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August 4, 2011

21 More Rules for Translators: Susan Bernofsky and Hala Salah Eldin Hussein

Posted on August 4, 2011 by mlynxqualey| 1 Comment

Multiaward-winning Susan Bernofsky, widely considered to be one of the best English translators of German literature today, has translated works by Robert Walser, Hermann Hesse, and Yoko Tawada. Among other awards, she has two honours from the PEN Translation Fund (2005, 2007) as well as the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize (2006). Plus, she blogs at

1. Always be a writer while you are translating, and every time you forget, bring yourself back to it.

2. The most important thing about the structure of a sentence is the order in which the bits of information arrive.

3. If the original text is not well-written, you are doomed; feel free to despair.

4. If the original is well-written, make sure you understand exactly what’s good about it, i.e. what constitutes this writer’s characteristic style.  Getting the tone right is key.

5. Get up from your computer at least once every hour to stretch and walk around.  Translating in a stupor isn’t going to work out to anyone’s satisfaction.

6. The most important reference work you can own is a Roget’s International Thesaurus.  Indexed, not in dictionary form.  Yes, it does make a difference.  And no, there is no dictionary of synonyms available online that can hold a candle to a good Roget’s.

7. No, it’s not good enough yet, keep revising.

8. I can’t believe you’re asking again already.  Revise some more.

9. Read everything you translate aloud, preferably to a bookloving listener who can be trusted to furrow a brow when a phrase is off.

10. Read lots and lots of gorgeous books at all times so that your head will constantly be filled with the cadences of literary greatness.

11. Remember that no matter what hard work it is, translating is supposed to be fun; if you consistently find yourself not having fun while translating, why don’t you try something else that you might actually make some money at?

Hala Salah Eldin Hussein is Albawtaka Review editor and general manager of Albawtaka Publishing House. Albawtaka Review is an Arabic independent (non-governmental) non-profit online quarterly concerned with translating English short fiction into Arabic. Here is a brief introduction in English about the project: You can also read more about Hussein here.

Make peace with the profession.

If you have fantasies about becoming an author, translation is not the job for you. If you look with envy at “your” author, you are not cut for the job. If you think you could learn from others, so one day you will write by yourself, you will never give it all. If you are jealous of not being under the spotlight, rather the author, look for another job. You should love the very act of translation. Make your peace with it!

Render into your mother tongue.

I don’t care if you were taught in Oxford University or your mother is a half-Mexican, half-Irish citizen. If you have spent your early years in an Arab country, another English native translator will probably do a better job rendering Arabic “literary” texts into English. Don’t do it!

Have sources, have weapons.

You are not a dictionary; you will never be a dictionary. English-Arabic literary translators should be armed – all at the same time – with Almawred Dictionary, (both Arabic-English and English-Arabic),, Oxford Genie dictionary, OED dictionary,, and finally links to alphabetized slang dictionaries online. Don’t assume the right equivalent even if it sounded logic; dig deep into every dictionary. Dictionaries will teach you that your horizon is shamefully limited and there are tons of implications to each and every word.

Don’t act like an Oxford Genie though!

Don’t explain, don’t explicate, and don’t clarify. You are not an Oxford Genie Dictionary. If it took an English-speaking reader 7 seconds to get it, it should take the same period for an Arab to get it. Vagueness is not a sin. Vagueness — intended or unintended, out of cleverness or out of stupidity — is not for you to decipher.

Be meek at first, rule at last.

You need to have this sense of modesty — even servility — about the text. You can’t work feeling confident and strong, you will be crushed. Creep up on its lines in your first draft, check every word, suspect every meaning, and be humble to its potentials. With your initial and second drafts done, you can afford to follow your own rules, aesthetics of your own mother tongue. Don’t go too far you would lose this imaginary link between the two texts, but be sure to end up gaining power over the text. It’s YOURS now. And you have the right to bring out the very honest version of it.

Be there by not being there.

You are not there to fabricate or render a text into another that you might like more. Don’t flirt with the idea of delivering the “soul” of the text, not its exact words. Both can go together. Soul is good, soul is cool. But if you purposefully left out an adjective or an adverb, you are committing high treason. Literal is not a bad word.

When it comes to literature, love your text.

Spending a long time with a text can be a serious punishment if you are not in awe of it. If you have the urge to alter the text, add a few words here, erase this, copy and paste that in another place, you are not a fan. If you think the text could have come out better if the author tackled it in a different way, you are not in love with it. Emotionally, you should think of it as YOUR text, but in a slightly different way.

Take it as it gets ugly; take it as it gets you anywhere.

