January 2018 e-Newsletter

Meet The Author

Ferial Ghazoul

Iraqi scholar, critic, and translator


Ghazoul is a professor of English and comparative literature at the American University in Cairo and editor of Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics. She has written extensively on gender issues in modern and medieval literature and is the author of Nocturnal Poetics: The Arabian Nights in Comparative Context (AUC Press, 1996).

AUC Press: Which Arabic writer have you most enjoyed translating and why?

FG: I enjoy all that I translate. Translation for me is a labor of love. It poses challenges and that is what attracts me to it. Translation requires mobilizing our varied competences to the utmost: knowledge of contexts, denotation and connotation of words, syntactic variations and significance, and exploring the subtexts of the work to be translated. I have enjoyed translating poetry and lyrical prose. I have particularly enjoyed translating Muhammad Afifi Matar, as his poetry is reflective and profound. His poems display an encyclopedic range and the translator has to be aware of the different layers of his text. He is philosophically inclined but also locally anchored. I have also enjoyed tremendously the translation of Qassim Haddad’s Majnun Layla. The challenge for him, and of course for the translators as well, was to cast a famous narrative about a poet-lover from early Arabian tradition into a poem with contemporary sensibility. Qassim keeps the fragmentary format of the traditional anecdotes about Majnun, but turns this fragmentation into an aesthetic dimension of a modern vision.

AUC Press: In one of your lectures you said “I think of translation as performance.”  Can you explain what you mean by that?

FG: Yes, translation is a performance. A musician performs according to the musical score of say a piano concerto by Mozart; the pianist is bound by the score but there are so many ways of playing it. The same applies to directing a play. Othello can be rendered in a theatrical production in diverse ways and yet the original Shakespearean tragedy is the same. I would not call the translator a second author as some do, but I would call the translator a performer of the original text.

AUC Press: You translate and co-translate from and into Arabic, English, and French alike.  Nevertheless do you have a preference which language you translate into or from given that each has its particularities, limitations, and advantages?

FG: I like to translate literary works from Arabic to English and I like to translate critical works from English and French to Arabic. I think in both cases the translation stretches the horizon of the target language. Innovations in critical theory have taken place in English and French and translating the technical vocabulary—whether terms like intertextuality or hybridity or queer theory or gender politics—is a challenge. One can always find an equivalent, but will it have the same impact and will it circulate? That is the rub. I have translated critics such as Edward Said, Louis Althusser, Paul Ricoeur, Michael Riffattere, Stuart Hall, among others, as I think their ideas are important worldwide. Their ideas are necessarily embedded in their style and terminology. I discuss with colleagues the nuances of specialized terms and also how to coin their equivalents in Arabic. Some translators prefer to transliterate the term, so gender is written in Arabic letters. I prefer not to do that but to find an equivalent as Arabic is a rich language and we can find an appropriate word or coin one derived from Arabic verbal roots.


AUC Press: When and how does the translation language betray the original text?

The translation betrays the original when the translator does not understand the original and offers a literal translation rather mechanically. I was translating Edwar al-Kharrat’s lyrical novel, Rama and the Dragon, and came across the expression ‘ifrita (literally afreet or jinnee). Since it was not appropriate for the context, I checked dictionaries to no avail. But I kept asking friends and colleagues only to discover it is the Egyptian colloquial way of referring to a worker’s overall. Another betrayal is when the translator takes short cuts and dismisses what he or she does not understand. Understanding is not a matter of only knowing the words but also grasping the stylistic specificity of the writer. All conscientious translations—different as they may be—are modes of interpreting the original and there should be room for a variety of interpretations or performances, to use my own idiom.

AUC Press: You recently won the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award for 2013, in recognition of your work, translating, with John Verlenden, Chronicles of Majnun Layla and Selected Poems of Qassim Haddad. What more needs to be done today to bring translated Arabic literature to an even broader international audience?

FG: I think what the AUC Press has undertaken in translating Arabic fiction and offering an award in the name of Naguib Mahfouz is a step in the right direction in disseminating Arabic literature. What is needed perhaps is something akin to what the Feminist Press does in New York. When an Arab writer or an African writer is published with them, there is a short Foreword by a well-known writer as well as a longer Afterword—an essay—by a scholar on the novel. This acquaints the reader in the target language with the cultural context and throws light on how to appreciate the work itself. A general reader cannot grasp cultural and literary specificity and thus such supplementary material helps the text in crossing linguistic and cultural borders.   


AUC Press: Who is your favorite Arab writer today?

FG: I like many: Ibrahim al-Koni, Edwar al-Kharrat, Latifa al-Zayyat, Yusuf Idris, Abdel-Rahman Munif among fiction writers. My favorite poets are Matar, Haddad, Saadi Youssef, and Mahmoud Darwish.


AUC Press: You are also the editor of Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, published by the AUC Press. Previous issues have focused on a fascinating scope of topics, ranging from Wanderlust: Travel Literature of Egypt and the Middle East (2006) and Childhood: Creativity and Representation (2007) to Trauma and Memory (2010) and The Desert: Human Geography and Symbolic Economy (2013).  In your opinion what makes this journal unique?

FG:  Alif is unique in addressing issues relevant to literary theory and cultural studies by calling on views from within and from abroad. It is truly global, having represented the voices of scholars and writers from the five continents, bringing together essays by established names as well as emerging scholars. Besides scholarly and peer-reviewed articles, we invite a creative writer to present a testimonial essay on the theme of the issue. Alif has also engaged artists in interviews by addressing their interest in the given theme of the issue visually and reflectively.

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