How do you describe a werewolf's coat?

Rebecca Hart
Opinion - Books Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Rebecca Hart reports on Arabic and English translation workshops held in Sharjah


Does a werewolf have fur or hair? Is it coarse or thick? Can it be soft? These were just some of questions translators grappled with over three days at the Tarjem: Arabic-English and English-Arabic Translation Workshop in Sharjah in February.

The British Council, in partnership with Sharjah World Book Capital, New Writing North and Kalimat Group, hosted a workshop for early to mid-career translators at the picturesque Al Rawi bookshop and Al Noor island in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE). This event was intended as preparation for the Sharjah Market Focus at the 2020 London Book Fair, later cancelled owing to coronavirus. It saw participants from eight countries come together to work with distinguished translators, share the joys and frustrations of translating, grow their professional networks, and learn more about how the publishing sector works in the UK and the UAE.

The Arabic-English workshop was led by award-winning translator and journalist Jonathan Wright and Elisabeth Jaquette, executive director of the American Literary Translators Association. Their counterparts in the English-Arabic group were Ahmed Al Ali, a Saudi poet, translator and publisher at Rewayat, the literary fiction imprint at Kalimat; and Boutheina Khaldi, an associate professor of Arabic and translation studies at the American University of Sharjah. The participants also benefited from insights into the publishing industry from Ailah Ahmed, publishing director at Little, Brown Book Group; Sarah Harvey, rights agent at Curtis Brown; and Yasmina Jraissati, founder of RAYA Agency in Lebanon.

Challenged by Evaristo
The conversations and debates that took place during the workshop were wide-ranging. The fallacy of the idea of "standard" Arabic was much discussed among the English-Arabic group, whose members were from six different countries (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Syria, Tunisia) and were thus effectively translating into different languages. This group worked on Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, and found her long sentences and experimental style challenging.

Unsurprisingly, the other group debated American versus British English - what is the cultural and linguistic equivalent to kiosk? Is it a tuck shop? A hut? Should translators translate for the country of the publishing house, or do you take into consideration which English is most prevalent in the country where the text was written? Do you provide the editor with both the American and British options? (The answer to this last question was no! Publishers pay someone to Americanise texts as required).

Other topics included the translation of sacred texts such as the Bible and the Qur'an, bridge translations (translations to a third language, often by way of a European bridge language), and the translation of idioms and proverbs by way of culturally equivalent expressions.

In the publishing sector sessions, the group tackled some of the challenges they face when trying to pitch titles for translation. They discussed the acquisitions process from the commissioning editor's perspective, and particularly the matter of pitching to colleagues. They explored how translators can advocate for titles by helping agents, publishers and booksellers "sell" the book on to the next link in the chain.

Pitching and promoting
Following trends, making comparisons, knowing a publisher's list and style were all useful ideas that could be incorporated into a translator's "elevator pitch". The publishers admitted that prizes were a useful endorsement when considering a title for translation. Likewise, some knowledge of what translation grants might be relevant or available could be helpful for translators to share with editors. The peculiar relationship between a translator and the writer, or a translator and the editor, was also a topic of conversation. When the writer was not contactable, the translators suggested that mutual support might be found between translators of the same author into other languages.

Translation is a notoriously solitary undertaking, and opportunities such as these for translators and other professionals to get together, share techniques, build support systems and grow their networks are rare but necessary. The British Council has been delivering programmes for translators to and from Arabic for at least 10 years, and we hope that this most recent iteration will result in more translations of Arabic literature in English and English literature in Arabic. The work of translators is critical for helping stories travel to new readers, and through translations we can have a greater insight and understanding of the lives of one another.

Photos by ©THE-COOL-BOX STUDIO - www.tcb-studio.com. Top: members of the English-to-Arabic group led by Boutheina Khaldi; above: the whole group, with panellists Ailah Ahmed (Little, Brown), Sarah Harvey (Curtis Brown), Tamer Said (Kalimat Group), translator Jonathan Wright, and Will Mackie (New Writing North - chair)

Rebecca Hart is literature programme manager, British Council.

This article was commissioned for the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch London Book Fair Show Daily.

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