiative on my part always involves the author’s approval, and I have almost never gotten vehement objections on their part. I should point out that I’ve never translated the work of a deceased author. If I ever do, I suspect I would make the same choices, albeit much more hesitantly.

But the word kushi is not always just the product of habit. At times, a narrator or a character in a book uses this word to express their racist inclinations, in which case it would behoove me to use an equally powerful word in English. After all, racists are not uncommon, in literature as in life, and they, at times, serve the important purpose of holding a mirror up to the ugly face of our society. Would I go for the N-Word? Probably not. Because the history of Israelis of Sub-Saharan descent is not as complicated and violent as that of their counterparts in the United States, and because no word in Hebrew is that awful, I would use a slightly less offensive word, one that would sit a tad more comfortably with readers. There is enough hate in the world. And yet, if I was going to do my job properly, I wouldn’t be able to be “proper” about it, either.

But what if the word kushi is used neither by a naïve author nor by a fictional character, but rather by a blatantly racist author? In such a case, my dilemma would shift from a simple matter of word choice to bigger, ethical questions. I do not think a translator should be held accountable for an author’s bigotry, but I do think that, given the opportunity to do so, we all have a responsibility to diminish the dissemination of hate. If an author is trying to use a word like kushi, not just doing so because they don’t know any better, that is probably not an author whose words I want to deliver to the world at all.


M. Lynx Qualey blogs daily at http://www.arablit.org.

Yardenne Greenspan, Asymptote editor-at-large for Israel, has an MFA in Fiction and Translation from Columbia University. In 2011 she received the American Literary Translators’ Association Fellowship. Her translation of Some Day, by Shemi Zarhin, was chosen for World Literature Today’s 2013 list of notable translations. Yardenne’s translations include work by Rana Werbin, Gon Ben Ari, Nahum Werbin, Vered Schnabel, Kobi Ovadia, Yirmi Pinkus, Ron Dahan, Alex Epstein and Yaakov Shabtai. Her fiction, essays and translations have been published in Hot Metal Bridge, Two Lines, Words Without Borders, Necessary Fiction, Agave, World Literature Today, Shelf Unbound and Asymptote, among other publications. She is currently working on her first novel.

(Originally published on Asymptote Blog, link here)