Monthly Archives: March 2012

Translation problems

I don’t know enough about law, or technology, or the Arabic language for this shit. When I was a volunteer translator, I had a folder in my documents marked, semi-jokingly, ‘ABOVE MY PAY GRADE’ for all of the translations which required more than usual amounts of caffeine, spasmodic scrolling through Hans Wehr, and the last resort of the underqualified, plugging the whole thing into Google Translate and then rearranging what comes out into some kind of sense. When I actually started getting paid, I renamed the folder ‘HUMAN RIGHT$ DOLLA’. Slowly, I am becoming a good translator. Slowly.

Translation has taught me words in English: usufructuary, to yaw, Secure Sockets Layer. It has shown me a whole heap of enjoyable, even quaint differences in expression and syntax between Arabic and English. (To take into consideration, in Arabic, becomes ‘to take into the eye of consideration,’ which I like.) In the way that studying advanced French taught me never to end an English sentence with a preposition (for what is merely sloppy in English becomes impossible in French), translating advanced Arabic texts has taught me new ways of thinking about gerunds, passives, apposition, relative pronouns, and so on, which I will not go into here, because it will be dull. (Gerunds, though! They need a special mention. Arabic can sometimes be a mess of gerunds, as though there is no other way to express an idea. It can be neat, an incredibly elegant and concise way to express complicated concepts, or it can be repetitive and stale. After a day spent with Arabic I find myself inserting gerunds into English which should not be there. ‘The mentioning of it is forbidden,’ that kind of thing.)

I still don’t want to be a translator when I grow up, but I am enjoying being one at the moment.

When I translate from English to Arabic, it is of course much, much harder. No amount of dictionaries, grammar books, or Google T can fill the gaping hole where a native command of the language is lacking. I formulate clauses and then Google them in Arabic to see if anyone has written anything similar. I do this, painstakingly, for every sentence I write, casting my net over the Internet, searching for someone whose words chime with my own. My supervisor at work says my English-Arabic translations are ‘strange but serviceable’. Some of them, he says, are better than a native speaker’s efforts. I silently thank all the denizens of the internet who just happened to be writing about probable cause or the frequency spectrum in Arabic, in the same words as me, and who, as before, saved my ass.

I am compiling a glossary so that the next translator who takes over from me at my organisation can save some time finding accurate translations for things like ‘rocket-propelled grenade warhead’ or ‘universal jurisdiction’. It is divided up into sections: medical, legal, security, espionage, prisons, weapons, and so on. Finding a good word for the glossary is very satisfying. I now have three different types of knives, five different guns, and a plethora of small arms including chains and sticks. It is a morbid little list. Each word recalls the case, the particular translation, from whence it came; the word for drug poisoning, for instance, inevitably reminds me of the Essam Atta press release I translated, after Atta died in prison from having bleach pumped into his mouth and anus through rubber hoses. The Ministry of Interior claimed that he had ingested drugs and died of poisoning. My translation work is the last stage in a process where each stage becomes more refined, more removed from the original violence and horror of the thing.

In October, I volunteered for a website which was gathering testimonies from witnesses to the Maspero massacre, and then translating them into English. This translation work presented an initial problem for me in that all the testimonies were in transcribed Egyptian Arabic, so my dictionary was little use and I often had to read them out loud to figure out what they were saying. Rendering colloquial expressions into English was difficult and the results felt awkward. I didn’t know what level of expletives were permitted: I shied away from ‘I’m gonna fuck you up,’ sticking with the slightly milquetoast ‘I’m gonna mess you up’.

I was not at Maspero. I was in a friend’s apartment in downtown, far away enough to be assured of my safety, perched on his balcony reading Twitter. In the days that followed I watched the same videos and saw the same pictures as everybody else: the woman clutching her dead fiance’s hand, the heads smashed in, the horrifying videos which emerged later, the close-up shots of APCs running people down. These images of Maspero stuck with me, like I imagine they did for many other people. It was a horrific event, a horrific time afterwards, and of course I was upset and disturbed by it.

Yet it was translation, in the end, which really got to me. It was only after I began translating testimonies that I began having nightmares about Maspero. I would sit at my desk with all the simple comforts of work around me: a soft light, a cup of tea, maybe a blanket over my knees, and I would begin. Each testimony would begin the same way: we were marching from Shubra, and it was a lovely day. As I typed out my translation, my stomach would begin to tighten, for I knew what was coming, the point at which – not death, but the possibility of death, would start to seep into the text. Somehow, I would find myself on the Corniche, right inside the videos and photos I had seen; among the howling darkness, the blood and teeth and brains, the bodies jerking epileptically under the wheels of APCs. I would reach the end of the translation, look up from my laptop, and steady myself with a hand against my desk; reassuring myself that I was still here, in the light, and still breathing.


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