Author: tarjema

Arabic translator, sometimes geek

What Rocksmith has taught me about translation

Rocksmith (fully: Rocksmith 2014 Remastered) is a video game. Someone saw how popular the Guitar Hero video games were and decided to make a similar game that used a real guitar and make it into a tool to teach guitar.

For a very long time now, any time someone asked me what my hobbies were, I would say “translation.” That means I translate all day at my full-time in-house job, then come home and do freelance work, and occasionally – up until last summer – try my hand at translating a chapter from a book or a poem for fun. As you might imagine, it left a fairly one-track life. I read and watch movies, but other than spending as much time with my kids and my wife as I can manage, my life is all translation.

Then comes 2020. I look at the acoustic guitar hanging on my wall, and the electric guitar in the corner and remember the video game I tried out some ten years ago, but didn’t stick to. I also tried to learn guitar once before, back in about 1993 for about 3-4 months. I decided I’d take another try, more serious this time. This was partly inspired by my daughter asking for a ukulele for Christmas and us attaching lessons to it – and I took her to the lessons and she wanted me to stay in the room with her and the teacher. I remembered the times I tried guitar, and my years playing violin from elementary to high school and decided to try the guitar again.

I still stink, of course, I’m playing a game 4-5 times a week, mostly focused on the lessons and technique stuff to build fundamental skills. And that brings me to the point.

When I play Rocksmith, there are some exercises built into the “Learn a Song” section – scales, finger strength, speed, and so on. When you play these, the song keeps going whether you get it right or not. It gives you grade at the end, but no matter what you do, unless you give up and smack the escape key on the keyboard, the song and the prompts keep coming. (I tried to take a video of this, but the sound didn’t work, maybe I’ll update this article in a day or two if I manage it.)

As a translator, I have a terrible habit of getting stuck. I’ll cruise along in whatever I’m translating, but as soon as I hit a word or phrase that I don’t know, or that seems out of place, I’ll stop. I’ll research. I’ll send emails and text messages, then I’ll go down the Google rabbit hole – and eventually to YouTube or I’ll pick up a book, cook dinner, help a daughter with homework… and next thing I know it’s been an hour or a day or (to my shame) a week.

The thing I’m learning from Rocksmith – apart from how to play the guitar – is that I have to keep going. I’ve heard the advice, and I’ve even tried it several times, of highlighting the problem phrase/sentence and moving on, leaving the research for the first edit pass. Now I’m starting to implement that plan more often than distracting myself after a brief search.

That’ll do, then. Whether you like Nike (Just Do It.) or Dori (just keep swimming), the music goes on and you have to keep playing – it won’t wait for you to catch up.

Notes about the computerized ATA exam

I just wrapped up my first time as a proctor for the American Translators Association certification exam. Everything went pretty well, no one violated the rules  or caused any trouble; but as I watched everyone working so hard on their exams, I thought it might be good to share some suggestions about how to give yourself as much of a boost as possible.

Since the exam is now set up so you can work from your computer, let’s start there:

The Instructions

You will get instructions before the exam. Read them at home as soon as you get them. Make sure you understand the rules, code of conduct, and the technical requirements before you get to the testing site. Your proctors will go over the main points, but will not read the entire package before the test starts. Do not waste your money, time, and effort by violating a rule that invalidates your exam.


The physical device
You will be using a laptop. If you have been working as a translator (or studying translation) long enough to be ready to take the ATA exam, you probably already have some preferences in this regard. The most important point to take away here is that you will be working from this device for the full three hours of the exam.


There may not be a lot of power outlets in your room. I’m sure your proctors will bring a few power strips, but it would be wise to be prepared with one of your own. Also be sure that your battery is fully charged. Most computers made in the last five years or so will have a battery life of greater than three hours, but why take the chance? Charge up, bring your power supply, and bring an extension cord.

Screen Size

I think most people select laptop computers based on what they are willing to pack around. It is not always easy to make the compromise between a large enough screen to use as your single, full-time computer, and a small enough system to carry around with you. I won’t make any recommendations here, except to say that if you have two laptops, e.g. a larger home laptop and a small one you usually travel with, bring the bigger one! The last thing you want to have slowing you down is eye strain.

