Tag Archives: translation

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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Bukra il-hureyah

Last exam tomorrow! Links links links:

All eyes are back on Gaza

Roundup of flotilla commentary from the Arabist

Priorities in the wake of flotilla killings: Gaza, then inquiry

Deported flotilla activists tell of Israeli mistreatment

US official: flotilla activists were ‘clearly seeking a confrontation’

The US should step aside for Turkey

Ibn Kafka on the ‘arms’ found aboard the flotilla (in French)

NATO’s growing crisis over flotilla attacks

Video report on (lack of) protest in East Jerusalem

How Israel enables terror

What’s the point of the Gaza blockade?

No-one seems surprised at Obama’s silence

Hamas says the Rafah crossing is open…

…but not much is happening, according to the Guardian

The Egyptian opposition just can’t get along

‘Skirmishes’ did not undermine Shoura elections, says interior ministry

Shoura results to be declared on Thursday

MB to lend support to ElBaradei?

Taliban suicide bombers attack Afghan peace conference

The decline of Israel’s military power

How do you translate insha’allah?

Israel’s war against non-violence

Hamas must take initiative now

ElBaradei speaks on flotilla and Egyptian democracy

New Saudi marriage contracts ask age of bride

Analysis of the recent Algerian cabinet reshuffle

Iranian govt prepares for protests as students demonstrate

How to end the Gaza siege

Coalition negotiation continues in Iraq

Leading AQIM figure surrenders in Algeria

America and Turkey: friends to frenemies

Why the Afghan jirga will fail

Lifting the siege in Gaza and Cairo

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Nasr Company on strike, Iranians on the lash, and Saudi women on the road?

Arabic, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.

Erdogan to Iran for nuclear talks

It’s going to take a lot to get America talking about Israel

Iraqi election recount offers no new result

Arabic children’s literature adds a new dimension to the fusHa/3amiyah conundrum

Chomsky denied entry to Israel

The NPT conference trundles on

David Schenker tackles the SCUD issue; hilarity ensues

A new vision for Cairo

Iranians party in Armenia

Mariah Carey to perform at the Pyramids. Apparently has a big Egyptian fanbase

The Maghreb’s lack of ‘asabiyya

Gazan farmers need protection to bring in their harvest

Nasr Company chemical workers announce strike, win concessions (in Arabic)

Muslim Brotherhood members to be tried in absentia

Saudis may capriciously let women loose in cars. Madness

Translators as movie stars?

Video bonus: iiiiiiiiii would step out of the rush for you…


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