Rima Ismail, Outreach and Special Projects Manager at QF member Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press, on how translations can develop cross-cultural communications and impact change
“Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.”
- George Steiner
For as long as the written word has existed, there have been translations. From religious texts to classic literature, works from centuries ago that document human history have been passed down through generations and crossed the borders of all of the countries in the world, because there has always been the desire to learn about the unknown.
Translations have contributed to shaping our societies and altering the course of history
Translations have contributed to shaping our societies and altering the course of history. What kind of world would we live in if Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) had not been translated into over 350 languages and millions of people had not learned the infamous secret that “Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux (“It is simple: one can see well only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye”)? And would the notion of every individual’s value to society despite their age, weight, social class, or worldview, have ever become the pervasive foundation for modern equality movements if Miguel de Cervantes’ El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha) had not been translated into over 140 languages, with a combined 500 million copies sold?
Maybe it would. But it can’t be denied that these and many other infamous translations have sparked dialogue and paved the way for new ways of thinking. Translations continue to be produced, read, and studied today because of their thematic value and the impact they have on our collective ideas and beliefs.
“In translation, language facility is not enough; blood and sweat are the secret.”
— Samuel Putnam
The best translators are perceptive to the linguistic nuances and idioms and carry forth their meaning for the reader to better understand and appreciate
The task of translating is not an easy one. The best translators develop a keen sense of style in the languages that they are translating to and from. Their translations expand a reader’s critical awareness of words, bringing with them the weight of emotions, social context, settings, and moods that inform them from the original language to create a work that is, at best, a distorted mirror of the original. The same meaning is reflected, with the necessary changes to be understood and accepted in the translated language. The best translators are perceptive to the linguistic nuances and idioms and carry forth their meaning for the reader to better understand and appreciate.
And despite the adaptation from one language to the next, good translations are emotionally and artistically akin to the original. The end goal is for the translation to be done so seamlessly that the reader will not know it is translated in the first place.
Have you read the The Alchemist? Or One Hundred Years of Solitude? These are two examples of books with translations into English that are arguably equal to the original language. Their value as literary works and their global reach has only benefitted from being translated so effortlessly (it seems!) into English and other languages to reach an audience of millions around the world.
“Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”
— Anthony Burgess
There is no doubt that translators and their translations are important – maybe now more than ever, when our societies are grappling with issues of inequality and human rights
There is no doubt that translators and their translations are important – maybe now more than ever, when our societies are grappling with issues of inequality and human rights.
With the unrest people are facing all over the world, translations and translators have the potential to build bridges between nations and the peoples of the world by providing access to new ideas, beliefs, and experiences that promote a culture of peace and international understanding.
They showcase the human experience of ‘the other’ to audiences who would be otherwise ignorant. In bringing literature from one language into another, translators answer questions like: How do people live there? What do they believe? What are their needs, wants, hopes, fears, and dreams? What are their daily experiences like?
They break down the barrier of the unknown and unite us with our elements of common humanity. What we once feared, or did not understand, we can now empathize with and learn and grow from as individuals.
Translations allow important political and social ideas to travel between cultures, too. They serve as a messenger of both the bad and good aspects of each.
And with this, translations can impact change.
One of the most iconic translators in the Arab world – the late Saleh Almani – was proof of that change. Almani was a one-of-a-kind translator who translated around 100 works of Latin American literature into Arabic, including the works of Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Federico García Lorca, Isabel Allende, José Saramago, and Jorge Luis Borges.
Locally, his works account for some of the most popular HBKU Press books sold at the Doha International Book Fair and other regional GCC and MENA book fairs. Readers claim that his translations transport them to different worlds and times that they knew nothing about, and how they understood how similar we are as humans, despite the borders and languages that divide us through his work. By reading translated work, countless readers have experienced a shift in their perceptions of a whole different culture, and have opened their minds to better understand what was once the unknown.
As individuals in Arab society, we are sometimes still bound by our culture and traditions and fear that by sharing our experiences or opening ourselves up to the experiences of others through translations, we are somehow diluting our beliefs or betraying who we are. This is not the case.
If initiatives like the Sheikh Hamad Award for Translation and International Understanding, established in 2015 with the aim of highlighting the impact of translators and translations on developing cross-cultural communications, show us anything, it is that there is value in translations in improving our society and ourselves. Translations allow us to broaden our worldview and close the gap between the known and the unknown. They allow for understanding, a renewed sense of global connectedness, and empathy. Barriers of language and geography will be broken and our common humanity will unite us as people of the world.
So the next time you’re looking to choose a book to read, consider a translation. You never know where it may take you, and what you might learn along the way.