Keyboard and Mouse

Most of the folks at this exam used the trackpad and keyboard built in to their laptop. Some people brought external mice, and one person brought an external, ergonomic keyboard. You are allowed to do this as long as it is a silent keyboard. At home, I use a loud, clicky-clacky mechanical keyboard because I find that noise comforting and a nice indicator that I am actually getting something done. In an exam room, however, I think you would make a lot of enemies if you make a lot of noise. So, external keyboards are OK as long as they have silent, laptop-style keys.

Operating systems: Windows

I am a Windows user (with some background in Linux/FreeBSD, more on that in a moment). I am not trying to bash Windows, but it is notorious for updates. Since you will be connecting your computer to the internet to do research during the exam, it is possible that Windows will run an update in the background. This can make your computer misbehave in all kinds of mysterious ways. Here is my recommendation: manually run Windows update two or three days before the exam. You can do this by clicking the Windows button and typing “update,” then select “Check for Updates.” Run the check and then install anything that is pending, then reboot if needed. If you have time before the exam on that day, boot up the computer and run updates again. If you happen to be using Windows 10 Pro, you can pause the updates from Advanced Options on the Windows Update page.

Operating systems: General

No matter what OS you run, you need to understand how to use it. Here is a list of the computer-based tasks you will need to be able to do:

  • Connect to a WiFi network.
  • Insert a thumb drive.
  • Use a rich text editor (not a word processor) that is capable of creating double-spaced, 12-point (or larger) text.
  • Save this rich text file to the thumb drive as you work.
  • Create a PDF of that text file when you finish your translation.
  • Save the PDF to the thumb drive.
  • Delete the rich text files.
  • Safely remove the thumb drive.

PRACTICE THIS SERIES OF STEPS! Yes, I’m shouting. Start a week or more out from the exam. Grab a thumb drive and go through this process – boot up your computer, hook up to WiFi, insert a thumb drive, create a rich text file saving it ONLY to the thumb drive (NOT your computer!!), create a PDF and save it ONLY to the thumb drive, then eject the drive.

Your proctors are going to be selected because they have some computer skills; in our group we made sure that our three proctors included at least one familiar with Mac OS. Luckily, I have some background in Linux because one candidate brought a laptop running Linux for the test.

Text Editors

You are not allowed to use spelling or grammar checking as you work; if you did, it would put the people who still choose to take the exam by hand at a disadvantage. If you are using Windows, you will be required to use Microsoft WordPad which is part of every Windows OS since Windows 3.1. For the Mac OS candidates, they use TextEdit and must disable spell-check.

Linux is not addressed in the instructions; I’m going to go out on a limb here (and send this to the testing group) and recommend AbiWord on Linux. It is in pretty much every flavors’ software repository and not terribly difficult to build from source if you have experience in that sort of thing. Unlike most of the plain text editors (KWrite, Gedit), it has the ability to set your paragraph style to double-space, disable spelling (under tools->language), and create a PDF file directly from file->save as. I’m going to be setting up a spare laptop with Linux in the next few days, I’ll be double-checking AbiWord and I’ll create a step-by-step tutorial for the ATA. I’m sure you understand, though, that because of the massive number of different flavors of Linux, I (we) cannot provide installation instructions.

Web Browsers

You can use any web browser you like. Make sure you know how to use it. Do not copy and paste from your translation into the search bar, type in all of your searches manually. Copy and paste will make your proctors nervous; you aren’t allowed to save your translation anywhere other than the thumb drive.

You are allowed to use dictionaries, glossaries, references (like Wikipedia). ProZ is specifically listed as a forbidden site, and as a general category any web site you can submit a question and have another human being answer you is forbidden, as are, of course, all forms of chat tools and programs.

I cannot emphasize how strongly I recommend using an ad blocker during the exam. I understand that most of these online dictionaries get their revenue through advertising, and I usually let the ads run. For the exam, however, you cannot risk having an advertising script lock up your web browser (that happened to one poor soul today). There are plug-in ad blockers for pretty much any browser you chose. If you happen to like a browser that does not have an ad-blocking plug-in, consider switching. If you switch, do so enough in advance to create any bookmarks and get familiar with how the new browser works before you get to the exam.

