Rules for Translators: Hala Salah Eldin Hussein (English-Arabic)

by  and M. Lynx Qualey  /  January 8, 2014  / 1 Comment

Hala Salah Eldin

Hala Salah Eldin, English-Arabic translator and editor of the Albawtaka Review

In Rules for Translators, Sampsonia Way presents selections from a series originally published by Arabic Literature (in English), a blog based in Cairo, Egypt. In the series, ArabLit queried 20 celebrated and award-winning literary translators about their “rules” for translation. See the full series here.

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.

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.

This article was originally published by Arabic Literature (in English). It is reprinted with permission.

One Comment on "Rules for Translators: Hala Salah Eldin Hussein (English-Arabic)"

  1. January 8, 2014 at 11:19 pm ·

    Great post.

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