Thursday, 12 January 2012

1001 Nights in translation- a tool for colonialism?

 The role of ideology in translation from Arabic



Developments in translation studies have increasingly given prominence to the non-linguistic factors pertinent to the translation process. Indeed, since the inception of functionalist approaches in the 1970s and the subsequent ‘cultural turn’ (c.f. Mary Snell-Hornby in Bassnett and Lefevere (eds), 1990), theorists such as Venuti, Spivak, Baker, Lefevere and Niranjana have considered translation through the discourses of post-colonialism, post-modernism and post-structuralism, not to mention feminism and literary and cultural studies. Such academic undertakings have seen translation framed in terms of power, hegemony, dominance and resistance.

This essay will present an analysis of ideology in the major English translation of the Arabic text A Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights). This text, first brought to a European audience in a 1701 French translation (Rastegar, 2005: 272), has a long and fascinating history in translation and literary studies. As for ideology, it is the phenomenon of Orientalism that will concern us here. With reference to translation theory, this essay will explore how ideology can permeate translation, and will briefly consider strategies suggested by theorists where the issue of ideology is especially pertinent. I adopt the definition of ideology as used by Ian Mason; “[Ideology…] not in the common sense of a political doctrine but rather as the set of beliefs and values which inform an individual’s or institution’s view of the world and assist their interpretation of events, faces, etc.” (Mason in De Beaugrande, Shunnaq, Heliel (eds), 1994: 25).

Firstly, one must acknowledge that translation, far from being a mere linguistic transfer, is never a neutral process (Assad in Dingwaney and Maier (eds), 1995: 326), operating as it invariably does under socio-historical contexts that inform its undertaking (Jacquemond in Ventui (ed), 1992: 139). Faiq contends that ‘[l]iterary translations and cultural exchange are tightly linked to power relations and to hierarchic divisions between hegemonic and dominated societies’ (Faiq in Faiq (ed.), 2004: 14). Lefevere claims that translation is determined firstly by ideology, then poetics, and only then by language (Bassnett and Lefevere 1998: 41-56. C.f. also Hermans in Munday (ed.), 2009: 95).

Clearly then, ideology is integral to the process of translation, especially where ‘dominated’ linguistic communities are concerned. Of even greater concern here are the ways in which translators have used texts to construe ideological representations of entire peoples. Niranjana, in her study of translation during British colonial rule of India, asserts that translation served to subjectify Indians (1992: 1). Drawing on the post-structrualist ideas of Derrida and de Man, she claims that colonized groups were ‘interpellated’ through translation, that is, constituted as subjects through ideologically-motivated discursive translation strategies, and that those representations were instrumentalized ‘in such a manner as to justify colonial domination…’ (1992: 1-2).

Translation then, is an ideological concern par excellence. With the above issues in mind, we will turn our attention to the A Thousand and One Nights.

The Nights have been a preoccupation in the West for over three centuries.  Antoine Galland’s 1704 translation, the first, was so popular that he was mobbed in the streets by crowds demanding more of the tales (Irwin in Yamanaka and Nishio (eds), 2006: vii). Early translations of the tales were undertaken by Orientalists, - European scholars who sought to understand the East in academic terms. They did, however, fall victim to, and even actively promulgate stereotypical representations of the East. In his book Orientalism, Edward Said describes Orientalism as the ‘enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage -and even produce- the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period’ (Said, 1978 & 2003: 3). Galland’s translation is said to have ‘fed into already received Western ideas of [Arab] sensuality and male chauvinism’ (Said, 1978 & 2003: 28). Further, it has been suggested by Faiq that the dominant stereotypical representations of Arab and Islamic culture and even the current poetics of translation from Arabic have been influenced by translations of the Nights (Faiq in Faiq (ed), 2004: 11-12).




The folkloric tales of the Nights, remitted for centuries in oral tradition, were written down in a simple diction comprising both colloquial and formal Arabic as used in the Middle Ages. Arabs today consider the Nights an obscure marginal text of small literary value (Knipp, 1974: 45). European translators however, reproduced it in high literary style, and presented it as the Magnum Opus of Arabic literature (c.f. Kabbani in Marzolph, van Leeuwen and Wassouf (eds), 2004: 26). Despite its many flaws, it is Richard Burton’s translation (1885-8) that remains the ‘gold standard’ English version, and will be the focus of our analysis.

Burton’s preface presents a translation strategy wherein he claims his approach was to ‘writ[e] as the Arab would have written in English’, and to create a ‘faithful copy’ (2001: xxviii). Despite Burton’s claim, his writings reveal another use for text; - he ascribes vast importance to the Nights as being “of the highest anthropological and ethnographical interest”, (cited in Rastegar, 2005: 276), and claims the Nights is ‘a book whose speciality is anthropology’ (2001: xxxvi). By this time it was widely held in Europe that the Nights was the prima facie representation of Arabs and their customs, beliefs and sentiments.

