Translating Between Cultures

    Working Between Two Shores: Hammer and Anvil

    Two images seem to me to best capture the work of the translator: the image of a river with its two shores, and that of hammer and anvil and what comes between the two.

    The image of the river is as pretty as it is familiar. The translator crosses this river with his precious cargo, the stuff of translation, either as a ferryman with his bark or on foot as St. Christopher. The picture of a hammer and anvil is less endearing since a degree of violence is involved in their use.

    However, the idyllic image of the river is also deceptive and is mainly deployed in too simple and ahistorical a way, in the question of the means by which the cargo will be transported over the river. The answer to that question only provides information about translation procedures and techniques. However, in the context of current discussion about cultural exchange or dialogue between cultures another question seems to me to be important where the river metaphor is concerned - namely, that of the nature of the two river-banks. The question of where the material is being transferred from and where it is going, the nature of the origin and of the destination, informs us about cultural differences, cultural dependences, cultural prescriptions, and much else besides.

    So when we consider modern translation from Arabic into German, whether from the German or the Arab point of view, there is little point in dreaming of Baghdad, which saw such diligent translation into Arabic in the 9th and 10th centuries, or of Toledo where in the 12th and 13th centuries there was such enthusiastic translation into Latin. Blissful memories of German Romanticism when major and minor men of letters devoted themselves to freshly translated oriental texts are no use either. In all these cases the situation in which the translation took place was unique. In Baghdad the newly established ruling class had ‘native’ texts translated into the language of the conquerors – from languages this class did not consider it necessary to learn. To Toledo, in the retinue of the Reconquista armies, came men hungry for knowledge who had heard in their home countries (France, Germany, England) that something worth knowing was to be found there – knowledge they subsequently used to supply their newly-founded universities. And in German Romanticism the search for paradises and idylls drove writers to become interested in a bygone Oriental world full of wisdom, humane behaviour, and fantasy.

    Today we are far removed from all of that. The riverbanks look different. Seen from the West, the Arab shore is no longer a place to which one goes to get something. Indifference towards the Arab world at best helps preserve the clichéd dreams and fantasies from the Romantic era; worse, it allows the West to occupy itself with the ‘problematic issues’ supplied by action- and confrontation-oriented media. This means that at present the small demand for translations continues to shrink, and knowledge of the Arab world remains correspondingly limited.

    However, on the Arab shore – and rightly so – people believe that written expressions of Arab culture should be translated into other languages so that the lack of knowledge can be reduced and a rapprochement made possible. The same is to be observed on the other bank, except that far fewer people there believe that such a rapprochement is achievable through translations. A meeting and co-operation between the interested parties on both sides is much to be desired at his point, so as, in this case, to promote interest in Arab literature on the Western shore. But what is to be done if those who would like to see more of their own literature translated do not reach out to help but rather entrench themselves behind complaints and reproaches? What is to be done if the Arab side only complains and does not act?

    Here someone who nevertheless continues translating can easily become a whipping-boy, or, to stick with the previously mentioned image, he ends up between the hammer and the anvil. This is the first formulation of the hammer and anvil situation: the translator between the Eastern and Western shores, held responsible by the Arab side as it were for neglect of this shore, and viewed by the West with pity or disdain (and sometimes still with somewhat restrained admiration) for his commitment. This is a completely realistic description of the situation with regard to translation from the Arabic.

    A specific variant of this situation between cultures is the position of the translator between author and publisher. They too constitute a hammer and anvil between which the translator is dealt blows. On the one side are the authors’ wish-laden glances and dreams of liberation by way of translation from the linguistic cage of Arabic, translated into reality. On the other side are the publisher’s requirements of a brilliant work, a wonderful translation, and of course to get all this as cheaply as possible. Much could be said about this last point, since one cannot live from literary translation (and especially not from the Arabic). This means that I subsidise my translations of Arab literature into German through other activities! Even relatively acceptable fees make no difference. Then the translator caught between hammer and anvil is subject to another blow. Very many works to be translated are suggested by the translator himself; in other words he looks out these books, reads them, recommends them. That is unpaid additional work which in the case of Western languages is done by publishers or agents – not to mention many other underpaid or unpaid activities: afterwords, information about the authors, etc.

    And when the translator really does set to work, he once again ends up between hammer and anvil, this time those of his profession: between the language of origin and the language into which a text is translated. Here he must really watch how he or his translation are being ‘forged’ and which side is doing the forging. It is here that the old joke about the translator (traduttore) becoming a traitor (traditore) is at least a relevant question. This is where the real work of translation gets under way through which all colleagues are connected, no matter from or into which language.

    After all, what should one do if the language of origin has six, seven, or eight words for desert and the target language but one? Or what do we do with clothes and foodstuffs, with images, symbols, metaphors, or even intertextual use of old Arab literature? Or even the Arab owl, which in German should rather be an ‘unlucky raven’, a ‘luckless individual’?

    Here questions narrow down to purely technical or stylistic issues, to be discussed among translators. However, the questions of the different shores extend further. They affect everyone. They are concerned with the relationship between different linguistic spheres - or should we say cultures? And that issue is eminently political. So translators work in a politically determined environment.

    Hartmut Fähndrich

    Hartmut Fähndrich is one of the most prominent translators of Arabic Literature into German. He has translated several works by Ibrahim al-Koni, Youssef Idris, Sonallah Ibrahim and many others.

    What is your opinion on this subject? Write to kulturzeitschriften@goethe.de!