Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language

My interest has been very piqued by references on several lit blogs to Moroccan author/public intellectual AbdelFattah Kilito's new book  "Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language," on the vagaries and challenges of translating from Arabic. There's a good review at The National but the University of Syracuse's own press release seems to be unavailable and I couldn't find much other coverage online.

The book is a series of historical anecdotes and ruminations on the translation process and the politics that surround it. Kilito's observation that "the process of reading and writing [in Arabic today] is always attended with potential translation" is true not only of the Middle East but of all national literatures. Yet reviewer Kanishk Tharoor gently questions the "whiff of the parochial" in Kilito's view that one can only be loyal to a single language (a view he ascribes to the politicization of the French-Arabic divide in the Maghreb). 

My own view is that translation is always an imperfect process-you strive toward an ideal, the perfect translation, which can never be reached. And of course it's deeply inflected with the cultural, historical and political relations between the two languages and countries across which this imperfect transfer of meaning is taking place. But it's a nonetheless a worthwhile and often fascinating activity. A great translation of a great book is a gift to the world--a kind of gift I've been thankful for many times.