Two elements merge in Burton’s work to reveal his ideology. These are his translation method itself, and the vast amount of information he presents in footnotes and the preface. The latter constitute a meta-text in which he presents himself as the omniscient Orientalist scholar who must explain the tales to a western audience.

In Orientalist vein, Burton begins the Nights by inviting the reader to imagine Burton himself transported to a Bedouin camp fire. Thereupon, Burton envisages himself as the orator of the tales and the Arabs become his audience; ‘I reward their hospitality and secure its continuance by reading or reciting a few pages of their favourite tales’ (2001: xxiii). This incredulous reversal of roles places the Nights, if not only metaphorically, firmly in the grip of the Orientalist who proposes to explain it even to the Arabs themselves, and bestows on Burton a superficial legitimacy to appropriate the tales and legitimize his interpretation. The voice of Burton as translator acts as a very prominent guide for the reader.

Another typical feature of Burton’s discursive strategy is his anthropological approach in which he often resorts to racial remarks that he justifies in footnotes.  In one tale a king discovers his wife in bed with a (black) slave. Several English translations including Burton’s, and an Arabic gloss provided by myself are presented in Appendix 1 along with his footnote pertaining to the passage.  Burton unashamedly adds in the phrase ‘of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime’ to his translation of ‘black slave’ although it appears neither in the original Arabic nor the previous English translations, nor is anything mentioned of food. Burton adds a footnote to the passage (see Appendix 1) and entertains pseudo-anthropological observations regarding the relative size of European, Arab and African genitalia. He indulges in explicit sexual ponderings and even links Arabs and Africans with animals, classifying them along biological lines. Europeans are spared this grotesque gesture.

The most disconcerting aspect of Burton’s radical sexual and racial projections is that his ethnocentrism is central to the ideological goals to which he subordinates the content of the Nights. According to Habib Bouagada, Burton’s footnotes articulate an ideological discourse through which not only the translator’s voice, but also the voice of the British Empire can be heard. (Bouagada, 2011: 98-99).

A colonialist agenda can also be seen in the Tale of the Three Apples, in which a young girl is killed and the two suspects both claim to be the murderer. The Caliph’s advisor feels it would be an injustice to kill both suspects. Although Burton’s translation itself is not suspect, it is his footnote discussion of the Arabic wordالظلم   'zulm’ (‘injustice’) that manifests his ideological intent (see appendix 2 for this footnote). By making reference to Islam’s holiest prophet in this footnote, Burton casually seeks to legitimize British colonial interests, interests that were of increasing importance to Britain at the time.

These brief examples discussed demonstrate how a translation discourse served to dis-appropriate a text from its cultural-linguistic environment, to de-historicize it by shifting its literary style and genre, and seek to legitimize a colonialist agenda particularly through ‘scholarly’ (foot)notes. Rana Kabbani writes on Burton, “For depicting Eastern peoples… as slothful, violent and sexually obsessed and incapable of sound self-governance, made it seem justified, even imperative, for the imperialist to step in and rule them”. (Kabbani in Marzolph, van Leeuwen and Wassouf (eds), 2004: 28).


It is not our contention here that Burton’s translation became the ideological prompt for British colonial ambitions in the Middle East, but that it contributed significantly to the discourse of Orientalism and the proliferation of orientalist stereotypes in the English-speaking world. This discourse played an essential role in influencing western perceptions of the Arabs, and the West’s readiness to justify colonial ambitions.

It remains for us to consider ideas from translation theorists that offer suggestions for creating an equitable exchange in literary translation. We have seen how translations can distort the image of peoples and cultural concepts, yet Venuti goes as far as to claim that all translation into English, by its use of the ‘fluent’ discursive strategy typical in English-language translations, subverts the source text and ‘effaces’ the culture whence it comes (Venuti, 1992: 5). This is because, in Venuti’s view, the text is rendered into a ‘domestic understanding’ that familiarizes it to English readers and strips it of cultural difference. Venuti and other theorists such as Spivak call for new translation strategies when English, which they feel dis-enables equal cultural exchange because of its hegemonic and imperial status, is the target language.

Venuti’s hypothesis rests on the idea of a translation project motivated by an ‘ethics of difference’ in which he calls for the translator to be ‘resistant’ to his/her domestic cultural norms (Venuti 1998: 83), and instead adopt a ‘foreignizing’ approach. Such an approach involves highlighting the alterity of the source text in translation to remind the reader of its ‘otherness’; that it is indeed foreign. Venuti believes this to be the only way to create a ‘common understanding’ between the two cultures of the source and target text (Venuti, 2000: 485). To achieve this, Venuti posits a ‘domestic remainder’ (Venuti, 2004: 471) whereupon the translator inscribes the culture of the source text in the translation by retaining stylistic and linguistic features of the original. However, Venuti could be charged with making too much of the capacity of English to acculturate or distort all foreign–language literature. Studies of Brazilian translation by Maria Helena Luchesi de Mello (noted in Pym, 1996: 2-4) demonstrate the preference in Brazilian translation for fluency as much as its Anglo-American counterpart. To be sure, Venuti’s writing is tenacious and he often speaks in ultimate terms, and this is somewhat at odds with an ‘ethical’ approach.

