World Literature in Translation: A Threat to the Sovereignty of the Original? | July 2014 | Translation Journal

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World Literature in Translation: A Threat to the Sovereignty of the Original?

World Literature in Translation

Some critics in the field of translation studies contend that translation is a suspect practice. They underscore that a work of translation at best cannot and should not be treated as an equal to the original, alerting us to the yet unbridgeable gap between the source and target texts and the respective cultures that inform or inhabit them.

Some critics, following José Ortega Y Gasset, go so far as to dismiss any work of translation as a betrayal of the author. It goes without saying that any translation, regardless of its merits or demerits, is incapable of conveying the original in its totality and therefore remains deficient to varying degrees. Lawrence Venuti, a well-known translation theorist, strongly criticizes the way first-world translators take liberties with their renditions of original texts by third-world authors. Venuti is implicitly questioning the notion of “world-literature-in-translation” and its ability to preserve the sanctity and integrity of non-Western, foreign texts. In his book The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, Venuti accuses Anglo-American translators of adopting a domesticating approach, which intentionally interferes with the original text in a number of ways under the pretext of fluency, transparency, and readability – in short, a pretext he labels as “the translator’s invisibility.” He adds that this invisibility could only be achieved by masking the foreignness of the original, thereby cutting a major part thereof. He explains that this apparatus of “invisibility can now be seen as a mystification of troubling proportions, an amazingly successful concealment of the multiple determinants and effects of English-language translation, the multiple hierarchies and exclusions in which it is implicated.” 1 Venuti detects in such an apparatus an ugly exercise of intellectual imperialism, and points out that the notion of invisibility does so much harm to the original and betrays “a complacency in Anglo-American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described . . . as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home.” 2 Venuti detects in this “invisibility” paradigm a suppression of the voice of the cultural other and a move that consciously maintains the hegemony of first-world, Western cultural values.
This stance of Venuti’s is quite interesting, and I want to use it as a theoretical tool in my discussion of the English and French translations of the Arabic novel al-Khubz al-ḥāfī 3 by Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri. The book was translated into English by American writer Paul Bowles as For Bread Alone 4, and then into French by Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun as Le pain nu 5. Critics like Mustapha Ettobi and Nirvana Tanoukhi find it outrageous that Bowles’ version deliberately interferes with a number of passages in Choukri’s text, thus employing a domesticating strategy, to borrow Venuti’s concept. Interestingly, Ben Jelloun’s translation was in part a reaction to Bowles’, for the Moroccan author felt that this English rendition significantly misrepresents his compatriot’s text. Ettobi asserts that Ben Jelloun, in the preface to Le pain nu, refers to Bowles’ English version “as an adaptation, thus implying that his translation is more ‘faithful’ . . . and possibly more representative of the local literary production.” 6 In this essay, I want to examine a few passages from Bowles’ For Bread Alone and Ben Jelloun’s Le pain nu and compare them to the original passages in Choukri’s al-Khubz al-ḥāfī. The mode of analysis in this essay is therefore triadic, comparing and contrasting passages from all three versions.
I will begin my analysis with passages dealing with politics and the French occupation of Morocco at the time. I want to see to what extent the English, the French, and the Arabic versions converge or diverge and what that implies.
Example 1:

Arabic original passage in transliteration  English translation by Paul Bowles  French translation by Tahar Ben Jelloun  My own literal translation 
30 māris 1912 huwwa al- yawm al-ladhī ‘uqidat fīhi al- ḥimāya al-faransiyya ma’a al-Maghrib fī ‘ahd mulay ‘abd al-Hafīdh. al-yawm 30 māris 1952 tamurru arba’ūna sana ‘ala ḥimāyat faransā li al-maghrib lihādhā sāra 30 māris yu’addu al-yawm almash’ūm. 

(al-Khubz al-ḥāfī, 120)

The thirtieth of March nineteen twelve was the day when the French began to protect Morocco. That was under Moulay Hafid. And today’s the thirtieth of March nineteen fifty-two, so it’s forty years of protection. And that’s why it’s a bad day.

