Saturday, January 13, 2007

Reading translations

Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz:

Reading translations

By Mohamed Salmawy

I was talking with Naguib Mahfouz about how his generation had acquired such extensive literary knowledge. He told me that he and his peers had learned at the hands of the masters, the likes of Al-Manfalouti, Taha Hussein, Al-Aqqad, Al-Mazni, Mohamed Hussein Heikal and Salama Moussa.

Naguib: If it were not for them I would not have been able to come so far. But let me also tell you about the translated works that were available to my generation. Before we started reading the masters, we were used to reading translations of foreign books. Because children's books were not readily available, we used to read thrillers and action stories. I remember as a child reading many translated novels, tales of thieves, Arsène Lupin for example. I learned a lot from these novels, especially with regard to the technique of storytelling. At the time I imagined these works were classics in their own right. It wasn't until I grew up that I discovered that they weren't so.

Salmawy: Who were the writers you read at the time?

Mahfouz: There was someone called Charles Garfar, of whom have found no subsequent mention. There was also a series of novels about the son of Johnson. Johnson was a famous thief, just as Arsène Lupin, and Hafez Naguib was the man who translated all his books. The series ended with the death of Johnson, but the books were selling so well that the translator decided to write a sequel. But he kept his name on it as a translator, because translated books were so popular. I recall that the translations were very liberal. In the middle of a French novel you'd find a character citing a saying of Prophet Mohamed. This used to impress me a lot as a child. Look at that, Guy de Maupassant citing the prophet. Of course, he wasn't. But translations gave us crucial access to international literature. Al-Sibaei translated French literature. Khalil Motran translated Shakespeare, taking many liberties with the text but maintaining the spirit of the tale. I read Goethe, Balzac and others in translation.

Salmawy: But you also read some foreign literature in their original language.

Mahfouz: I read many English novelists in the original language. I also read some French novels, such as those of Anatole France, in the original. But this was later in life. At the beginning, translation was my only access to foreign literature. The movement of translation gained further momentum in the 1960s, when the government began sponsoring publications. So we had access to the latest French and British works. We read Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, T S Eliot, and Bertrand Russell at the same time Europeans did. I recall that the Arabic translation of John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger was available in Cairo while the play was still in British theatres. We also read Alberto Moravia, Hemingway, and many others. Translation is essential for the intellectual refinement of any nation. It is the only way to keep up with the age and learn about the world. So let's once again revive the translation movement, so we don't get trapped in the past.

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