Linguistic and Cultural Issues in Literary Translation

“Most of what has been written about the Islamic world by the so-called experts on Islam and the Middle East—who claim to tell us the real truth about Islam and its people—has often focused on war, political turmoil, and religious conflict and has often been colored by ideological orientations.”

The article is a discussion of a case study of translating a short story from Arabic into English. The discussion revolves around the translation process and its reconstruction, focusing on some of the linguistic and cultural issues encountered in the original and how they were resolved in the translation.

Linguistic and Cultural Issues in Literary Translation
This paper is based on my translation of a collection of short stories “A night in Casablanca” by the late Moroccan writer Muhammad Zefzaf. The critical introduction offered here is informed by translating a number of his short stories. These short stories come from two of Zefzaf’s collections part 1 and part 2 published by the Ministry of Morocco (Publications of the Cultural Affairs, Manshurat Wizarat Alsh’un Althakafi’ia) 1999. The specific discussion of the translation process and its reconstruction, however, will revolve around only one of these short stories: The Nests.

Zefzaf is well known in the Middle East and particularly the Northern African part of it. Owing to the special cultural ties between France and North Africa, some of his works have been translated into French, but, in general, little is known about him in other western languages. My rendition is the first translation of Zefzaf’s stories into English, and there could be no more urgent cultural need to introduce writers like him to the American reader.
Since the events of September 11, 2001, the western world has developed a consuming interest in Islamic life and culture. However, since then most of what has been written about the Islamic world by the so-called experts on Islam and the Middle East—who claim to tell us the real truth about Islam and its people—has often focused on war, political turmoil, and religious conflict and has often been colored by ideological orientations.

As Edward Said (2002) points out, however, only good literature is particularly capable of dispelling “the ideological fogs” that has for so long surrounded the Middle East and obscured its people from the West. Said argues that the West needs the kind of literature that can open up the world of Islam as pertaining to the living and the experienced rather than the ideological books that try to shut it down and stuff it into a box labeled “Dangerous—do not disturb”. And Zefzaf’s stories are examples of that kind of literature.

Zefzaf’s stories, represented here by The Nests, offer a unique window into the everyday, domestic life of ordinary people in a Muslim world steeped in its own context, unfiltered by western sensibilities. In his stories, we are able to see ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary characters unfold from the inside out. We see men and women who struggle to survive and understand the meaning of life in a culture startlingly different yet glowing with universal glimpses of love, hate, jealousy, fear, cynicism, pathos, disappointment, regret, and bursts of insight into the human condition.

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