Richard Jacquemond: On the lack and loss in translation

French scholar and renowned translator of Arabic literature Richard Jaquemond spoke on Wednesday night at the American University in Cairo about Arabic translation policies in a lecture entitled Translation in the Arab World: Policies and Practice. This was the second lecture this year in a series on translation by prominent translators and scholars hosted by AUC's Center for Translation Studies.

Jacquemond currently works as a Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Aix-Marseille in France. He has translated into French works by Sonallah Ibrahim, Naguib Mahfouz, Latifa al-Zayyat and many others, and served as the Director of the Translation Department of the French Cultural Mission in Egypt from 1988-1995. He is also the author of “Conscience of The Nation: Writers, State and Society in Modern Egypt," (2008) which examines the modern history of the Egyptian literary field. Jacquemond was introduced by the director of the Center for Translation Studies,Samia Mehrez, who mentioned that he is in the process of writing a book on the "politics and poetics" of Arabic translation.

To the surprise of some and appreciation of others, Jacquemond gave his lecture entirely in Arabic, in an unusual move given the fact that AUC lectures are usually given in English and that French is his native language. Though one might be tempted to interpret this choice as a deliberate statement, Jacquemond explained that the decision was practical, not political, and that he spoke in Arabic simply because he was expecting a few friends to attend who would understand the lecture better in Arabic.

Jacquemond argued that translation in the Arab world is often defined, by foreign and Arab translation funders alike, in terms of modernization, development and nation-building. This framework, he said, is part of an "ideology of lack and loss that is commonplace in the world of translation and translators, but also takes on particular significance in a postcolonial context."

As an example of this ideology, he discussed the 2003 Arab Human Development Report which sharply criticized the Arab world's translation movement. He quoted the report's oft-repeated sentence: "The aggregate total of translated books from the al-Ma’moon era to the present day amounts to 10,000 books – equivalent to the number translated into Spanish in a single year." This ideology, Jacquemond said, purports that "there is a causative relationship between the number of books translated to a given language and the degree of advancement or backwardness of the society… Nothing proves the existence of relationship of this sort."

The comparison to Spain or Greece is inappropriate, Jacquemond said, because these countries are not similar in their histories or their current status, whereas if you compare the Arab world to China or Indonesia you will find that the Arab world is not exceptional. Based on his own research, he estimated that the number of books translated in the Arab world annually to be between 1500 and 2000, and that the total during the last 40 to50 years alone is around 30,000 books, numbers much higher than those cited in the report, which he said was based on "antiquated and incomplete data." The real problem, he said, was not that books had not been translated but that many of those which were translated were not available to people, because they cannot afford them and there are no public libraries to borrow them from. However, he said that the availability of translated books for those who can afford them has increased greatly, and that now a number of major bookstores in Egypt offer a whole section of translated books.

In a post-colonial context the ideology of lack and loss in translation can come to resemble the ideology of loss and lack used to justify colonialism, casting the project of translation into Arabic as a means of civilizing the Arabs. Citing scholars Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi, he suggested that colonization itself could be seen as a form of translation – translating of the European model for civilization into other cultures, which were inevitably seen as inferior to the "great European original." A similar ideology, he said, informs many American and European translation initiatives, such as the 2004 'Great Middle East Initiative," launched by the government of George Bush at the same time as it launched a war on Iraq.

As for Arab initiatives for translation into Arabic, these had often been tied to the process of making Arabic the national language and raising its status globally in the period directly after colonialism. However, as the interest in Arabization has waned, support for translation in the Arab world has grown, with the largest projects being in Egypt and Syria, in additional to substantial initiatives in Lebanon, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The reasoning behind these national translation initiatives tends to be humanistic, focused on translating intellectually valuable works into Arabic, or may be focused on scientific advancement or specific ideological trends.

The first question during question and answer came from the scholar who had given the previous lecture in the In Translation series, well-known Columbia professor Joseph Massad. Massad commented that most of the objections to translation in the Arab world were focused on the "failure of the Arabic language to translate European ideas completely," and were not concerned with translation into Arabic of major works from non-European cultures, asking what Jacquemond's observations were on this phenomenon. Jacquemond replied that while European languages have dominated translation initiatives because of colonialism, interest in translations from non-European languages has increased.

The next lecture in the Center for Translation Studies In Translation series will be given by His Excellency Peter Zsoldos, Ambassador of the Slovak Republic to Egypt, who will speak on Translation, Poetry and Diplomacy: New Horizons for Intercultural Dialogue, on Monday, 29 November.

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