Literary Translation, Culture, and maybe Ethics

pigpenI have just started reading the Arabic translation of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, translated by Said Hassanieh, reviewed and edited by the Arabization and Programming Center (سعيد الحسنية and مركز التعريب والبرمجة), and published by Arab Scientific Publishers, Inc. (الدار العربية للعلوم ناشرون).

Before I get into the meat of the issue, let me first be clear: This is not about Islam or any nutjob conspiracy about creeping Sharia or Islamization. This is about translation of a very popular Western novel into Arabic.

I cruised along, enjoying myself – I’ve read the books in English and seen the movies that have come out – until I got to the first flashback scene where Katniss remembers meeting Peeta behind the bakery. Peeta’s family has a pig; this is part of the story because Peta is instructed to throw some bread to the pig – no spoilers, OK?

In the Arabic translation it says:

اعتقدت أنه كان يراقبني في أثناء سيري بمحاذاة حظيرتهم التي احتوت على الحيوان المقزز الذي يربّونه

[I thought he was watching me as I walked along the pen that contained the filthy animal they were raising]

The original:

He must have been watching me as I made my way behind the pen that held their pig

The word “pig” comes up a few more times in the same passage, and each time the translator uses the “filthy animal” euphemism. So, why is it a big deal? I am well aware that Islam considers pigs unclean and forbids eating them. But really, this is a symptom of a larger problem, what appears to be a decision that when translating things into Arabic, anything that might offend Muslims must be toned down. One other example that comes to mind is the Arabic dub of the movie Ratatouille. In that movie, wine becomes juice, even when the characters on screen are becoming obviously intoxicated by it. To see the food critic asking juice recommendations to go with his fresh serving of reality, ultimately to select a fresh, cold apple juice (a red liquid served in a wine glass, from a wine bottle) just boggles the mind.

Certainly observant Muslims would not have wine with their dinner or raise pigs behind a bakery. That is their choice, and their cultural norm. But to make the characters in books and movies who are clearly exhibiting non-Islamic behavior seem to be observant, or to think that one can avoid insult by using a euphemism… Well. I don’t think it is right. Part of why we read non-fiction books is to have adventures in our imaginations, to experience new things and see new points of view.

I don’t think it is right as a translator, regardless of my personal faith. If I were translating a book from Arabic into English, let’s say a sci-fi or speculative fiction novel set in an alternate universe or a future in which Islam is the predominant religion, and there is some off-hand reference to something that would be perfectly normal in Islam, but which might seem odd for a Western non-Muslim audience in the story. Let’s say a group traveling somewhere pauses to pray; though other than these kinds of things there is no overt reference to Islam. As a translator, I would leave it in. No reason not to. On the other hand, were I to westernize the story, I could change that pause to a rest break, or references to the prophet into references to a war hero from long ago or some other type of role model.

It would not be right. To me, the fact that the family is raising a ‘filthy animal’ demonstrates to the reader that they are not Muslims, and the word خنزير (pig) would not make that any worse. Just like the fact that the French characters in Ratatouille drinking wine is a simple, normal expression of French culture that did not budge the film from its “G” rating here in the U.S.

Having said all of that, part of the company name given credit for editing is “Arabization”. Maybe they feel this sort of thing is appropriate; but if so it should probably be “Islamization”, as I know many Arab Christians who enjoy both wine and pork products

Having said all of that, I would welcome level-headed, non-religious debate about whether it is appropriate for translators to change literary devices that could be offensive to their target audience.

** UPDATE

Said Hassanieh contacted me through Twitter; I’m thrilled to know he is looking! He said he consciously made the choice to avoid using ‘pig’; and that is good enough. I am simply happy to know that there was real consideration behind the issue. As long as the choice was made intentionally rather than a knee-jerk fear of upsetting the audience, I am alright with the choice they make. Obviously, I am not paying for or performing this translation. I still stand by what I said above; I think one of the biggest things that sci-fi/fantasy offers to all of mankind is the opportunity to place us outside our comfort zones in a safe place – within our own minds and imaginations – but it gives us a way to think about things and, possibly, expand our horizons.

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