by Leonita Rexhaj, Zainab Al-Tekreeti, and Anna Prickarz
Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account tells the story of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, the slave of a Spanish conquistador. The fictional memoir is written in the first person, creating the illusion that we are reading the protagonist’s account of the Spanish conquest. He tells us on the very first pages, even before the first chapter, that he will share his side of the story, in contrast to the story told earlier by the Spanish. In many ways, The Moor’s Account is, therefore, a born-translated novel (cf. Walkowitz, 4ff). Not only does it refer to other existing versions of one story, suggesting processes of translation, but it also uses form and language to create the illusion of having been translated. The memoir is written in English, but it suggests taking place in several other languages: Amazigh and Arabic, Mustafa’s native tongues, Spanish and Portuguese, the tongues of the colonisers and conquistadors, as well as several indigenous South American languages. The Moor’s Account uses several stylistic devices to create the illusion of having been translated, such as using untranslated words, implying through context that something must have taken place in another language, using unnatural English, referring directly to translation and interpreting and more. In our course “Self-Translation in Anglophone Arab Narratives” we were given the task of producing a translation of an excerpt of the novel, keeping in mind theoretical information we had been taught (cf. Walkowitz, 4ff). When we started the process of translating the selected text passages from English into German, we thus already expected that the most challenging aspect of translation would be to keep the illusion of a translated piece of writing.
When encountering non-English words in the memoir we were left to decide whether to leave them as they were or to go out of our way to translate them into German to make the content more accessible to readers who might have no knowledge of other languages. After having been familiarized with the concept of foreignization (cf. Bassnett, 44ff) this choice was easy to make. Foreignization is the term for the act of deliberately forcing the reader to deal with unfamiliarity in the form of individual words as well as concepts and conventions in translations, adding new perspectives to the target language. When pursuing the foreignizing strategy, the reader is forced out of their comfort zone and the fact that a (born-)translated text is being worked with is consciously being highlighted rather than hidden. We concluded that Lalami had used foreignization intentionally and thus followed her example by leaving Spanish and Arabic names of characters and places, as well as single letters such as the “ñ” in “Señor” as they were.
As we translated the text passages as a group of six, we first divided the passages into six parts, so that each of us could work intensively with the part assigned. Each part was around two to three sentences long, so we were able to work very thoroughly with them. Every one of us created a translation, and, at times, several options for translating a single sentence, where keeping the balance between coherent German sentence structure and keeping the illusion of a translated text was especially challenging. We then met up to discuss and change around single words, sentence structure and stylistic devices, keeping the concepts of foreignization and the born-translated novel in mind.
Punctuation also played an important role in the translation. Laila Lalami omitted quotation marks when it came to direct speech, and we had to decide if we were going to emulate her approach or if we were going to add them to make the reading of the translation easier. We unanimously settled on leaving them out because we felt it was important to stay as close to the author’s original vision as possible. Where the English language was ambiguous, we had to decide which translation to choose: For example, in the English version, the river Guadalquivir could be read as personified – or not. We went through several versions of translation: not personified at all, implicitly personified, and obviously personified. After much reflection, we decided that to implicitly personify the river would be the closest to the ambiguous English version – ambiguity itself would, in German, be impossible. Verbal paraphrases posed a challenge for us as well. We noticed that there were no clear lines separating individual languages in our mental lexicons. Phrases in English that were translated word for word into German seemed to be correct at first glance because the structure of English is so engrained into our brains. Utmost attentiveness was required to find the right way to phrase it in German.
Our main takeaway from the project was that translating literature is not just transferring the literal meaning of each word from the source language to the target language, but rather transferring the sense of it and the story behind it. In the seminar, we discussed how translating literature is central to allowing literature to travel beyond borders so that writers can speak out across generations and cultures, and as a result, giving the readers access to such stories encourages them to experience literature beyond their representation of the world, thus amplifying voices which are otherwise left unheard.
Lalami, Laila. The Moor’s Account. Vintage Books, New York (2014).
Walkowitz, Rebecca L. Born Translated. Columbia University Press, New York (2015).
Bassnett, Susan. Translation. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, London and New York (2014).