The Translator

How to conquer the real art of translating two endlessly beautiful languages without compromising the essence of neither.

The typical image of the translator is a person sitting behind her desk reproducing a text in a different language. As long as the translator is proficient in two or more languages and is aided by a dictionary or Google Translate, all is good, right? Well, that could work if the translator is translating a straightforward informational text like a news report or a legal contract. But, how does the translator deal with a creative text? Imagine a translator attempting to translate an English novel into Arabic. The translator could reproduce the novel in Arabic, with a word-for-word approach, or even take it a step further, break away from the literal to ensure that the Arabic reader gets the point. The translator has now fulfilled her duty, right? Not really. The translator has a bigger responsibility: how can she reproduce a text that would preserve all aspects of the original novel, whilst also ensuring that it has the same effect on the Arabic reader, as it had on the English reader. The translator must attempt to give the Arabic reader the warmth that the English reader felt when reading Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs. How? By reading the text, holding on to the sense of the text, letting go of the language attached to that sense, and then giving the sense a new home by re-expressing it in Arabic. Just apply it to the book’s title: sense is what gave us “صاحب الظل الطويل”, as opposed to “أبي طويل الساقين”.

On another day, the translator is asked to translate a text that has humorous aspects. Imagine the translator taking a literal approach. The outcome will surely be catastrophic. The intention of the original author will be totally lost on the reader of the translation. A serious translator would think: what made this text humorous? Was it sarcasm? Was is a pun? Was it a cultural reference? Let’s say it was sarcasm, the translator will aim for that sarcastic effect, but in Arabic. Instead of starting with words, the translator will start with sarcasm and then dress it with words. Can we even call this translation? Yes. Translation does not always mean identical texts, translation is also rewriting a text. The translator is always walking a thin line between achieving the intended effect of the text and not steering far away from the meanings of it.

What about a text that’s full of idioms? Translating it literally would result in a text full of words, but no logic whatsoever. Take a look at these idioms and notice the difference between a literal translation and an idiomatic one where the translator used an Arabic idiom to convey the meaning of the English one.


Literal Translation

Idiomatic Translation

To stand one's ground

أن تقف أرضك

أن تتمسك بموقفك

Acid Test

اختبار حمضي

لحظة الحقيقة

He doesn't let the grass grow under his feet

لا يترك العشب ينمو تحت قدميه

لا يؤجل عمل اليوم إلى الغد

We could discuss translation strategies all day every day, but the essence of every strategy is in this quote by Seleskovitch on the translation process “from one language to sense and from sense to another language”. So, do you want to translate a text? A motto? An Instagram caption? Conquer it with sense.


Amna A.’s Bio

Amna A. is a postgraduate student of translation at the American University of Sharjah. She believes that translation is more than just reproducing words in another language, it’s about reproducing a sentiment, a context, a vibe.

Amna loves to do 100 things at a time: movies, hiking, reading, science content, social research, traveling, dialects, hospitality, friends, family, talking to people, listening to people, snorkeling.

Amna also translates most of Sxill’s work and contributes to our content development.