(For Bread Alone, 110)

30 mars 1912. Date du protectorat français sur le Maroc. C’était pendant le règne de Moulay Abd Hafid. Ce dimanche nous étions le 30 mars 1952. Cet anniversaire était un jour horrible. C’était donc ça le jour du Malheur.

(Le pain nu, 89-90)

The 30th of March, 1912 was the day when the French Protectorate with Morocco was contracted during the reign of Moulay Abd Hafid. Today –the 30th of Match, 1952 – witnesses the passing of forty years of France’s protectorate of Morocco, and therefore today is considered the evil day.

Bowles’ version curiously softens the anti-colonial discourse emphasized in the Arabic original. Not only that, Bowles represents the French colonization of Morocco in neutral, even positive, terms. His renditions “the French began to protect Morocco” and “forty years of protection” attest to this. He makes it sound as if the French were doing Morocco a favor, quite a big one, for their “protection” of Morocco and Moroccans endured for forty years! It’s not accidental that Bowles used the word “protection” rather than “protectorate.” The latter is actually closer to the Arabic word “al-ḥimāya.” In contrast, Ben Jelloun’s French version opts for the French word “protectorate [protectorate],” a more acceptable rendition. And unlike Bowles, Ben Jelloun emphasizes the criticism of the French occupation of Morocco; whereas the former opts for “it’s a bad day,” the latter prefers “C’était donc ça le jour du Malheur [It was therefore this the day of Misfortune].” Clearly, “a bad day” and “le jour du Malheur [the day of Misfortune]” carry different connotations. The former attenuates Choukri’s anti-colonial feelings; the latter emphasizes them. Ben Jelloun even capitalizes the word “Malheur [Misfortune]” to highlight its weight and gravity. Bowles’ and Ben Jelloun’s divergent renditions betray their conflicting attitudes with regard to French colonialism. Ettobi states that Bowles’ version betrays a “pro-colonial position,” and adds that the American writer “presents the relation between the colonial powers and the colonized country as a legitimate natural fact.” 7 This is a serious charge, indeed. Ettobi’s verdict, however, alerts us to the possible harm translation could exert upon world literature. It also opens our eyes to the vulnerability of (third-world) authors at the hands of (first-world) translators. Here is another passage with a similar pattern:
Example 2:

Arabic original passage in transliteration  English translation by Paul Bowles  French translation by Tahar Ben Jelloun  My literal translation 

‘indamā sa’altu fi as-sabāḥ atchaṭū ‘an hādhihi al-munāsaba al-waṭaniyya qāla lī biṣawtihi alladhī yakhruju niṣfuhu min famih wa niṣfuhu min ‘anfih:‘innahu al-yawm al-mach’ūm.

( al-Khubz al-ḥāfī , 120)

Earlier that morning I had asked Chato what the holiday meant. It’s a bad day, he answered in a voice that came half from his mouth and half through his nose. 

(For Bread Alone, 110)

Je demandai à Tchato en quel honneur ces drapeaux. Il me répondit de sa voix nasillarde:

– Aujourd’hui c’est le jour de malheur.

(Le pain nu, 89)

When I asked Tchato in the morning about this national occasion, he told me in his voice whose half went through his nose and the other half through his mouth:

-This is indeed the evil day.

