Two Languages Diverged: I Chose One and Then the Other

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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When is translation the right choice, and when should the writer adapt her work?

By Ibtisam Barakat

Painting by Ibtisam Barakat.

This month, organizers of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair invited me to write an essay in Arabic for a special newspaper supplement about the fair, with a focus on the responsibilities and challenges of translating for children. I did. Then I decided to translate the article for World Literature Today magazine, with the title: “Drifts of an Arab Boat in the Sea of Translation.”

Two minutes into translating the article, I realized that I must “adapt” rather than translate. These two languages of life, histories, and the present moment, in these two different worlds, “diverged” like the two roads in Robert Frost’s famous poem. Which one should I take? As a bilingual author and translator, I knew that I must embrace both. I must dig a new road that expands both. I must make the two roads a highway with many imaginary lanes that follow the lines on paper.

But wait, I thought, roads are only for those who walk, ride, drive, and must remain in contact with the ground. The sky has endless paths peacefully crossing for those who can fly. And language is a being of feathers, of quills, and of organically connective tissues. Rather than translating, I opted to adapt the essay.

I knew that the reader of Arabic feels at home with the taste of zaatar and olive oil in the language. She or he knows labaneh, and can recognize the taste of cardamom, even crave it, and can recognize the taste of zeaatmaneh that grow in the hills around Ramallah and Jerusalem.

The Arab knows the scent of jasmine as home. She wakes up on the cadence of the adhan, and then the songs of Fairuz. A strum of the oud brings her entire being to life in an instant. Every word in the Arabic language knows this about the soul of the Arab.

The reader in English however, would feel “foreign” in this terrain. He might find it “exotic,” yet home is never the exotic. Home is the familiar, where you fall asleep peacefully in the arms of a lullaby hummed by the mother tongue. So I found myself more and more convinced that, for this task, a “faithful” translation is not the optimal direction. Yes, it’s better to adapt.

A migrant worker adapts. A migrant word adapts. A migrating bird adapts. A tourist adapts. The eye in a dark environment adapts after a while, seeing the subtle become clearer.  There is a flexibility in adaptation which honors the preferences and comforts that differ between cultures and languages. There is a sense of joyful respect, expansion, and transcendence when we adapt rather than translate a text.  It is like preparing a meal differently in order to serve guests and honor their culture.

Maybe translation and adaptation are needed side by side. Maybe to adapt openly is to acknowledge that something has been altered, with the aim of facilitating and inviting the reader to undertake the full journey of engaging the original text and the original language on their own if they are moved to do so. Why not learn another language when it opens up endless possibilities for us?!

Adaptation says: Arabic reader? Would you like cardamom in your coffee? And which Arab would say no! Adaptation would ask the English-language reader in Ohio, for example, who mostly does not miss cardamom in coffee: Would you like iced tea in your language? Iced tea is a drink that makes an Arab cringe. Tea that is cold? Why? My grandmothers would shake their hands and wonder.

Two languages diverged, but they are both home for me. Perhaps all a translator can do is say to the reader: Look, my friend, in the unending courage to learn more and more, there is a treasure over there. I promise it is magical, and if you can, travel to it. . . True, you will never come back. But you will come “forward.”

And I would tell my readers, do not settle for a translation any more than Muslims settle for seeing a picture of Mecca, rather than allowing the picture to remind them that the experience of going to do the pilgrimage is life-altering, while the experience of seeing the pictures of Mecca is only inspiring.

Two roads diverged, and since I could choose both, I experienced the richness of language and life. I hope that you did, too.

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