Window Layout

At home, I use multiple monitors. I like to have my source document on one screen, my translation on another, and a research/browser in a third. That does not work when you are only on one screen. For a single screen, I prefer to “snap” my tools to each edge of the screen. You can manually resize the windows to do this if it isn’t built in to your operating system. The important thing is for you to be comfortable. I recommend doing something that lets you type in your translation while you can still see the content of your research browser or glossary file. Again, practice is key to having this be a natural part of your workflow.


No matter where you are taking the exam, I can promise your proctors have almost no control over the environment – chairs, tables, temperature, lighting; all outside our control. We do not select the chairs, the tables, and probably cannot alter the thermostat.


If you have back trouble or sciatica or anything of the sort, bring a cushion that will ease you for the three hours. Exams are often held on college campuses, and schools are not known for tending to student comfort – chairs that are great for a 50-minute class lecture can get very uncomfortable at the two-and-a-half hour mark.


Dress in layers. I personally like cold rooms, 68°F or 20°C is about right, particularly for keeping me alert and focused. Unfortunately, it seems most of the rest of the world likes rooms a few degrees warmer. Old buildings are hard to heat or cool, and air conditioning is sometimes disabled on weekends. Be ready for anything: dress in layers. A bottom layer that will be comfortable if the room is warm, a mid layer for “just right” and a sweater or jacket in case of a cold room.

Food and Drink

Three hours is a long time. You will likely get a little hungry and thirsty during that time. Feel free to bring a thermal mug with a hot beverage, or bottled water, or whatever you prefer; spill-proof containers, please. For food products, repackage them in something that won’t make noise when you access it and try to avoid crunchy foods that might distract people around you. No crinkly paper or crunchy chips or nuts, please.

Restroom Breaks

If you need to go to the restroom, you’ll have to deposit your cell phone with the proctors. You aren’t allowed to access the cell phone during the exam, either, but we have to be sure it isn’t in your pocket when you leave the room.


All of the people around you will be taking the certification exam, too, so they will almost certainly be behaving in a way that is respectful to your focus. However, they will be shuffling papers, writing by hand, typing, opening and closing suitcases full of books, searching through books, and typing. Proctors will be hovering around the room, looking over your shoulders. People will be going to the restroom, there may be events in rooms around you and people talking in the hall outside. I did not see anything in the rules forbidding you from bringing earplugs, if you are easily distracted. My recommendation would be to make some of your practice sessions at a local library. Sure, you could go to a coffee shop, but a library is likely to be closer to the environment you’ll experience for the exam – people will be trying to be quiet, at least.


I am nearsighted, and I wear glasses. Some people prefer contact lenses for vision correction. If that is you, bring your glasses. The last thing you want is for a mishap with a contact lens to cause a huge distraction or make it impossible for you to finish the exam.

If you wear reading glasses, even if only rarely, bring them. You might end up in that one spot in the room without quite enough light, and the glasses might make the difference between being able to read easily and needing to squint and concentrate for the full three hours.


Whether you are taking the handwritten or computerized exam, your source text will be on paper. I know, but again – if you have a computer failure, you could at least go on with the exam writing your translation by hand.

Copy Holder

There are many options: clips that hook up to your laptop screen, metal mesh stands that you use magnets to hold up your text, or plastic stands with a sliding ruler. You can create something of your own with a wire coat hanger if you must, but it will be a lot easier to work with the text held vertical next to your screen than with it lying flat on your desk. Do a little searching, you’ll find something you like, I’m sure. And again: practice with it.

A ruler might also be a good thing to have, to help keep your eyes trained on the line of text you are translating and to be sure you do not accidently skip a line. The copy holder I use has a straight edge that slides up and down the page, this works well.

Pens, pencils, and highlighters

At the very least, bring a pen for signing things. If you like to mark up your source text as you translate, bring the tools you usually use for that. I like to use mildliners (they aren’t as brilliantly bright as highlighters) and a mechanical pencil. Your proctors will have plenty of paper if you need some for notes or end up needing to handwrite the translation. All paper notes must be turned in with your exam at the end of the session, so do not use a personal journal or notebook.


