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Author versus translator

In considering Rajaa Alsanea's novel "Girls of Riyadh," the London Times Literary Supplement's reviewer complained, among other things, about the book's use of tedious clichés in describing the world of young Saudi women. (Our reviewer, Judith Freeman, found the book to be entertaining, but she too found the language uneven in its quality.)

A letter in the Sept. 28 issue of the TLS from Marilyn Booth, who translated the novel into English for Penguin Press, is a disclaimer of sorts, explaining what may have really gone on. Reviewer Stephen Henighan, she writes, "is correct about the English text's shortcomings.... When I submitted the translation to Penguin ... I was informed that the author intended to rewrite it, and thereafter I was kept entirely out of the process. The resulting text, with its clichéd language, erasures of Arabic idioms I had translated, and unnecessary footnotes, does not reflect the care that I took to produce a lively, idiomatic translation."

That didn’t cause Booth to strip her name from the text. It's there on the title page, beneath Alsanea's. Hypocrisy? I don’t think so. She spent enough time on the project that, as botched as she says the final result was, she probably felt her sweat and effort still deserved a mention going beyond the acknowledgments page.

The most troubling thing about her letter, however, is what she suggests about the conditions under which many translators work today. Booth, director of the University of Illinois’ program in South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, characterizes it as a demeaning, combative relationship with publishing houses: "Perhaps the larger scandal, though, is that for some publishers and writers, literary translators remain derivative servitors rather than creative artists, a notion fostered by a long tradition within Euro-American letters of the writer as solitary genius and translation as a mechanical exercise."

Nick Owchar

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It isn't often when an author has the opportunity to select the translator that they wish to work with - someone that understnds their humour, their style, their critiques and once found it is equally difficult to find a balance between colleague-to-colleage respect and that respect that you would show to a service provider because the translator is also a creative professional who happens to be offering you a service by rendering your story readable. I found this especially difficult with the translation of my novel Dining with Death, though my translator was superb. When the book was adapted as La Mort au menu, and the French copy editor made major recommendations I was at first uncomfortable agreeing to them for fear of offending the translator. However, I realized that the translator could only work with what she was provided, my original, and the copy editor had to look at the story as if through a window. Both women had different styles and both women were highly regarded in their areas of expertise. I leaned toward the recommendations of the copy editor at the risk of insulting the translator, knowning every minute that the skills she brought to rework the story were appropriate and credible. When the French proof reader took on La Mort au menu I faced the issue of international punctuation verses Canadian puncuation. At the risk of insulting my French-born proof reader we had to decide on the use of North American French puncuation rather than Euro and in doing so adopt a standard. By the end of the production process the story had many face lifts, all the time rejuvinating it. The issue of value as to who has the authorship of the story becomes blurred when so many talented people influence the telling. Yet in the end, we had to remember that the story was a product. For whatever reasons a publishing house changes it, or the translator adaptes it, the editor slices it up, the copy editor rearranges bits and the proof reader flips words about, the author has to swallow their ego and welcome suggestions. So does everyone else down the line.

Kathleen Molloy, www.diningwithdeath.ca


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