ViceVersa: German-Arabic Translation Workshop
The Inside Story

Arabische Übersetzerwerkstatt im Literaturhaus München 2017
© Goethe-Institut

When translators gather to discuss their projects, there is never enough time, regardless how much is available. Every aspect of the work is considered, reworked, deliberated, debated, doubted, questioned, turned around, discarded, restructured, reformulated. Tirelessly.

And the famous gold scale, which means weighing each and every word, becomes an indispensable tool that is constantly in operation. Everything gets thrown onto the scale: entire passages, sentences, phrases, words, letters, even periods, commas and exclamation marks.

We’re talking about the translated work, of course, but also about the original text. Given that translators are famous for being close and critical readers, during the process of translation questions inevitably get raised about the original. How should the written word be interpreted? What is the context? Is there a subtext? Are the constructions and formulations a question of the original language’s structure, or are they intended as a stylistic device? Can we identify the narrative voice? From which perspective is the story being told? The list of questions is endless.

The text is collectively scrutinized, examined, turned around, viewed from all sides, interpreted, viewed against the grain - both in form and content. And once these points have been clarified or addressed, seldom are we left with a definitive and unambiguous answer, because once again we are dealing with the question of translation, i. e. transferring the source text "adequately" into the target language. This is a matter of keen interest and inspires stimulating discussions. Here too, there is no "one right solution", but many possibilities and approaches.

Such a meeting of translators took place in early July 2017, as part of the bilingual German to Arabic ViceVersa Workshop program sponsored by the German Translators' Fund and Litrix. de, and the Goethe-Institut Translation Grant Program. Six loquacious translators - Ibrahim Abu Hashash (Palestine), Amira Amin (Egypt), Nevine Fayek (Germany/Egypt), Latifa El-Haddad (Germany/Morocco), Jessica Siepelmeyer (Germany), Kauthar Tabai (Germany/Tunisia) - met in Munich to discuss their current projects. The two workshop leaders Leila Chammaa (Germany) and Hebatallah Fathy (Germany/Egypt) added questions and comments that fueled the controversial debates.

The eight translators resided in the city's Literaturhaus for four days under ideal conditions. Cared for in every way and freed from the bothersome, time-consuming demands of everyday life, the language workers devoted themselves as a group—which is a rare exception, given that translators normally lead a rather hermetic life— to questions that cause them major headaches.

"Basics in the Morning" kicked off each workshop day with a warm up for the participants. During this session, translators dealt with perennial issues such as, "language in context," "dealing with humor, puns & co." and questions of "fidelity vs. license". After the theoretical introduction, we got down to business: working concretely on texts, which turned out to be extremely diverse and colorful, as the translators brought excerpts to translate from a wide variety of genres (novel, short story, satire, essay, children's book) that offered a broad spectrum of challenges in terms of content and style.

The program was rounded out in the afternoon by people working in various areas of the literature business. Invited guests offered insights into their work: Larissa Bender discussed the joys and hardships of an Arabic translator, Chinese language translator Karin Betz talked about the platform Weltlesebühne. Stefan Weidner, translator and publicist, spoke about bringing Arabic literature to the German public, and the authors Nemat Khaled and Ulla Lenze asked each other all sorts of questions about working with their translators and their experiences being translated.

Driven by enthusiasm for language and eagerness to exchange ideas, and equipped with the courage to have others look into their manuscripts and being open to criticism, all of them talked their heads off and the sponsors were carried away with them: Anne-Bitt Gerecke (Litrix. de, Berlin), Amira Elmasry (Litrix. de, Cairo) and Katrin Lange (Literaturhaus Műnchen).

A few of the many questions participants had on their minds were clarified along with new ones that arose during the workshop. But, as expected, we are far from finished. That is why the joy and anticipation for the Arab-German ViceVersa Workshop II in May 2018 is all the greater.

Leila Chammaa

Berlin, January 2018

Translated by Zaia Alexander