Bowles’ choice of the word “holiday” is a clear deviation from the original; this word choice mitigates, even obliterates, the gravity of the situation. Ettobi stresses that Choukri, the first-person narrator, uses the phrase “al-munasaba al-waTaniya [national occasion]” because at that point of his life he was ignorant of “the general political situation he was living in.” The choice of the positive term “holiday” would not fit in this context of brutal colonization. The Arabic line “‘innahu al-yawm al-mach’ūm [This is indeed the evil day]” paints a gloomy picture, one that bespeaks grief and mourning. Bowles remains faithful to his domesticating trajectory by rendering this line as “It’s a bad day,” a rendition that deliberately softens the author’s criticism of colonialism and conceals the dark picture of mourning and suffering. The use of the indefinite article “a” in “It’s a bad day” adds to this softening effect and craftily undermines the uniqueness or somberness of that day; the implication is that it’s just a bad day like any other bad day.
Ben Jelloun, however, tries to maintain this gloomy atmosphere in the passage, only he ends up interfering with the original in a more radical way; he opts for “en quel honneur ces drapeaux [for what honor are these flags].” The Arabic version does not mention any flags whatsoever. Though Ben Jelloun takes a liberty in this rendition, he remains on the same ideological side as the author. Both are highly critical of the French presence in their home country, Morocco. In sharp contrast to Bowles’ “It’s a bad day,” Ben Jelloun goes for “c’est le jour de malheur [it is the day of misfortune]”; it seems that both translators remain consistent to their agendas. The definite article “le [the]” in “le jour [the day]” gives it even more intensity: It’s a day that stands out as unique and cannot be dismissed merely as “a bad day.” Bowles, as an American and an outsider, does not seem to identify with Choukri’s and Ben Jelloun’s anti-colonial feelings. He tends – even in a translation of a work not his – to force some distance between the English readership and the cause of independence cherished by Choukri, the author, and millions of fellow Moroccans.
The following rendition of Bowles’ clearly shows this distancing effect: “All the Moroccan establishments were shut – restaurants, cafés and shops. Above each doorway there was a Moroccan flag.” We notice the use of the indefinite article “a” in “a Moroccan flag.” In the Arabic and French versions, however, the phrase is used with a definite article; Choukri uses “ar-rāya al-maghribiyya” and Ben Jelloun “le drapeau marocain,” both of which literally mean “the Moroccan flag.” Unlike Bowles, Choukri and Ben Jelloun identify with this flag. In one of his interviews, Bowles gives the following answer to a question about his alleged misrepresentation of Moroccan works he has translated: “I have nothing to do with their [Moroccans’] economic plight or their society or their religion. I’m a tourist here. I’m outside all that.” 8 Bowles also says that “Choukri’s investment in the integrity of the Arabic text stems from his desire to convey a political message”; he regrets that “Choukri’s political engagement prevents him from being a better writer.” 9 These quotes are quite telling. Bowles puts it bluntly that he does not like Choukri’s investment in politics, displaying a condescending attitude towards the then emerging Moroccan writer, who cannot be less proud of his compatriotism and anti-colonial pronouncements.
I want to examine one last passage which deals with sexuality, a critical issue when it comes to Western stereotypes of Muslim societies. Ettobi points out that Choukri’s inclusion of crude sexual scenes is not meant to celebrate the “immoral” but rather is a means to searching “for the moral and the ideal.” 10 With this caveat said, Ettobi concludes that neither Bowles’ nor Ben Jelloun’s respective renderings of passages dealing with women and sexuality respect Choukri’s views, for the two translators often end up forcing their own opinions on the respective target texts. 11
Example 3: 

Arabic original passage in transliteration  English translation by Paul Bowles  French translation by Tahar Ben Jelloun  My own literal translation 

-- badīna qalīlan.
-- lā yahum. sanujarrib ma’ahā. ba’da dhālik sanabḥath ‘an ‘ukhrayāt ‘ajmal minhā.

(al-Khubz al-ḥāfī, 47)

She’s a little fat, I said. It doesn’t matter. We can use her. Afterward, we’ll look for something better.

(For Bread Alone, 48)

– Tu ne trouves pas qu’elle est un peu grosse?

– Qu’importe ? On va essayer et ensuite on verra une autre. 

(Le pain nu, 43)

“(She is) a little obese.”

“It doesn’t matter. We will try with her. After that, we will look for others more beautiful than her.” 

