Thursday, August 31, 2006

Translating Mahfouz

In yesterday’s New York Times, there was an article about Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, who has just passed away. The article briefly mentions the issue of translation:

For English-language translators and readers, Arabic presents special difficulties: the dialogue sounds overwrought, the descriptions stilted. As Brad Kessler wrote in a 1990 article for The New York Times Magazine: “Mahfouz writes in the florid classical Arabic, which is roughly the equivalent of Shakespearean English.”

Peter Theroux, the American translator of several major Arab novelists, wrote about completing a new version of “Children of the Alley” in 1996: “Readers of Mahfouz in any language are in thrall to his magic. The warmth of Mahfouz’s characters, the velocity of his storytelling, his gift for fluent dialogue and telling details are unique in modern Arabic literature.”

So how should a translator best work with Mahfouz’s texts? By using Shakespearean English? Or by modernizing the language? Or some combination of methods?

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