15.09.2009Interview"Translation is the most important channel of intercultural dialogue"The Arabic and German languages are very different; in your opinion, does this lead to particular problems when translating?
Abboud: That’s an interesting question. Arabic and German are two different language systems; that goes without saying. Insofar, there are bound to be translation problems all along the line. Not just as regards terminology – in such cases, one can always find solutions; there are methods for dealing with that. The major problems crop up in literary translations, for example in dialogues - not just in plays, but also in novels or short stories. Which stylistic level is appropriate? Then there’s the poetic imagery, the allegories, the similes, the literary methods in general… all of these are very different in the two languages. When one translates directly, the results sometimes seem terribly artificial. There are really a great many difficulties, in both directions.
If we turn to poetry, the situation is even tougher. Personally, I regard poetry as untranslatable. In my opinion, it forfeits all its essential qualities in translation; the loss is enormous. The possibilities of translating poetry are limited, and one shouldn’t forget this. Adaptation is the best that can be hoped for; look at the work of Friedrich Rückert, for example. But we can’t really call this kind of thing “translation”. It’s free adaptation, and therefore a separate and independent literary genre.
Some German universities now offer courses in translation, including the translation of Oriental languages. Is there a comparable kind of professional training in Syria, or how does one become a translator there?
Abboud: Unfortunately, there’s still not a single Syrian university offering courses in German Studies. All they have at the universities is the option of taking German as a second European language for those studying French or English. There are now also educational centres where the German language is taught, and then there’s the Goethe Institute, but all this rarely goes beyond beginners’ level. I have given a few courses in translation at the Goethe Institute, and a relatively large number of people were interested enough to take part; but they were all graduates of German universities. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Syrian government sent twenty-odd students to study German at German universities; and in fact, most of the people currently translating from the German in Syria were among this chosen few: I myself, for example, and Nabil Haffar. The only other translators are people who studied something else in Germany. One of the very good translators, Adnan Habbal, studied medicine in Heidelberg. The other option, which shouldn’t be underestimated, is translation via an intermediary language. This is still very commonly done; Habermas, for example, has just been translated from the English. And the option will remain as long as there is no possibility of studying German language and literature at a Syrian university.
Regrettably, Syrian literature is also largely unknown in Germany. The Swiss publishing house, Lenos, has three Syrian authors on its list: one title each by the great Syrian authors Hanna Mina and Zakariya Tamer, and two by Halim Barakat. The truly great works of Syrian literature are still unknown in Germany; the major works of Mina and Tamer remain untranslated, and great names like Haidar Haidar and Hani al-Rahib are just missing completely. What do you see as the reasons for this? Is no one interested in Syrian literature, or in Syria itself?
Abboud: One can only speculate about this problem. It might be claimed, for example, that Syrian literature has nothing to offer; but this wouldn’t be true, for there’s a whole range of authors well worth translating: Fawwas Haddad, Ulfa al-Idlibi, Haidar Haidar, Abd al-Salam al-Udschaili, etc. Indeed, there are some works that would be of quite particular interest to German readers. Take “Sail and Storm”, the novel by Hana Mina: it examines attitudes to Germany during the Second World War. It’s set in Latakia, on the Syrian coast. When the French colonial authorities forbade the people to listen to Radio Berlin, they hid in a cave with their old radio, and followed the broadcasts there. Ulfat Idilbi is an equally interesting example: her novel, “Damascus bitter sweet” contains a very interesting discussion about Germany and National Socialism; all the conflicting positions are represented. Then there are the novels of Hani al-Dhahabi; his trilogy, the last part of which is set in Germany, is fascinating. It tells the story of a Syrian engineer who flees to Germany after being subjected to state repression. He is granted political asylum, finds work and gets married, and the typical problems crop up. Eventually, he returns with his daughter to Syria – and can no longer adapt to life in his home country. It’s a very interesting book, and an excellent candidate for translation into German. So there’s no shortage of good texts that would also appeal to a German readership.
Another theory is that Syria and the Syrian cultural institutes are doing only very little to publicise Syrian culture abroad. One of the complaints levelled at the Syrian Writers’ Union is that it doesn’t do much in this direction, and there is some truth in that. The Writers’ Union only cooperates with countries that have similar institutions, such as Russia, China or Cuba. But the Writers’ Union has no contact whatsoever to Western literature. Naturally, this institution doesn’t embody Syrian literature per se. Indeed, many Syrian authors were published not in Syria, but in Lebanon, Hana Mina and Hani al-Rahib for example. There are also many private publishing houses. The Writers’ Union has no monopoly, however; it can’t be made wholly responsible for the almost invisibly low profile of Syrian literature abroad. The Syrian Ministry of Culture is also doing too little in this area.
