"When a translator offers me a translation he is welcome"

Hartmut Fähndrich is one of the most prominent German translators of Arabic novels and short stories into German. He has translated more than 30 literary works by the most famous Arab authors and is in charge of the Arabic series in the publishing house Lenos in Switzerland .

Mr 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 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.But you are responsible for the series and have a say in the choice of the other translators. Moreover, I don’t expect you translate everything yourself.

Fähndrich: I keep asking German Arabists to send me translations of texts so we can have a look at them. We translated Hanna Mina’s novel "Remains of Pictures", and as I told you a short while ago, if you find a translator who would translate Abd al Salam al Ujaili or Ismail Fahd Ismail, I’d be very grateful.

Let us return to the translation. Now that you have translated more than 30 Arabic works, how do you view the role of translations? Do you, as a translator, see yourself as a bridge between the two cultures, for example?

Fähndrich: In my opinion, literature is an expression of visions and imaginations that are inherent to a specific part of the world and what interests me is the Arab world. For this reason I think translations are important. When I translate Arabic literature, I present the visions and ideas that exist in this part of the world into my language, and that’s all. In this sense, I see myself a bridge between the Arabic and German worlds and cultures.

Why did you to turn to translating?

Fähndrich: I used to be a normal university Orientalist and at one point I asked myself: Is everything I do at university really important for the comprehension of the Arab world in Europe, particularly in Germany and Switzerland? Then I realized that translating is more useful in conveying Arabic thoughts or Arabic visions and ideas to Europe. "Mémoires de la Méditerranée" are an extension of this path or endeavour.

On that subject where would you position Arabic literature on the map of world literature?

Fähndrich: Actually, I am not talking about Arabic literature in general, but about each author individually. I find some of the Arab writers very important and they truthfully express what is going on in their country.

In Germany there is now a noteworthy translation movement in Arabic to German. Has there been a change in the way the German reader views Arabic literature? Has his interest in this literature increased?

Fähndrich: The German reader does not exist. There are only some groups of readers interested in third world literature, to which Arab literature belongs. I think that the interest in Arabic culture has increased among those readers, and this is only natural, since the works are available now. How can you show an interest in Arabic literature and Arabic novels if they are not available in your language?

But there are far less translations from Arabic to German than other European languages, like English, French and Spanish, although Oriental Studies in Germany enjoy great respect in the Arab world.

Fähndrich: Of course, this is quite obvious and is an established fact. There are few German Arabic's compared to the number of Arabic's in the languages you mentioned. There is also a cultural and historic Mediterranean connection between the people speaking those languages and the Arabs, this is obvious.

Does colonialism also play a part?

Fähndrich: It is older than colonialism.

As an experienced translator, how do you judge your beginnings, when you look back? Have you stayed on the same track or have your opinions on translation style change?

Fähndrich: I hope that my translation style has improved! My experience in translating goes back a long way and I am, thus, able to distinguish between the writing styles of different authors.. I know a great number of Arabic authors and their styles and I can recognize the characteristics of different literary texts more easily than I used to.

And does your translation convey the distinctiveness to the German reader, meaning the spirit of the Arabic text?

Fähndrich: To a certain degree, yes. This is the problem of translation in general. Any word in each language, or between two languages, conveys a different meaning from one language to the other, even between European languages. Let’s take for example the German word "Haus" (house). Its meaning is different to the word "maison" in French, and there is an even bigger difference in Arabic, since the word "bait" or "dar" doesn’t just mean "Haus", but has several other meanings. This is a general translation problem, does it work or not?

Does the fact that the Arabic syntax differs to German syntax have an impact on conveying the spirit? Or do you ignore this and focus on creating a German text?

Fähndrich: I do both. In fact, German syntax is based on very precise rules and I cannot ignore them. At the same time I try to imitate Arabic syntax as much as possible. But ultimately, the German reader expects to read a book in German.

Have you ever thought about translating Arabic poetry?

Fähndrich: No, never.

Last year two Arabic poetry anthologies were published in German, what do you think of them?

Fähndrich: I haven’t read them to a degree that I can comment on them.

You and Ibrahim al-Koni epitomize a good pair. You have translated four of his most important novels so far and they have been well received in Germany. The last one was the massive epic novel "The Magician". What drew you to Ibrahim al-Koni and his works?

Fähndrich: The first time I heard of Ibrahim al Koni was in Paris in 1994. I remember that I met with a group of Arab intellectuals there, journalists and writers, and they asked me whether I had met al-Koni, because he lived in Switzerland, as well. I hadn’t heard of this writer before but their discussion about him made me curious. So, the next day I walked into the bookstore "Ibn Sina" in Paris and bought some of his works. On my way back to Switzerland I started reading the collection of short stories “"The Cage" on the train. That's when I decided to translate for him. I contacted him and that’s how our co-operation started, and so we have now become a pair, as you say.

Interview: Ahmad Hissou; Tranlation from Arabic: Martina Häusler

© 2001, Ahmad Hissou

Hartmut Fähndrich is one of the most prominent German translators of Arabic novels and short stories. Fähndrich has translated more than 30 literary works by the most famous Arab authors, including Ghassan Kanafani, Yousuf Idris, Emil Habibi, Emily Nasrallah, Ibrahim al-Koni, Edwar al-Kharrat, Jamal al-Ghitani, Sunallah Ibrahim, Yahya al-Tahir Abdallah, Hamida Naana, Salwa Bakr, Rashid al-Daif. He is in charge of the Arabic series in the publishing house Lenos in Switzerland and he also edits for the series "Mémoires de la Méditerranée" which is published in several European languages. In addition to translating, Hartmut Fähndrich also teaches Arabic at Swiss universities. In 2000 Lenos published the translation of the epic novel "The Magician" by the Libyan author Ibrahim al-Koni.

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