The difference and effect in produced meaning made by translation and word choice
The strive for a unique and distinct identity is a universal desire for all humans omnipresent whether its through race, norms, culture, geography, materials or heritage and history. Because of our different features, our ability to understand the humanities may seem alien to us; but the nemesis is that we all fall under the same blanket. Connecting it to literature, cross-cultural and translation barriers are topics not often questioned. Even if we share similar ideas and thoughts, it’s difficult to fully translate works of different languages and keeping the same allegory or value behind.
Authors translating works of different languages miss certain words, ideas or phrases and tend to ‘fill in the blank’ due to the difficulty in translating cultural metaphors or attachments fully. By consciously doing so (or not), authors are creating translation gaps between the original text and the translated one, thus our understanding of the narrative and characters as a whole is sort of arbitrary.
A sensitive topic to always translate and not cross any boundaries is the Levant, particularly the fight for Palestinian and Israeli land. Translators sometimes dodge the topic or express it differently in literature to avoid distress of both sides.
An example of this is Ghassan Kanafani’s novella “Men in the Sun”, translated by Hilary Kilpatrick. Comparing the original Arabic text and the “translated” English version, the adaptation avoids much of the political and social issues that tag along, instead focusing more on the storyline, characters, and dénouement.
Not always the case, but arbitrary translation changes some meaning of the novella and author’s intentions. In this case the translator Kilpatrick is de-politicizing and universalizing Kanafani’s text for western readers to relate to, not to be the other.
Whether this is a positive effect on the novel or not, the question here is does the text lose its value this way? Are the author’s intentions or metaphors in the translated version differ than the original text?
Dr. Hilary Kilpatrick studied Arabic at Oxford and published/translated much on modern and classical Arabic literature. The novella “Men in the Sun” was written in 1961 by Ghassan Kanafani during the dissolution of the pan Arabism, originally Published in 1962 or 63. On Kanafani, Dr. Kilpatrick remarks “His inspiration for writing and working unceasingly was the Palestinian-Arab struggle … he was one of those who fought sincerely for the development of the resistance movement from a nationalist Palestinian liberation movement into a pan-Arab revolutionary socialist movement of which the liberation of Palestine would be a vital component.”
There are many metaphors in the novella but I will focus on analyzing and comparing the two texts, (original Arabic text and the translated version), and look at the translation gap, lost metaphors and produced different meaning by word choice. Concluding with how boundaries created by translations and different word choice may alter our overall experience of the text, playing a role in shaping our understanding of the plot and allegories.
In a nutshell, three Palestinians (Abu Qais, Marwan and Asaad) flee their homes and travel to Kuwait by smuggling in the back of a water tank (Abul Khaizaran’s lorry) in hope to find a better work life and shelter. In the course of their journey crossing the borders, the lorry driver is stalled longer than usual by the flippant border guards; unfortunately, the three Palestinians suffocate and die due to the lack of oxygen and intense heat inside the water tank. With (some) regret, Abul Khaizaran disposes the bodies and contemplates the last lines of the novella “why didn’t they knock on the sides of the tank?”. Countless allegories, from silence (unheard or powerless voices), to knocking (fighting back or voices being heard) and corpses thrown away (carelessness or to move on). If they did knock, the noise would attract the border guards and create trouble.
1) Shifting from the loss of identity and selfhood to translation as a barrier, the foremost point I wish to point out in the novella is the missing line. Page 36 the narrator is describing and asserting Marwan (youngest character) should show courage and strength in order for smugglers to not play him by overcharging his trip.
“He must be more than a man, and show more than courage, or they would laugh at him, cheat him, and take advantage of his sixteen years.”
The Arabic version includes the line “making him a joke” which the translator ignores to add. The phrase is a metaphor for Palestine’s young age. Ironically it also brings to mind the 1947 civil war because if you minus Marwan’s age (16) to the novel’s publication date (1963) you get the year the civil war in Mandatory Palestine (1947). Perhaps the date is a coincidence, or not, but by ignoring the line in the translation, Kilpatrick is de-politicizing the text, making it relatable to the outside world.
2) The next example is the Shatt-martyr metaphor. Page 22 instead of translating the word “Martyr”, Kilpatrick uses the word “Shatt” (Shatt-Alarab is a river in south east Iraq connecting the Euphrates and Tigris) which is probably the correct direct metaphor the author intended but there are other possibilities when using the word Martyr to describe the river. In Arabic, the word Martyr (pronounced as Shahad) is close to the pronunciation of Shatt.
“We are in august. Then why this dampness in the ground? It’s the Shatt. Can’t you see it stretching out beside you as far as the eye can see?”
In context, the author is reviving old history because during the 1258 Mongolian siege of Baghdad, it was said that the river ran black from books dumped in to the river and red from the “blood of martyrs”. Or on the other hand Kanafani is simply commemorating Palestinian martyrs. Again, by dodging the word “Martyr”, it de-politicizes the text and makes it universal for all readers.
3) Another example is Devilish buzzing. Page 36 word on word, the underlined phrase means devilish ringing or buzzing, the translator ignores it but did mention “fearful roar and reverberating”; thus the meaning is not as significant because rooting out the supernatural definitely signify something beyond human powers.
“The heavy hand crashed down onto his check, and the word was lost in a fearful roar, which began reverberating between his ears.”
In this case, I believe Kanafani is meaning Israel’s motivation behind their settlement. In other words, “devilish temptations”. Culturally the word attributes Zionism. The translation de-ethnicizes the text and universalizes it to the western world. Perhaps also leaving the spiritual, religious or mystic relations to the overall tone.
4) Additional example of word choice is “Silent beings”. In page 39 the narrator casually describes the atmosphere and the translation notes, “A thick blanket of silence covered everything”, yet the actual meaning is there, Kanafani’s metaphor differ.
“The weather was beautiful and calm, and the sky was still blue, with black pigeons hovering low in it. He could hear their wings fluttering when they flew over the hotel in a wide circle. A thick blanket of silence covered everything, and the air had a clean, moist scent of early morning.”
The Arabic text mentions the words “quite”, “creature” and “applied heavily”, as in human beings (or in the text the pigeons hovering low), and the application of ignorance by the Arab world regarding the settlement. It is significant because the personification is lost. You can clearly see the pattern in the de-politicization and universalizing the text.
5) Last example to share is the Expatriation. Immigration adds more depth in terms of social and political background to the novella. Page 22 Instead of translating expatriate, Kilpatrick uses the word stranger to describe foreignness and being an expat.
“He started to stare at the sky. it was blazing white, and there was one black bird circling high up, alone and aimless. he did not know why but he was suddenly filled with a bitter feeling of being a stranger, and for a moment he thought he was on the point of weeping.”
It denaturalizes the expatriate and shifts the focus to the stranger, an existential transition. Making it a universal human condition situation rather than an ethnic/political one.
How does the translation shape our experiences of the novel and or characters? Different word choice affects or at least play a role in our understanding of the text. Cross-cultural stories and allegories are not always translated precisely as some figures of speech implicitly come through culture and upbringing. Conversion requires no rooms for gaps or barrier in order to produce a concise and complete translation. To fully grasp the translation of other languages, translators should experience similar culture or lifestyle as the author to understand cultural-related metaphors and conceits.
We may share similar structure, language, or traits and culture, we remain nothing more but homo sapiens thus to individuate is inmate.
Special thanks to Professor Mark Deggan and the World Literature department as well as the English department for giving me the opportunity to present and argue my findings.
Kilpatrick, Hilary. Introduction. Men in the Sun & Other Palestinian Stories. By Ghassān Kanafānī. Trans. Hilary Kilpatrick. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1999. Print.