15.09.2009Interview"Translation is the most important channel of intercultural dialogue"Professor Abboud, in a lecture at the University of Bonn, you said that literary translations were of particular importance in the process of intercultural dialogue. Why do you think translation matters so much?
Abdo Abboud: Literature is a mirror of the social and cultural relationships within a people, a society and a culture. When works of literature are translated from a foreign language, the recipients in the new language are enabled to achieve insight into the social and cultural conditions of that people or nation. And because dialogue
Dr. Abdo Abboud between cultures requires channels, literature is also a highly important tool in that dialogue. If one wishes to get to know a culture, two options are available: either one learns the language, or one reads the literature in translation. Of course, language teaching is subject to limitations, simply because there are so many languages that it's impossible to learn them all; so translation will continue to be the most important channel of communication between cultures.
At the beginning of the Eighties, you completed your doctoral thesis. It was entitled "The Reception of the Modern German Novel in the Arab Countries". How interested in German literature are people in the Arabic world?
Abboud: One might put it this way: there's an interest in foreign literature in general, and this takes expression in a variety of forms. For example, there are periodicals that publish nothing but literary texts translated from other languages. In Syria, there's the magazine "Al-Adaab al-Adschnabijja" (“Foreign Literatures”), and in Saudi Arabia there's "Nawafis" (“Window”), which only publishes translated texts. And the literary translation movement in the Arab world is now at least a century old; in fact, you could say it dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Since then, many works of European literature have appeared in translation. Naturally, French literature came first, because of the close links to France; Muhammad Ali’s first ambassadors were sent to Paris, and not to Berlin. Then, around the turn of the century, there began a movement to produce Arabic translations of German works, which still continues today. But this movement went through a series of phases. In the early days, practically no one was fluent in German, so German works were translated from intermediary languages, i.e. French or English. Since the mid-Sixties, however, the situation has changed radically: the first Arab graduates in German language and literature returned to Egypt, and were soon busily translating from the German. Direct translations from the German had in fact been produced before this time, but these were the work of Arabs who had graduated in other subjects, such as philosophy or geography: Mahmud Ibrahim al-Dassuki, for example, rendered Goethe und Thomas Mann into Arabic. (In fact, a direct translation of “Faust” first appeared in the 1930s – one of the many versions in existence.) Since the mid-Sixties, however, there have been real “specialists” - graduates in German language and literature, who of course translate directly from the German. Now, the question naturally arises: How many people read these translations? How big is the print-run for such books? Well, one indication of the interest in German literature is the fact that several works have been translated several times. There are now nearly ten different versions of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”…
What’s the reason for this? Are translators unaware of each other, or are the translations constantly being improved?
Abboud: There are various reasons. For example, a German book may have been translated indirectly, from another language, and then a new translator turns up who wants to produce a direct translation of the original German. Another translator may be dissatisfied for other reasons, perhaps because a translation’s flawed and he wants to produce a better one. Or an existing translation may have been done in Egypt, and now a Syrian translator wants to do a “Syrian” version. But when different translations of the same work are produced in different countries, it’s sometimes due to a simple lack of coordination. Of course, one might well see this as a waste of energy; yet it also means that translations are produced which reflect a variety of views and interpretations of a single text.
In the Arab world, which names are spontaneously associated with German literature?
Abboud: First and foremost, Goethe, of course. The Goethe Institutes have contributed to this development, but the Arabic world has long been interested in Goethe - in contrast to Schiller, who’s more or less unknown. Schiller, of course, wrote mainly plays. As a matter of historical fact, the Arabic reception of Schiller predates the Goethe reception: translations of “Cabal and Love” and “William Tell” appeared as early as 1902 or 1905. Though these works played an important role, they had been translated from the French. Later, interest in Schiller more or less petered out. Goethe, however, had the additional advantage of being interested in the Orient, and in Islam; he was somebody who also took an interest in us. By translating his works, the Arabs also felt confirmed in their own cultural role. Moreover, Goethe’s literary oeuvre covers several genres: he wrote plays, poems, novels, shorter narratives and fairy tales. The same can’t be said of Schiller.
Goethe, however, is not the only German writer who’s had a major influence on Arabic literature. Think of Bertolt Brecht, for example. Even in the Sixties, Arab theatre people were divided into Brechtians and anti-Brechtians. I don’t think there’s another foreign writer who’s had a comparable influence on Arabic drama. Most of his works have been translated into Arabic, in many cases two or three times. And not just his plays, but his poems and stories too. Brecht enjoys a wide readership and a great deal of scholarly attention. At the moment, however, the big hit in the Arab world is Hermann Hesse. Arabic translators are practically tripping over each other to translate his works. Almost all of his writings are available in Arabic translation; and again, many of them have been translated several times - sometimes directly from the German, sometimes from the English. If you enquire after German literature in an Arabic bookshop today, you’ll find almost nothing but Hesse. Naturally, Günter Grass’s popularity was boosted after he received the Nobel Prize – some of his books were translated for the first time, and “The Tin Drum” is now available in two different translations – yet it’s too early to speak of a broad-based Arab interest in Grass. It can’t be compared with the reception accorded to Goethe or Brecht.
In the last few years, several young German authors have produced first novels or collections that have been very highly praised. Some of them have gone on to publish their second and even third books. There’s also been talk of a “Fräuleinwunder”, for many of these authors are young women. Has this development been noticed in the Arab world? Is there any way Arab readers can experience these new authors, for example in literary magazines?
Abboud: Sadly, these authors are unknown in the Arab world. I believe Patrick Süskind is one of the few contemporary German writers who are actually read, apart from Günter Grass. And Süskind is not exactly young. The very young authors have had no reception at all. Theoretically, they could acquire a readership, for example if their texts were to be translated and published in a literary periodical. On the whole, though, the young generation of German writers is practically invisible. This is mainly the responsibility of the translators, because they rarely translate such authors. It’s also questionable they would find a publisher; it hasn’t been tried, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. The texts have to be translated first, though. When Patrick Süskind’s novel “Perfume” was translated, people were also sceptical; but the novel turned out to be a success here. Nabil Haffar’s translation first appeared in the Emirates, and a new edition has just been brought out in Syria. It can’t be said that there’s no market for new German literature, but there have to be translators who are prepared to take the initiative. The problem is, hardly any of the Arab German specialists are interested in contemporary literature.