Following Ettobi, I see that Bowles objectifies the female character in the passage above and in many others. It’s curious that he chooses the word “something” to refer to the woman in the passage. This unsuccessful and dangerous lexical choice could easily paint Choukri, the narrator and author, as misogynistic. The Arabic original does not use the word “something”; it uses the word “‘ukhrayāt [others],” i.e. other women. The critic Tetz Rooke asserts that in Choukri’s al-Khubz al-ḥāfī, prostitutes “figure as individuals, as living persons with dignities comparable to the male character.” 12 Ettobi concludes that it’s not unusual of Bowles to represent women as victims or exotic objects, maltreated in their North African, Muslim societies. It’s not farfetched to claim that Bowles’ English translation is closer to being a domesticated version of the original. It does leave a different effect on its audience than would the Arabic text. This is what Lawrence Venuti denounces. He sees this domesticating approach to translation, which directly affects world literature, as having far-reaching political implications, for it is enmeshed in an unequal discourse of power. In his other book, The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference, Venuti contends that one of the biggest scandals of this domesticating approach is the critical role it plays in “the formation of cultural identities,” since this approach “wields enormous power in constructing representations of foreign cultures.” 13 Similarly, Nirvana Tanoukhi underscores that Bowles’ English version “operates as an interpretive apparatus that attempts to rewrite Choukri’s original.” 14 Obviously, this process of interpretive rewriting has a hidden agenda whose immediate objective is far from guarding the integrity and sovereignty of the original text. It rather looks to the target reader and his or her expectations with an eye to marketability. Guarding the sanctity of the source text remains secondary, if not out of the question.
Turning to Ben Jelloun’s French version of our last passage (example 3), Ettobi notes that it curiously elevates the position of women. I think that Ben Jelloun’s rendition stays very close to the original. His “On va essayer et ensuite on verra une autre [we will try and then we will see another]” stands in sharp contrast with Bowles’ “We can use her. Afterward, we’ll look for something better.” One way in which Ben Jelloun attempts to elevate the status of women this passage is the use of the singular “une autre [another one]” in “et ensuite on verra une autre [and then we will see another].” The Arabic text, however, uses the plural word “‘ukhrayāt [others].” The singular in this context definitely leaves a less negative effect than does the plural. Ben Jelloun seems to be trying hard to make the text more respectful to (Moroccan) women.
It’s indeed fascinating and at the same time disturbing what translators can do in their renditions of texts in other languages. It’s not uncommon for translators from the West, working on or with authors from other parts of the globe, to interfere with the original text in order to make it fit a set of expectations or stereotypes held by the target audience. Venuti warns that translations incorporating stereotypical components run the risk of stigmatizing certain groups of people based on race, ethnicity, or national identity. To prevent or limit the damage that translations may cause foreign texts and their respective cultures, Venuti argues in favor of formulating a set of ethics with a view to regulating the theory and practice of translation in the English-speaking countries. This partakes in an endeavor to guard the integrity, sovereignty, and foreignness of works that make their way into world literature or comparative literature syllabi in Western universities. It’s an endeavor that seems to foster a true understanding of cultural others through works of literature in translation.
1- Laurence Venuti. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. (London: Routledge, 1997), 16.
2- Ibid. 17
3- Mohamed Choukri. Al-Khubz Al-Hafi. (Casablanca: Matba’at al-Najah al-Jadidah, 1982).
4- Mohamed Choukri. For Bread Alone. Trans. Paul Bowles. (London: Telegram, 2006).
5- Mohamed Choukri. Le pain nu. Trans. Tahar Ben Jelloun. (Paris: Maspéro, 1980).
6- Mustapha Ettobi. “Cultural Representation in Literary Translation: Translators as Mediators/Creators.” Journal of Arabic Literature 37.2 (2006): 206-229, 213.
7- Ibid. 225
8- Ibid. 212
9- Nirvana Tanoukhi. “Rewriting Political Commitment for an International Canon: Paul Bowles's For Bread Alone as Translation of Mohamed Choukri's Al- Khubz Al- Hafi.” Research in African Literatures 34.2 (2003): 127-144, 134.
10- Ettobi, 221
11- Ibid. 221
12- Ibid. 223
13- Lawrence Venuti. The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference. (London: Routledge, 1998), 67
14- Tanoukhi, 127

Anouar El Younssi is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and instructor of Comparative Literature and Arabic Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His research interests include Moroccan Literature, Arabic Literature, Francophone Literature, the Beat Generation, and Postcolonial Studies.


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About Anouar El Younssi

Anouar El Younssi

Anouar El Younssi is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and instructor of Comparative Literature and Arabic Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His research interests include Moroccan Literature, Arabic Literature, Francophone Literature, the Beat Generation, and Postcolonial Studies.


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