Spivak also proposes foreignizing/defamiliarizing translation techniques, and talks of ‘distorting the frame of reception’ through which literature is received by adopting a ‘heterogenic rhetoricity’ (c.f. Simon 1997: 470). Yet Spivak is unclear how exactly this would function, and her ideas are not a major departure from Venuti.

As Maier submits, it is not simply the case that highlighting cultural difference will automatically erase the inequality between dominant and dominated languages and cultures (Dingwaney and Maier (eds), 1995: 25). Deliberately using unexplained source-text cultural items that are obscure to target text readers will only evoke more stereotypical representations, not less, purely because the reader is left with gaps that are easily filled with clichéd images. Further, there is the risk that creating a literary style that mixes between the source and target languages may produce a writing considered weak or bizarre to readers who are not aware of, or do not fully understand the motivation behind such a strategy.

As this essay has shown, ideology is always pertinent to literary translation and can be exploited to imbue in texts specific Weltanschauungen for disingenuous intent.  The role of ideology in translation needs to be explored in greater detail before thorough desiderata can be suggested. As we have seen, the issue invariably returns to considerations of whether or not to highlight cultural difference, a question that remains central to translation theory. It seems however, that a foreignizing approach may act to challenge dominant representations of particular cultures and peoples although obscurities should be avoided. The translator’s preface and footnotes as meta-text also require consideration due to their particular cogency to articulate ideological discourse, as seen in the case of the Nights.

 It is of course the case that particular ideological considerations will be pertinent to each language combination, and literary translators should be thoroughly aware of the cultural and ideological particularities in their language pair. The translator’s ‘intimacy’ proposed by Spivak (in Venuti (ed), 2000 : 404) is an excellent starting point, yet merely underscores the fact that literary translators should be thoroughly familiar with their working languages and their concomitant literary and cultural histories. A greater convergence of literary and translation studies will aid in offering new paradigms for dealing with ideology in translation.

Appendix 1

Comparison of English translations of excerpt from the ‘Story of King Shahryar and his Brother’:
Arabic original (Calcutta II manuscript):
فلما كان في نصف الليل تذكر حاجة نسيها في قصره فرجع ودخل قصره فوجد زوجته راقدة في فراشها معانقة عبداً أسود من بعض 
العبيد فلما رأى لهذا الأمر أسودت الدنيا في وجهه

Gloss translation of Arabic- ‘When it was in the middle of the night he remembered something he had forgotten in his palace, so he returned and entered his palace finding his wife laying in her bed embracing one of the black slaves, and seeing this, the world became black in his face.’

Edward William Lane (1838-1840): ‘At midnight, however, he remembered that he had left in his palace an article which he should have brought with him; and having returned to the palace to fetch it, he there beheld his wife sleeping in his bed, and attended by a male negro slave, who had fallen asleep by her side. On beholding this scene, the world became black before his eyes.’

John Payne (1882–4): ‘In the middle of the night, it chanced that he bethought him of some-what he had forgotten in his palace; so he returned thither privily and entered his apartments, where he found his wife asleep in his own bed, in the arms of one of his black slaves. When he saw this, the world grew black in his sight ...’

Richard Burton (1885-1888): ‘But when the night was half spent he bethought him that he had forgotten in his palace somewhat which he should have brought with him, so he returned privily and entered his apartments, where he found the Queen, his wife, asleep on his own carpet-bed, embracing with both arms a black cook of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime. When he saw this the world waxed black before his sight . . .’ (my emphasis) (2001: 5)

Burton’s footnote on this passage- “Debauched women prefer negroes on account of the size of their parts. I measured one man in Somali-land who, when quiescent, numbered nearly six inches. This is a characteristic of the negro race and of African animals; e.g. the horse; whereas the pure Arab, man and beast, is below the average of Europe; one of the best proofs by the by, that the Egyptian is not an Asiatic, but a negro partially white-washed. Moreover, these imposing parts do not increase proportionally during erection; consequently, the "deed of kind" takes a much longer time and adds greatly to the woman's enjoyment. In my time no honest Hindi Moslem would take his women-folk to Zanzibar on account of the huge attractions and enormous temptations there and thereby offered to them. Upon the subject of Imsak = retention of semen and "prolongation of pleasure," I shall find it necessary to say more."
(Footnote 6,  p732, 2001).


Appendix 2
-Burton’s discussion of the Arabic word ‘zulm’ (injustice).
 “Zulm,” the deadliest of monarch’s sins. One of the sayings of Mohammed, popularly quoted, is, “Kingdom endureth with Kufr or infidelity (i. e. without accepting Al-Islam) but endureth not with Zulm or injustice.” Hence the good Moslem will not complain of the rule of Kafirs or Unbelievers, like the English, so long as they rule him righteously and according to his own law.” (My emphasis)
(Footnote 357 (The Nineteenth Night), 2001).


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