"Translation is the most important channel of intercultural dialogue"

Dr. Abdo Abboud, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Damascus, complains of a lack of interest in modern German literature amongst Arabs studying German.

Professor Abboud, in a lecture at the University of Bonn, you said that literary translations were of particular importance in the process of intercultural dialogue. Why do you think translation matters so much?

Abdo Abboud: Literature is a mirror of the social and cultural relationships within a people, a society and a culture. When works of literature are translated from a foreign language, the recipients in the new language are enabled to achieve insight into the social and cultural conditions of that people or nation. And because dialogue

Dr. Abdo Abboud
Dr. Abdo Abboud

​​ between cultures requires channels, literature is also a highly important tool in that dialogue. If one wishes to get to know a culture, two options are available: either one learns the language, or one reads the literature in translation. Of course, language teaching is subject to limitations, simply because there are so many languages that it's impossible to learn them all; so translation will continue to be the most important channel of communication between cultures.

At the beginning of the Eighties, you completed your doctoral thesis. It was entitled "The Reception of the Modern German Novel in the Arab Countries". How interested in German literature are people in the Arabic world?

Abboud: One might put it this way: there's an interest in foreign literature in general, and this takes expression in a variety of forms. For example, there are periodicals that publish nothing but literary texts translated from other languages. In Syria, there's the magazine "Al-Adaab al-Adschnabijja" (“Foreign Literatures”), and in Saudi Arabia there's "Nawafis" (“Window”), which only publishes translated texts. And the literary translation movement in the Arab world is now at least a century old; in fact, you could say it dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Since then, many works of European literature have appeared in translation. Naturally, French literature came first, because of the close links to France; Muhammad Ali’s first ambassadors were sent to Paris, and not to Berlin. Then, around the turn of the century, there began a movement to produce Arabic translations of German works, which still continues today. But this movement went through a series of phases. In the early days, practically no one was fluent in German, so German works were translated from intermediary languages, i.e. French or English. Since the mid-Sixties, however, the situation has changed radically: the first Arab graduates in German language and literature returned to Egypt, and were soon busily translating from the German. Direct translations from the German had in fact been produced before this time, but these were the work of Arabs who had graduated in other subjects, such as philosophy or geography: Mahmud Ibrahim al-Dassuki, for example, rendered Goethe und Thomas Mann into Arabic. (In fact, a direct translation of “Faust” first appeared in the 1930s – one of the many versions in existence.) Since the mid-Sixties, however, there have been real “specialists” - graduates in German language and literature, who of course translate directly from the German. Now, the question naturally arises: How many people read these translations? How big is the print-run for such books? Well, one indication of the interest in German literature is the fact that several works have been translated several times. There are now nearly ten different versions of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”…

What’s the reason for this? Are translators unaware of each other, or are the translations constantly being improved?

Abboud: There are various reasons. For example, a German book may have been translated indirectly, from another language, and then a new translator turns up who wants to produce a direct translation of the original German. Another translator may be dissatisfied for other reasons, perhaps because a translation’s flawed and he wants to produce a better one. Or an existing translation may have been done in Egypt, and now a Syrian translator wants to do a “Syrian” version. But when different translations of the same work are produced in different countries, it’s sometimes due to a simple lack of coordination. Of course, one might well see this as a waste of energy; yet it also means that translations are produced which reflect a variety of views and interpretations of a single text.

In the Arab world, which names are spontaneously associated with German literature?

Abboud: First and foremost, Goethe, of course. The Goethe Institutes have contributed to this development, but the Arabic world has long been interested in Goethe - in contrast to Schiller, who’s more or less unknown. Schiller, of course, wrote mainly plays. As a matter of historical fact, the Arabic reception of Schiller predates the Goethe reception: translations of “Cabal and Love” and “William Tell” appeared as early as 1902 or 1905. Though these works played an important role, they had been translated from the French. Later, interest in Schiller more or less petered out. Goethe, however, had the additional advantage of being interested in the Orient, and in Islam; he was somebody who also took an interest in us. By translating his works, the Arabs also felt confirmed in their own cultural role. Moreover, Goethe’s literary oeuvre covers several genres: he wrote plays, poems, novels, shorter narratives and fairy tales. The same can’t be said of Schiller.

Goethe, however, is not the only German writer who’s had a major influence on Arabic literature. Think of Bertolt Brecht, for example. Even in the Sixties, Arab theatre people were divided into Brechtians and anti-Brechtians. I don’t think there’s another foreign writer who’s had a comparable influence on Arabic drama. Most of his works have been translated into Arabic, in many cases two or three times. And not just his plays, but his poems and stories too. Brecht enjoys a wide readership and a great deal of scholarly attention. At the moment, however, the big hit in the Arab world is Hermann Hesse. Arabic translators are practically tripping over each other to translate his works. Almost all of his writings are available in Arabic translation; and again, many of them have been translated several times - sometimes directly from the German, sometimes from the English. If you enquire after German literature in an Arabic bookshop today, you’ll find almost nothing but Hesse. Naturally, Günter Grass’s popularity was boosted after he received the Nobel Prize – some of his books were translated for the first time, and “The Tin Drum” is now available in two different translations – yet it’s too early to speak of a broad-based Arab interest in Grass. It can’t be compared with the reception accorded to Goethe or Brecht.