It might be said that this is all basically due to the political situation, to the fact that it’s difficult for foreigners to visit Syria, that Syria is just a difficult land altogether. But that’s not true either. The best example is the translator Hartmut Fähndrich, who travels to Syria almost every year; and many others do likewise, so there must be another reason. I think the problem lies with the translators. It has to do with the structure, with the conditions within the Arabic-German translating scene. Up to now, a single person, namely Hartmut Fähndrich, who is a good friend of mine, and whom I value and respect, has dominated this movement - and that’s not good. It’s not his fault, however. Interestingly, he’s often been in Syria, and taken part in symposiums on the literature of Syria; but so far, he hasn’t taken much interest in Syrian writing. The same can be said of Doris Kilias, who was the first person to translate Syrian stories from the Arabic into German; that was at the end of the Seventies, when the East German state was still in existence. After that, however, her interest in Syrian literature declined. This also applies to Wiebke Walter; and to Regina Karasholi, who goes to Syria every year and knows Syrian literature very well, but who decided to translate the Sudanese author, Tajjib Salih.
Perhaps the problem also lies with the publishing companies. I have the feeling they don’t want to publish Syrian literature at present.
Abboud: Yes, there’s yet another theory, a political one: that a country’s literature only becomes interesting when the country itself is politically interesting. We can see this quite clearly in the case of Palestinian literature. In political terms, Syria just hasn’t been fascinating enough for the West up to now.
Let’s go back to German authors. You’ve mentioned several names, but left out one writer who’s been of huge and intense interest to Arab intellectuals, including yourself: Franz Kafka. What makes Kafka so appealing to Arab intellectuals?
Abboud: Kafka moves mountains, not just in Germany and other countries, but also in the Arab world. The Arab reception of Kafka is extremely multifaceted: it’s not just that he’s read, his writings also have a productive effect, there’s a poetic reception of Kafka. First of all, there’s his allegorical style: what he writes can be interpreted in various ways, and applied to a whole range of different situations. It’s been said that Kafka created “open” works of art; his works are so accessible to differing interpretations that they resonate in many different societies and cultures. And his style itself is a source of great interest: most writers of fiction in the contemporary Arab world have been influenced by Kafka’s allegorical style; they want to write the way he does. Just look at Zakariya Tamer; the parallels between his techniques and Kafka’s are very striking. The question is, of course, why do people want to write in such a style? For some of these authors, it’s a way of evading the censor. Others want to leave the readers a little more room for manoeuvre, a little more freedom to interpret the texts as they wish to – which also depends on the level of their expectations. For all that, there is still no complete translation of Kafka’s work; his writings are scattered amongst several publishers. But the Syrian translator Ibrahim Watfi has now set himself the task of bringing out a new edition of Kafka’s work, and he even intends publishing it himself.
You are now Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Damascus. At one time, you also translated. Do you now devote yourself exclusively to the study and teaching of comparative literature?
Abboud: More or less, yes. I began by translating a short story by Anna Seghers, “Agathe Schweigert”. It was so successful that I was asked to translate more by her. So then I went on to translate several of her short stories, including “Das Obdach” (“The Shelter”), of which there are now five different Arabic versions in existence. Then I translated Walter Hink’s “Das moderne Drama in Deutschland“, a study of German drama in the twentieth century. Later, I translated more stories, poems and essay, as well as an anthology of literature for children and young people, which quickly sold out. After that, I changed direction, no longer translating so much, but instead examining translated texts from a literary-critical point of view. This was the background to my book, “The Emigration of the Texts” (Hidschra al-Nusuus), a collection of studies on translation from the German to the Arabic and on the relationship between German and Arabic literature. Then I pursued research into German stories that had been translated into Arabic. This was a task that involved a lot of work, for I had to search for these stories in various periodicals. And that’s how I stopped being a translator and became someone who studies and criticizes translations from the German. But that doesn’t mean I’ll never translate anything again.
Interview: Larissa Bender
Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan
Dr. Abdo Abboud is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Damascus, Syria.