Almost all the advice I have read about taking the ATA exam – including the fantastic prep video available on the ATA’s YouTube channel – focuses on the translation task. I wanted to share some of the things I observed while watching a group of candidates. Taking an exam, particularly one that could be as important to your career as the ATA exam, is stressful. The more obstacles you can remove from the path, the better you will be able to focus on the test. The exam is intended to mimic a short-deadline assignment in the real world, so the best way to approach it is the way you would approach a real translation assignment; use the things you normally use in the way you normally use them. If that’s impossible (e.g. a second monitor is out of the question), then adapt and practice as much as you can.


Arabic on the Kindle Voyage

I commute to work each day by bus, about an hour or so each way. Perfect reading time, and my Kindle Voyage is an excellent companion. As I look around at my fellow passengers, I see the majority of them messing about with games on their phones, a few read “real” books, and there are others who also seem to like the Kindle’s paperwhite screen. Two of the ladies that I see on a relatively regular basis read in languages other than English – I haven’t been rude enough to interrupt and ask, but from a distance, it looked like Japanese. Frankly, I’m a bit jealous. So I periodically go digging and try to read some Arabic on my Voyage.

20180311_132838croppedI’ve noted before that the Kindle Voyage appears to be getting close to a good display of Arabic; you have to side load the Arabic documents somehow – I usually use email to my Kindle address. I recently had a set of web articles (book reviews) that I wanted to read, but I prefer to read on the paperwhite screen. Someday I’ll have enough ‘free money’ laying around that I’ll be able to buy an Android tablet with an e-ink screen so I can just install all of the normal apps – including MS Office apps – directly on it and read files natively. Someday. Until then, I do a lot of “send to Kindle” either through email or from my web browser. In this instance, I copied several articles from the ‘net and put them into a single MS Word document and formatted it for printing. Then I thought I should just send it to my Kindle, running version 5.9.4 as of this writing, and see what happens.

20180311_132921At first glance, you probably thought the same thing I did: That looks pretty good! Let me pile on a couple of other “pretty good” things before I start on what makes it painful to really use. If you long-press a word, it highlights it and, if you are connected to wifi, looks for a Wikipedia article. You can also tap the “translation” tab and get an actual lookup (though the dictionary doesn’t work – that is dependent on an actual dictionary being installed, not supported for Arabic yet). You can see here that the translation (for the Arabic word سلطة), for some reason, shows up on top of the text that says “Translating your selection.” If you swipe back to Wiki or the dictionary and then back to translation, the ghost text disappears. They use Bing translator.

Then we get into the nitty-gritty, the stuff that starts to get to you after you’ve been reading for an hour – or sometimes has you puzzling over a word, getting out of your comfy reading chair and going back to the PC to figure it out.

Inked20180311_132838cropped_LIThe first one is the text alignment. Those of you who don’t read Arabic probably don’t care about this post anyway, but if you are reading, I’ll do my best to include you. Arabic is a right-to-left language. That means the text starts on the right hand side of the page and words progress to the left, with most letters connected sort of like cursive handwriting in English (but with some very interesting rules). If you look at this “big picture” carefully, you’ll notice that the text is nice and even down the left hand side of the page, and a bit random down the right hand side. Not that unusual for English documents, but for Arabic, it should be the other way around – or at least make it fully justified and square down both sides. This hints that the Kindle isn’t fully bi-di (bidirectional text) aware. However, when I went to a location with an English word integrated into the text, it was in the right place and did not break up the word order. So the problem likely lies with alignment rather than text direction or flow, and ought to be a relatively easy fix. Of course, I don’t know what the code behind the Kindle display looks like – and I’m not a developer – so it could be enormously complex and I’m an idiot. I’ll accept that.

Second, I’m not a fan of the font. I’ve gone into the display settings and tried all of the available fonts; the spacing between characters and lines changes when you change fonts, but the actual display font does not change. This font is a bit open and loopy and reminds me of Moroccan script. Not as embellished as something handwritten, but some similarities. Let’s take a closer look at some of my nit-picking.

2014The font is dynamic, like all fonts on the Kindle. Certain sizes seem to have some spacing issues. I usually have mine set at a 7, and I found this. The m م (indicating the Gregorian year) should not be under the 2, and the close parenthesis should not be over the 2 either. Both problems go away if I bump up to 8 or down to 6.

