15.09.2009InterviewInterviewMr Hartmut, your first Arabic - German translation was for the Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani in the mid-eighties when a number of his works were translated (Anthology of Short Stories, Men in the Sun, Return to Haifa). What made you choose Ghassan Kanafani? Why was Kanafani the first one you translated for?
Hartmut Fähndrich: In the early eighties there was a movement in Europe associated with the Palestinian problem, a limited movement but it was the first time that numerous German Arabists began
Hartmut Fähndrich, Foto: Markus Kirchgessner to take interest in contemporary Arabic literature, particularly Palestinian literature. This is where my interest in the Palestinian literature and particularly Ghassan Kanafani , the most prominent representative and personification of this literature, comes from.
This takes me to the traditional question that can be put to any translator. How do you, as one of the most prominent translators, and perhaps the most famous and productive for novels and short stories, decide which stories you translate? What is the decisive factor in your choice? Is your decision based on the potential appeal to German readers or the work’s success in the Arab world?
Fähndrich: The decision is a process that takes place on different levels. I visit many Arab countries and talk to specialists in contemporary Arabic literature. I ask them about the latest publications and important recent works. When I found out several new works, I go to the nearest bookshop, buy the books and start reading. After that, I think about whether this or that book is suitable for translation and whether or not it can be understood by the German public.
Do you choose yourself? Are there special committees who read the works and form opinions on them?
Fähndrich: Oh, no. I am in charge of this series and select the pieces myself.
So, after having read the book, is the main reason for your decision related the German readers’ taste?
Fähndrich: Not the main one. The discourse in the Arab world is also an important factor in the selection process. I mean, which Arabic literary work is considered important in Arab culture? This is very important in the decision I make. The next point is taking a work of significance in a particular country and exposing it to a German readership. I always prefer texts that generate interest in both the Arab and the German world, in other words, in the "source world" and the "target world".
Doesn’t marketing also play a role in the selection process? After all, books are a commodity or don’t you take this aspect into consideration?
Fähndrich: Of course, I do. This is an important aspect for the publishing house. Whenever I choose a book to translate I present it to the publishing house before I begin with the translation. And very often I have found myself in a dilemma. Whenever I want to translate a certain work and the people responsible in the publishing house have a different opinion on the book with respect to its suitability for the German market, I have to either drop the book or look for another publisher.
You are responsible for the Arabic series with "Lenos", and you are also one of the editors of the series "Mémoires de la Méditerranée", which is published in up to seven languages. There is a rumour in the Arab world about the authors you choose, even though the views of the West are always tainted with doubt. How do you counter this criticism or these doubts?
Fähndrich: With regard to "Mémoires de la Méditerranée", the selection of books has not always been a literary one. This ought to be known to everybody because it is the basis of our selection process. All the texts I have translated in this series have been chosen because they are autobiographical texts.
Fähndrich: Yes, autobiographies. In this project we wanted to present the European reader a portrayal of the day-to-day life in the Arab world. This aspect is very important to me as an Orientalist , since common German opinions about daily life in Arabic countries are strange. In this series we have chosen texts on childhood, the childhood of the writers in different Arabic countries. This is the crucial factor, not the literary value of the text.
This series, along with the Lenos series, has been criticised for not having translated the great Arab writers. I'll give you a few examples: Abd al Salam al-Ujaili, Ghaib Taama Farman, Hanna Mina, Hani al-Rahib, Baha Tahir, Ismail Fahd Ismail, Fuad al-Takarli, Ibrahim Aslan, Haidar Haidar, and so on. You have translated less important authors and the translations have increased their significance and made them famous.
Fähndrich: This is a difficult question. I know that there are very many great Arab writers, and I, as a translator, am more or less on my own. There are very few Arabic to German translators. When a translator offers me a translation of a novel by Ismail Fahd Ismail or Haider Haider, he is welcome. I have a novel by Haider Haider in my office that I am going to translate soon.
Because of the recent controversy about him?
Fähndrich: No, no, but because Haidar Haidar is one of the Arab writers who interests me. I know very well that there are many Arab writers, but I cannot translate everything, so I ask the question from a different perspective: Are the works that I have translated so far worthless?
No, they are not worthless, but the questions that have been raised openly and distinctly are: Why have authors considered to be essential in Arabic culture been ignored ? For example, you translated two novels by Salwa Bakr. Of course I don’t want to put down Salwa Bakr, but there are more important personalities in Arabic literature who have not even been considered up to now.
Fähndrich: Whenever you translate for an author you read a lot by him or her, and therefore I prefer to translate more than one novel by one writer since I read his or her works and get used to his or her style.