In the last few years, several young German authors have produced first novels or collections that have been very highly praised. Some of them have gone on to publish their second and even third books. There’s also been talk of a “Fräuleinwunder”, for many of these authors are young women. Has this development been noticed in the Arab world? Is there any way Arab readers can experience these new authors, for example in literary magazines?

Abboud: Sadly, these authors are unknown in the Arab world. I believe Patrick Süskind is one of the few contemporary German writers who are actually read, apart from Günter Grass. And Süskind is not exactly young. The very young authors have had no reception at all. Theoretically, they could acquire a readership, for example if their texts were to be translated and published in a literary periodical. On the whole, though, the young generation of German writers is practically invisible. This is mainly the responsibility of the translators, because they rarely translate such authors. It’s also questionable they would find a publisher; it hasn’t been tried, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. The texts have to be translated first, though. When Patrick Süskind’s novel “Perfume” was translated, people were also sceptical; but the novel turned out to be a success here. Nabil Haffar’s translation first appeared in the Emirates, and a new edition has just been brought out in Syria. It can’t be said that there’s no market for new German literature, but there have to be translators who are prepared to take the initiative. The problem is, hardly any of the Arab German specialists are interested in contemporary literature.The Arabic and German languages are very different; in your opinion, does this lead to particular problems when translating?

Abboud: That’s an interesting question. Arabic and German are two different language systems; that goes without saying. Insofar, there are bound to be translation problems all along the line. Not just as regards terminology – in such cases, one can always find solutions; there are methods for dealing with that. The major problems crop up in literary translations, for example in dialogues - not just in plays, but also in novels or short stories. Which stylistic level is appropriate? Then there’s the poetic imagery, the allegories, the similes, the literary methods in general… all of these are very different in the two languages. When one translates directly, the results sometimes seem terribly artificial. There are really a great many difficulties, in both directions.

If we turn to poetry, the situation is even tougher. Personally, I regard poetry as untranslatable. In my opinion, it forfeits all its essential qualities in translation; the loss is enormous. The possibilities of translating poetry are limited, and one shouldn’t forget this. Adaptation is the best that can be hoped for; look at the work of Friedrich Rückert, for example. But we can’t really call this kind of thing “translation”. It’s free adaptation, and therefore a separate and independent literary genre.

Some German universities now offer courses in translation, including the translation of Oriental languages. Is there a comparable kind of professional training in Syria, or how does one become a translator there?

Abboud: Unfortunately, there’s still not a single Syrian university offering courses in German Studies. All they have at the universities is the option of taking German as a second European language for those studying French or English. There are now also educational centres where the German language is taught, and then there’s the Goethe Institute, but all this rarely goes beyond beginners’ level. I have given a few courses in translation at the Goethe Institute, and a relatively large number of people were interested enough to take part; but they were all graduates of German universities. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Syrian government sent twenty-odd students to study German at German universities; and in fact, most of the people currently translating from the German in Syria were among this chosen few: I myself, for example, and Nabil Haffar. The only other translators are people who studied something else in Germany. One of the very good translators, Adnan Habbal, studied medicine in Heidelberg. The other option, which shouldn’t be underestimated, is translation via an intermediary language. This is still very commonly done; Habermas, for example, has just been translated from the English. And the option will remain as long as there is no possibility of studying German language and literature at a Syrian university.

Regrettably, Syrian literature is also largely unknown in Germany. The Swiss publishing house, Lenos, has three Syrian authors on its list: one title each by the great Syrian authors Hanna Mina and Zakariya Tamer, and two by Halim Barakat. The truly great works of Syrian literature are still unknown in Germany; the major works of Mina and Tamer remain untranslated, and great names like Haidar Haidar and Hani al-Rahib are just missing completely. What do you see as the reasons for this? Is no one interested in Syrian literature, or in Syria itself?

Abboud: One can only speculate about this problem. It might be claimed, for example, that Syrian literature has nothing to offer; but this wouldn’t be true, for there’s a whole range of authors well worth translating: Fawwas Haddad, Ulfa al-Idlibi, Haidar Haidar, Abd al-Salam al-Udschaili, etc. Indeed, there are some works that would be of quite particular interest to German readers. Take “Sail and Storm”, the novel by Hana Mina: it examines attitudes to Germany during the Second World War. It’s set in Latakia, on the Syrian coast. When the French colonial authorities forbade the people to listen to Radio Berlin, they hid in a cave with their old radio, and followed the broadcasts there. Ulfat Idilbi is an equally interesting example: her novel, “Damascus bitter sweet” contains a very interesting discussion about Germany and National Socialism; all the conflicting positions are represented. Then there are the novels of Hani al-Dhahabi; his trilogy, the last part of which is set in Germany, is fascinating. It tells the story of a Syrian engineer who flees to Germany after being subjected to state repression. He is granted political asylum, finds work and gets married, and the typical problems crop up. Eventually, he returns with his daughter to Syria – and can no longer adapt to life in his home country. It’s a very interesting book, and an excellent candidate for translation into German. So there’s no shortage of good texts that would also appeal to a German readership.

