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Translational Transactions

Debra Krakow, Free Spirit
ISSUE 8, Spring 2020
Issue Editors:
Karen Grumberg, Corine Tachtiris

In the first decades of the twentieth century, Hebrew writers and thinkers debated the topic of translation, considering the necessity for and best methods of translation into Hebrew. This essay explores writings by the poet and translator Yaakov Fichman, alongside those of his contemporaries, focusing on the economic and gender metaphors used to describe the activity of translation. I argue that through his metaphoric language Fichman sought symbolic justification for translation, in view of the anxiety surrounding the status of translated works in the nascent Zionist culture. Fichman posited translators as powerful stylistic and linguistic “billionaires” who stood to enhance and reform the language. Moreover, to bolster the status of the Hebrew translator, Fichman masculinized this activity, imagining the translator as a warrior who can conquer both the foreign work and the Hebrew language itself. Through this gendered economics of translation, Fichman strove to establish the productive value of translation within Zionist Hebrew culture, accomplishing his goal by using a patriarchal rhetoric of exclusion and subjugation.

Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khiz’ah (1949) has been read locally as embodying liberal ideals of empathy. Some Hebrew writers further believed that Yizhar’s text positively inclined Arabic-language readers toward Israel by broadcasting the image of an empathetic Zionist. However, analyzing the novella’s Arabic translations and receptive afterlives suggests a more complex dynamic that partly mirrors Conrad’s pained postcolonial Anglophone reception. Namely, while Palestinian critics within historic Palestine have read empathy tried by circumstance, critics in the wider Arab world have read a historical testament broadcasting not empathy but personal distress. What emerges is a model of translation as transaction between currencies in an affective economy whereby empathy and personal distress refract as they circulate through the myriad epistemological spaces of Edward Said’s crisis of modernism.

Due to the taboo on normalization of relations with Israel, Hebrew-to-Arabic literary translations once circulated predominantly in the digital realm. Print editions were confined to expatriate and boutique publishing houses and catered to a small and specialized readership. In 2016, Nael Eltoukhy’s Arabic translation of Almog Behar’s 2010 novel Tchahla ve-Hezkel (Rachel and Ezekiel) was released by the independent Cairo publishing house Al-Kotob Khan to unprecedented visibility in the Arabic book fair circuit. Eltoukhy’s translation work, alongside that of his contemporary Mohammed Abud, signals a departure from the largely contentious frames of reference that have long dictated the tenor of Hebrew-to-Arabic translation practices. My study proposes a model of recuperative translation through which Arab-Jewish literary memory is made visible to an Arab readership. I identify translation as the site of a dynamic cultural encounter through which the Arab-Jew—as fiction, historical memory, political potential, author, friend, and colleague—is occupying an increasingly prominent position among Arab literary communities in digital and physical space. My article closes with reflections on the European metropole, specifically Berlin, as the potential site of a creative crossroads where a new Arabic literary tradition with Arab-Jewish participation is emerging.

This article examines essays and memoirs by two multilingual writers, Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff and Naïm Kattan, who relied on different forms of translation to build their literary careers during the second half of the twentieth century. It analyzes their biographical works from the perspective of “world literature studies” and the ties between literary translation, decolonization, and nation formation. Drawing on Pascale Casanova’s concept of “translated men,” the article compares Kahanoff’s and Kattan’s cases to argue that their linguistic choices reflected their political ambivalences, yet have never barred their readers, editors, and translators from seeing them as “belonging” to specific canons.

In early 2018, the publication of Huriya: Sipurim u-reshimot shel yotzrot be-’ikvot ha-Aviv ha-’Aravi (Freedom: Stories and reflections of women authors following the Arab Spring) was announced by Resling, an Israeli publisher. The book seemed especially promising in light of the general tendency to ignore women in the overall project of translating literature from Arabic to Hebrew. Yet many of the authors of the selections published in Huriya had not consented to their work being translated into Hebrew. The Huriya incident is evidence of the continuing presence of an Orientalist approach in Arabic-to-Hebrew translation, despite the good intentions on the part of Huriya’s translator and the publisher. This incident reflects a colonialist view in terms of both nation and gender. A fundamental change of attitude, however, as can be seen in the case of the Maktoob publishing house, has led to more cooperation between the two cultures.

This article explores the historical forces contributing to the existence of multiple and/or unauthorized Persian literary translations. Using an autoethnographic method, I argue that it will be more constructive to shift the focus from the legal and ethical narratives of foreign literature in Iran to a reconceptualization of translators as a subculture of media fans.

As most academic research on translation in the Arab world focuses on printed material, the translation of audiovisual mass media, such as television and cinema, remains understudied. Analyzing a sketch from the Egyptian comedy show Saturday Night Live bi-l-‘arabī, I shed light on the contemporary polyglossic dynamics in Arabic influenced by Arabic television channels and the process of subtitling and dubbing foreign media into Arabic. Situating the translation of foreign audiovisual media within the longer history of translation in the Arab world, I argue that subtitling and dubbing of foreign films and television shows played a key role in the translation and the standardization of modern formal Arabic. The technique of dubbing, which began to emerge in the 1990s, has also participated in the creation of pan-Arab polyglossia, a linguistic situation that echoes the linguistic exchange during the Nahḍa and the first decades of the twentieth century.

Dibur is a peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to comparative literature.

Editorial Board

Vered Karti Shemtov, Dibur Editor-in-Chief
Yotam Popliker, Dibur Executive Editor
Chen Bar-Itzhak, Dibur Editor
Chen Edelsburg, Dibur Curated Editor


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Dibur is made possible by grants from:

  • Stuart R. Epstein, California
  • The Taube Center for Jewish Studies
  • Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Religious Studies
  • Jewish Community Federation's Newhouse Fund
  • The School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University