Before we go on to another image, let me pick on a couple of things in the التي as well. There is a left hook at the top of the lam that I’m not a big fan of, but the dots of the ya’ touching the bottom of the letter are even more annoying to me.

mawazAnother thing that I’ve noticed is that the diacritical marks – which aren’t often used – turn hideous when they are. Take a look at this tanween – two kasras (for the -in sound) on موازٍ here. It looks more like someone has crossed out the z.

speakIn this next example, you can take a look at how the final ت is connected to the ط.  There is a little loopy shape between the ط and the ت … oh, wait! I just checked the original Word document for this, and it turns out the phrase is فور أن تنطق, and that last letter is not a ت but a ق. Interesting; the ن goes below the line of script a little, why not a ق? That dip below the line is one of the distinguishing characteristics of that letter.

emqueueAnd I guess this answers my next question which was: what letter is connected to the T ت here? None, it is meant to be a ق, and the circle that is crowding it out from the right is an m م, but this is almost impossible to tell because there is essentially no space between the two letters. Before doing all of this digging, and looking back at the document on my PC, I thought the word was ترهت. According to the Word document, this phrase is أن ترمق العالم من علٍ This phrase also gives me the chance to talk about the ayn ع and ghayn غ – in most fonts (including the one you are likely using) a medial ayn/ghayn has a flattish top to distinguish it from the more round fa/qaf ف/ق shapes: ـعـغـ vs. ـفـقـ. In this font – the third word from the left is العالم and the ayn is round and solid and a bit smaller than the fa shape. In this case, I was able to tell what the letter was meant to be, I just don’t care for its design.

KACSTBookIf someone were to ask me, and no one has, I would recommend using an OpenSource font, something available under the GPL that is both traditional and easy to read. This provides for easy scaling and no problems with licensing. One very nice option might be KACSTBook, shown here (using the sampling tool at

DubaiI also like the free Dubai font. If the folks at Amazon chose the font they are using because someone likes that more modern and rounded aesthetic, I think the Dubai font does it better and remains extremely readable. Here is a sample, using the same text. Note how all the letters are clear, and the tanween is visible without covering the tail of the lam ل.

I’ve spent a lot of time picking on the font. I sincerely hope Amazon picks something else before Arabic support is “officially” announced, because I think the current font makes certain letter combinations almost impossible to puzzle out – if I hadn’t been able to go back to the Word document on my PC I would never have guessed ترمق for that word!

With a change of font and better alignment options, we’ll have a winner. It would be awesome to have a dictionary for purchase and an Arabic keyboard to do searches, but even without those things, it becomes a very welcome reading tool.

Amid the Literature of Syria, the Cradle of Civilization

Keep an eye out for the whole series! Looks like some great material is coming up.

Global Literature in Libraries Initiative

By Nuri Al-Khalaf

Syrian Literature Month Editor

It has been said that Arabs took soil with them while they travelled – to smell it and be reminded of their homelands. Today, Syrians are taking with them their dreams, hopes, pains, memories and literature wherever their feet take them after the disastrous events in their country. I’m delighted to be a part of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative and to have this opportunity to shed light upon the works of the greatest Syrian pens. A few of the poets and novelists featured in upcoming posts are the great poet Nizar Qabbani, who renewed Arabic poetry, plus authors with globally-known novels like Rafick Schami,  Khaled Khalifa, Ghada al-Samman and others.

It is worth mentioning that the word literature refers to the sciences and disciplines that raise the level of knowledge, awareness and the quality of life in society. Literature is a…

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Why go back to college?

I’m 46 years old. I can certainly say that I am mid-career. I hold the American Translators Association certification for Arabic into English translation. I have worked as a translator both in-house and freelance for over 15 years now. I have a few stable clients and a good full-time job. And I am working on my masters degree in translation from the University of Illinois, via their online program.

I have been surprised by how often people, including my fellow students, ask me why. Why, when I seem to have the career they aspire to, the certification they hope to earn someday, and the experience they are seeking through education, am I back in college?

It isn’t to make my wife happy, I can tell you that. And it isn’t so I can spend more time with my kids -though that may be a long-term result. It also is not because I love hearing this question over and over again.

So why, then?

An MA is no small undertaking. I had to apply to the university, I had to apply to the program, and now that I’m in it, I am spending 15-20 hours a week on it. When I already have a 40-hour a week job and about 15 hours a week tied up in my commute, that is a serious time commitment.