Another theory is that Syria and the Syrian cultural institutes are doing only very little to publicise Syrian culture abroad. One of the complaints levelled at the Syrian Writers’ Union is that it doesn’t do much in this direction, and there is some truth in that. The Writers’ Union only cooperates with countries that have similar institutions, such as Russia, China or Cuba. But the Writers’ Union has no contact whatsoever to Western literature. Naturally, this institution doesn’t embody Syrian literature per se. Indeed, many Syrian authors were published not in Syria, but in Lebanon, Hana Mina and Hani al-Rahib for example. There are also many private publishing houses. The Writers’ Union has no monopoly, however; it can’t be made wholly responsible for the almost invisibly low profile of Syrian literature abroad. The Syrian Ministry of Culture is also doing too little in this area.

It might be said that this is all basically due to the political situation, to the fact that it’s difficult for foreigners to visit Syria, that Syria is just a difficult land altogether. But that’s not true either. The best example is the translator Hartmut Fähndrich, who travels to Syria almost every year; and many others do likewise, so there must be another reason. I think the problem lies with the translators. It has to do with the structure, with the conditions within the Arabic-German translating scene. Up to now, a single person, namely Hartmut Fähndrich, who is a good friend of mine, and whom I value and respect, has dominated this movement - and that’s not good. It’s not his fault, however. Interestingly, he’s often been in Syria, and taken part in symposiums on the literature of Syria; but so far, he hasn’t taken much interest in Syrian writing. The same can be said of Doris Kilias, who was the first person to translate Syrian stories from the Arabic into German; that was at the end of the Seventies, when the East German state was still in existence. After that, however, her interest in Syrian literature declined. This also applies to Wiebke Walter; and to Regina Karasholi, who goes to Syria every year and knows Syrian literature very well, but who decided to translate the Sudanese author, Tajjib Salih.

Perhaps the problem also lies with the publishing companies. I have the feeling they don’t want to publish Syrian literature at present.

Abboud: Yes, there’s yet another theory, a political one: that a country’s literature only becomes interesting when the country itself is politically interesting. We can see this quite clearly in the case of Palestinian literature. In political terms, Syria just hasn’t been fascinating enough for the West up to now.

Let’s go back to German authors. You’ve mentioned several names, but left out one writer who’s been of huge and intense interest to Arab intellectuals, including yourself: Franz Kafka. What makes Kafka so appealing to Arab intellectuals?

Abboud: Kafka moves mountains, not just in Germany and other countries, but also in the Arab world. The Arab reception of Kafka is extremely multifaceted: it’s not just that he’s read, his writings also have a productive effect, there’s a poetic reception of Kafka. First of all, there’s his allegorical style: what he writes can be interpreted in various ways, and applied to a whole range of different situations. It’s been said that Kafka created “open” works of art; his works are so accessible to differing interpretations that they resonate in many different societies and cultures. And his style itself is a source of great interest: most writers of fiction in the contemporary Arab world have been influenced by Kafka’s allegorical style; they want to write the way he does. Just look at Zakariya Tamer; the parallels between his techniques and Kafka’s are very striking. The question is, of course, why do people want to write in such a style? For some of these authors, it’s a way of evading the censor. Others want to leave the readers a little more room for manoeuvre, a little more freedom to interpret the texts as they wish to – which also depends on the level of their expectations. For all that, there is still no complete translation of Kafka’s work; his writings are scattered amongst several publishers. But the Syrian translator Ibrahim Watfi has now set himself the task of bringing out a new edition of Kafka’s work, and he even intends publishing it himself.

You are now Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Damascus. At one time, you also translated. Do you now devote yourself exclusively to the study and teaching of comparative literature?

Abboud: More or less, yes. I began by translating a short story by Anna Seghers, “Agathe Schweigert”. It was so successful that I was asked to translate more by her. So then I went on to translate several of her short stories, including “Das Obdach” (“The Shelter”), of which there are now five different Arabic versions in existence. Then I translated Walter Hink’s “Das moderne Drama in Deutschland“, a study of German drama in the twentieth century. Later, I translated more stories, poems and essay, as well as an anthology of literature for children and young people, which quickly sold out. After that, I changed direction, no longer translating so much, but instead examining translated texts from a literary-critical point of view. This was the background to my book, “The Emigration of the Texts” (Hidschra al-Nusuus), a collection of studies on translation from the German to the Arabic and on the relationship between German and Arabic literature. Then I pursued research into German stories that had been translated into Arabic. This was a task that involved a lot of work, for I had to search for these stories in various periodicals. And that’s how I stopped being a translator and became someone who studies and criticizes translations from the German. But that doesn’t mean I’ll never translate anything again.

Interview: Larissa Bender

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

Dr. Abdo Abboud is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Damascus, Syria.