"Women as Lovers" Translated into Arabic

Jelinek Veiled in Cairo!

Many questions, and not a few eyebrows, have been raised by the Arabic translation of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel "Women as Lovers". Experienced translator Mustafa Maher elected to leave many "vulgar" and "obscene" words out of his translation. Samir Grees asked the translator to explain himself

Many questions, and not a few eyebrows, have been raised by the Arabic translation of Elfriede Jelinek's novel "Women as Lovers". Experienced translator Mustafa Maher elected to leave many "vulgar" and "obscene" words out of his translation. Samir Grees asked the translator to explain himself

​​Your translation of the "Liebhaberinnen" (Women as Lovers), published in Cairo, is rather problematic. It has a general air of "morality". It contains many footnotes, which at times seem rather superfluous and distracting; on the other hand you have omitted many supposedly vulgar words, marking the omissions with dots; in other words, the "Arabic" Jelinek does not correspond to the original. Why?

Mustafa Maher: You finish your question by saying: Jelinek in Arabic is different from the original. Were you to bring Ms Jelinek to Egypt, she too would look different; she would wear Egyptian clothes and a veil or a burqa.

That is precisely the question: Why should I cover her body or her face? Why can she not remain unveiled?

Maher: So that she is better suited to the society of the target culture. The translator's primary task is to provide a text that can be understood. In other words, one must transmit the sense correctly. That is what I did as the first step. There are certain things to which one must draw the reader's attention in order to aid comprehension. That is the reason for the footnotes and references.

Furthermore, I as translator do not know which target group will read the translation. There are readers who always want explanations to accompany the historical, geographical and cultural details that appear in the text.

I cannot say as translator: I translate, therefore I do not exist. No, I translate, therefore I am! I want this text to cross borders and to reach people. If I had distorted the text, got the meaning wrong, that would have been a mistake. In some parts, however, a too literal translation would have led to the reader in the other culture misunderstanding the text. In such cases it is right to intervene.

For example?

Maher: In Germany, when someone dies, for example, the funeral takes place a few days afterwards. There are lots of flowers. After the funeral the mourners gather together in a pub or hotel to eat cake, drink wine, laugh … one person told me after the funeral of a friend that there had been so much laughing that someone had said: we should be thankful to him, he's given us a laugh and made us forget all about our own problems! We do not have such rituals.

When I lived in Germany I was surprised by how nice the cemeteries were, like gardens, where we went for walks. As a translator, I have to convey all of this, let the reader know that the cemeteries are very different from those in the Arab world.

As far as Jelinek is concerned, I cannot just transfer a literary work to a different cultural milieu where people are not used to reading this sort of sexual detail; things which we cannot say …

But it is certainly the case that such details do appear in Arabic literature. Recently, there has been a whole series of literary publications that quite deliberately deal with sexuality, even pornography, because this is thought to be the way to bring higher sales. There has been what almost amounts to an explosion of very detailed sex scenes none of which can be said to have any artistic pretensions. But sexuality is a central theme in Jelinek's work – if she chooses to use certain words, these should be accurately translated. Why leave them out?

Censorship or culture-specific transfer? Cover of the Arab edition of Elfride Jelinek's novel "Women as Lovers"

​​Maher: I did not leave anything out; that is not how I would describe it – I found parts of the text which did not serve the main goal of the translation, to make Jelinek's work comprehensible to its readers. Were people to read the text as it is, they would think the author a shameless whore and procuress! That would be inaccurate. I lived for many years in Germany and saw for myself how conservative the country was, but I also experienced the development.

I don't believe it to be detrimental to the artistic value of the novel, in fact, I think it even raises it, if I leave out the words that do not serve a useful purpose for Arab readers; on the contrary, the effect of leaving these words in would be counter productive and convey a distorted image of Western culture. When Jelinek describes a scene between a man and a woman in a toilet, or a woman cutting her body with a razor blade … then these are not words in my language.

But Jelinek has made deliberate choices in her use of language; it is an integral part of her work. As translator I have the choice of rendering the text faithfully, or saying: this work is not suitable for translation.

Maher: No, it lends itself very well to translation. It is, as I say, one of the great works of human culture. If I leave it to the readers to imagine what is happening, if I describe it in other words in a footnote, then the readers can reach their own conclusions. I must not represent a man and woman in a way that will be understood differently to the way intended by the writer. What's more, I am not giving the only possible translation.

For example, in Islamic law the sexual act is described as: the make-up stick that penetrates into the kohl tin. One does not talk of: the male member penetrating the vagina.

Although there are some classics of Arab language and literature that do contain such expressions. There is the book "Fiqh al-lugha" (philology), by al-Thaalibi, for example, where an entire chapter is given over to coitus and to the various associated terminology …

Maher: Yes, but al-Thaalibi and others were writing for a very small group of like-minded people. The masses back then also used words that educated people found indecent. There is the famous Diwan of Abu-Nawas – the old books are full of these expressions, no one has removed them, however these are works that are far removed from the masses. For me, you can compare this to anatomy books; they contain detailed descriptions of the sex organs, but are not written for general consumption. My translations are aimed at the general reader.

Interview: Samir Grees

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Mustafa Maher is Professor of German Studies at Ain Shams University in Cairo. He has translated numerous works of German literature into Arabic since the 1960s, including Goethe, Kafka, Hesse, Dürrenmatt and Handke. His most recent translations are two works by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek: "Die Liebhaberinnen" and "Die Ausgesperrten".

In 2005 the interviewer translated Jelinek's "Klavierspielerin" (The Pianist) into Arabic.


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