A sober PhD doctor doesn’t speak like an addict vagabond. Only a fool would make them utter the same words, have the same attitude. If an author does, there is a reason for it (Fantasy might interfere; it’s not your job to decide!) Don’t mess up with your characters. Rule is you translate a sentence in Standard English into another sentence in Standard Arabic, same goes for colloquial words. Jump freely between language tones, but follow the text. Your language can handle it. In a conservative society, guarded by a strict censorship system, don’t go for it aiming to create a “clean” text. It is certainly not your place to bowdlerize it. Slang words and profane language are there for a purpose. You are not a guard of morality.

Sleep on it.

The brain works in stages. You have to forget what you have learned or worked on in order to be able to detect its flaws. Eyes can get blind in one single setting no matter how many times you have revised your text. A text is like a meal cooked slowly, then put into the fridge, not to sprinkle stuff on it unless it’s solid. Stay away from the text for a week or so, then go back to it. Put the original aside, then play with the newly created text. Smooth the rough edges, place prepositional phrases and other structures where they would sound more Arabic or better suit whatever purpose it serves. Whenever unsure, go back to the original text to make sure you have not stranded out of context.

Please sound Arabic.

Don’t make me skim through a text echoing its original words. Names and places excluded, your text should feel as if it has been written in Arabic. I don’t want to waver between two languages, two cultures maybe. Let go of the original text and dig in the aesthetics of your mother tongue. Try to stay away from trite words, discover new sounds, find words that might sound slightly old, and give it a fresh use. (Don’t go too far; not biblical words, please.). Never take this nonsense about how cultural differences will stand in the way of translation, they NEVER do. Human experience is the same; you will eventually nail the right word, the right tone.

Carlos : “I’m with you, heart and soul”.


Carlos LatuffCarloss Latuff, brazilian political cartoonist, became famous during the uprising in Egypt. In an interview with Kristin Jankowski the artist talks about solidarity, internationalism and struggles against the system.

A couple of days ago, I’ve passed the Tahrir-Square and a demonstrator held one of your cartoons in his hands – with a big smile on his face. Your art has become a part of the uprisings. Do you think that art can set people free?Carlos Latuff: Only people can set people free. Art will serve them as tools. A revolutionary will use any tools at reach, from cell phones to guns. Art is one of these tools.

You are based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Far away from Egypt. Why is it important for you to cover the current political situation in Egypt ? Why do you care?

Carlos Latuff: I care about Egypt the same way I care about Palestine, where I was in 1999. It’s about internationalism, solidarity with people of the world. Egyptians, Palestinians, Brazilian, in the end, we are all human beings.

How are the current events in Egypt affecting your life?

Carlos Latuff: I tend be attached to movements which I believe in. I take them to a personal level.

The Egyptians claim they want democracy and freedom. But the Army is still in Power. What do you think are the achievements of the uprisings till now?

Carlos Latuff: I believe that Egyptians are there in the streets to stay, I’m sure that their struggle was not for replacing Mubarak’s dictatorship for a military dictatorship. Martyrs didn’t die for nothing. Egyptians will struggle until to reach a full democratic regime.

You became famous in a short time here in Egypt. People are sharing your cartoons at facebook or carrying your art during demonstrations. What is your message to the Egyptians who are taking part in the struggle against the system?

Carlos Latuff: My cartoons are my personal expression of solidarity with them. It’s my way to tell them “I’m with you, heart and soul”.

You made a series of cartoons that portray international politicians as monsters. Who do you think is the monster here in Egypt?

Carlos Latuff: Many of them. Overthrowing Mubarak didn’t mean that you cleaned up Egypt of all the nasty, corrupt characters.

Some people, especially leftist, are saying the worldwide resistance against the global system of capitalism and injustice has just begun. Do you think the same?

Carlos Latuff: Inshallah! :-)

Artists are mostly dreamers, people full of fantasy. Sometimes their art is a way to digest the cruelty of the world. What are you dreaming of?

Carlos Latuff: I try to put my art not at the service of my own dreams but the dreams of others. I don’t have dreams anymore.

When are you coming to Egypt?

Carlos Latuff: Not anytime soon. SCAF would arrest me once in the airport. :-)

Gore Vidal in Venice Part 1 of 12

from P U L S E
“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
Vidal in Venice

At an old bookshop that I frequently visit, I recently found a book titled Vidal in Venice, a glossy coffee-table hardback about the history, architecture and culture of Venice, illustrated with superb artwork and photography. The book was a companion edition to a series of documentaries Gore Vidal wrote and presented in 1985 for Channel 4 about the city he calls ‘perhaps the most beautiful cliche on earth.’ Thanks to the wonders of youtube, today I was able to find it and here it is in its entirety.

For the other 11 see here

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