So why, then?

My father was not an academic, he was a machinist – he worked on airplane propellers for nearly all of his adult life after having spent his teens trying out lots of jobs (he was a miner, restaurant work, ranch hand, and more). My mother was a stay at home mom, a career choice I still respect very highly. He worked in a skilled labor field, and would have been every bit as proud had I chosen to be a welder, mechanic, or deep-sea fisherman. So it isn’t to please them or live up to some aspiration I think they may have had for me or my siblings.

My folks were an influencing factor: dad was the best at what he did. He was highly respected in his field and was the last pair of hands and eyes on those propellers before they were mounted on an airplane loaded with people or cargo; lives depended on his skill and attention to detail. Mom could have stayed at home and let her mind turn into a rutabaga. Instead, she read voraciously and was active in our church community, studying and improving herself for the things she believed in.

The pursuit of excellence never really ends. I learned Arabic in an academic environment, but I never learned to be a translator. Without a degree, I decided to get the ATA certification (accreditation at the time) as proof of my ability. I failed the exam, then sought advice from those who had passed. Based on that advice, I bought a couple of translation textbooks, studied them, and then passed the exam. And that fact takes me nearly all the way to my conclusion and the truest answer.

I love translation, I want to continue doing it as a career, and I would love to take the “freelance plunge,” working for myself full time. What I really want to do is get into translating literature and translate three or four books a year (there are lots of them out there, and not enough translators to go around). Translating literature is completely different from the work I have done for years, yet close enough that without training, practice and criticism it would be easy to work on literature the same way I work on everything else. That takes me to the short form of my answer:

If reading a few books was enough to help me pass the ATA certification exam, how much will I learn from college professors, texts, and exercises?

The only way to answer that question is to go to college, so here I am. Will I become a full-fledged academic and seek a PhD or a position at a university somewhere? I doubt it. But I will use the knowledge and experience I gain from this program to improve my skills and start giving serious effort to translating books.

Keep an eye on this space. I’ll talk about what I am working on, and when my author permits, I will share it as I go – not in its entirety, of course. I’ll want you to buy the books, after all. But enough to, hopefully, spark some interest.


Tens and Dozens

I feel like this comes up a lot. In Arabic things are spoken of in tens: tens of people at a party, tens of cars in a parking lot, tens of houses in a neighborhood.

In English – at least in the US, but I think it applies elsewhere – this sounds awkward and wrong. We use “dozens” for the same kind of general estimate.

If my say-so isn’t enough, here is a logical explanation: The Arabic here is عشرات, the plural of ten. To use the plural in Arabic means there are between three and ten of the counted object; i.e. 30-100. In English, the plural is two or more, so dozens means 24 or more. Good equivalent for an estimate, right?

Ok? Good talk.

Farewell to Denys Johnson-Davies, a legend

Denys Johnson-Davies was the elder statesman and master craftsman of Arabic into English translation. At nearly 95 years old, no one can claim his passing came too soon or was tragic, but his contributions to the field will certainly be missed and the life he lived was worthy of honor.

I encourage you to read his biography, Memories in Translation, published in 2006. 

An Excerpt from Mansoura Ez Eldin’s ‘Emerald Mountain’

I am excited and honored to have this translation appear on ArabLit. Thanks to Mansoura for sharing her novel and M. Lynx Qualey for putting us in touch and sharing this chapter of Emerald Mountain!


In 2014, Egyptian novelist Mansoura Ez Eldin won the best-novel award at the Sharjah International Book Fair for her Emerald MountainIt has since been translated into French by the celebrated Stéphanie Dujols (2017), and Ez Eldin will appear later this month at a book event in Paris.

In the book, there is a search for a lost tale from the 1,001 Nights amidst the upheavals of Egypt, 2011. The narrator, Bustan, seeks to restore the story of Mount Qaf, or the titular the Emerald Mountain:

Road Dust

By Mansoura Ez Eldin, trans. Tim Gregory

I do not belong to myself… I was sworn to a mystery.

All I can do is go on and join with my fate

My name is Bustan.

Those who know me well, and very few do, call me “the Priestess of Black and White.” Others, well, they just think I’m peculiar. Someone writing about me might call me…

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