Home 5 Articles and Reports 5 Is there Any Such Thing as a Literal Translation? A Closer Look at the Individuality-Objectivity Debate

Is there Any Such Thing as a Literal Translation? A Closer Look at the Individuality-Objectivity Debate

by | Dec 21, 2017 | Articles and Reports

It is agreed that translation is an indispensable process, given its vital role in communicating the cultural and literary product of one nation to another.

Dr. Ahmed Al Khumaisi, author who translates Russian works into Arabic, believes that translations feature a second authorship, and are very naturally subject to the translator’s personal ideas, beliefs or considerations. Al Khumaisi gives us an example of how an ideological Arab translator, who translated Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, just couldn’t see how the title could be right and that Lenin must have meant the contrary, so he went ahead and titled the Arabic version, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back!

Al Khumaisi, whose most recent translation was Larissa Vasilieva’s Kremlin Wives: The Secret Lives of the Women Behind the Kremlin Walls, admits that translation can also be subject to social pressure, citing an incident written by Naguib Mahfouz(1), in which the latter was reading a story by G.D. Maupassant(2) that was translated from French into Arabic by Muhammad Al Siba’ai, and came across a Hadith by Prophet Muhammad. Mahfouz was astonished, thinking that it must have been the influence of Arab culture, heritage and civilisation on French literature, but discovered later that it was Al Siba’ai, the translator, who added the Hadith for ameliorative measures and purposes.

Al Khumaisi argues that the strangest model of translation he’s ever come across was that of Mustafa Lutfi Al Manfaluti(3), who translated French books despite not knowing the language. He did so by getting the book’s main ideas and events translated and rewrote them freely in a way that was quite different from the original text.

For his part Dr. Kamel Youssef highlighted his ‘unique and exceptional’ translation experience of Egyptian academic translator Dr. Izzelddine Ibrahim, and British translator Dennis Johnson Davis, who was born in Canada.

Dr. Youssef highlights the fact that Davis refused offers to translate the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, and stipulated that an Arab translator should translate a first draft of those novels. Later on he changed his mind and accepted the offer after Dr. Izzelddine Ibrahim convinced him about the primacy of Hadith’s translation project, and how it needs absolute precision and accuracy, as well as a considerable expertise in both languages. Apart from the fact that Dr. Izzelddine masters the English language, he is a renowned religious leader in the Gulf region.

Dr. Kamel Youssef clarifies that for the process of translation to be impeccably accurate, a work requires two translators or more – at least one of the translators should be able to speak the language of original text as their first language, while the second should be a native speaker of the target language, and finally, both should have a mastery of their mother tongues.

He explains that Dr. Izzelddine used to draft a translation and Davis elaborated on it. After, they would together revise the final translation. He points out that this experience led to their joint venture in translating three books about Hadiths, Al Kalim Al Tayyib, (The Goodly Word), written by Ibn Taymiyah(4), as well as the project of translating the meanings of the Holy Quran.

Dr. Muhammad Makhlouf, who lives in Paris and translates French to Arabic, underscores that Ibn Al Nadim(5) counted 430 titles that were translated from Arabic to Latin, 174 of which Arabs translated from other languages such as Indian and Greek.

Makhlouf uses the French proverb ‘Une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps’ (One swallow doesn’t make a summer) to describe translation, which is filtered through elements like coincidence, mood and individual perceptions, rather than being an organised institutional effort.

He believes that ‘translation is betrayal’ of the author by the translator in one way or another, adding that many renowned authors opposed translating their titles into other languages, and others required that the translator live the same experience of the author they are translating, such as Günter Wilhelm Grass(6) , who used to take the translators to the locations and venues where the events of his novels take place, with the aim of providing the greatest level of credibility in the translation.

Makhlouf unveils that a translation project, which brought him together with another translator did not see the light of day, because they spent six months without being able to agree on the translation of the title. He underscores that there are many new concepts, idioms and expressions in other languages that do not have equivalents in Arabic; a big impediment when conveying emotions and feelings when translating poetry especially, because it can lead to interpretations full of wrong connotations, which somehow betrays the reader too.


[1] Naguib Mahfouz (1911 – 2006) was an Egyptian writer and the first Arab author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.

[2] Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant (1850 – 1893) was a French writer and a representative of the naturalist school of writers.

[3] Mustafa Lutfi Al Manfaluti (1876 – 1924) was an Egyptian writer and pioneer of modern Arabic prose.

[4] Ibn Taymiyah (1263 – 1328) was a medieval Muslim theologian, logician and reformer.

[5] Ibn Al Nadim (? – 998) was a Muslim scholar and bibliographer.

[6] Günter Wilhelm Grass (1927 – 2015) was a German novelist, poet, artist, and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999.

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