Anatomy of a Translation: How Fes got its Name

My latest translation posed some challenges characteristic of Arabic --> English translation. Much of what I'll discuss reflects the differences that exist between the structure and function of the two languages. Today, I will focus on style and leave the deeper discussions of grammar and syntax to a later date.

Passive Voice

The passive voice is very common in Arabic and poses a few challenges. The first is grammatical. When we used the passive voice, in Arabic or in English, we remove the verb's subject. The second is stylistic. In Arabic, the passive voice exists in many forms and can often appear more than is stylistically acceptable in English. It can also appear in forms that don't directly correspond to English forms.

Take this passage for example from Paragraph 3. Verbs in the passive are marked with [brackets]. Verbs in the semi-passive are marked with {curly brackets}:

رجلا من اليهود لما {احتفر} أساس داره وجد فيه 'دمية' من رخام على صورة جارية {منقوش على} صدرها بالقلم المسند: "هذا موضع حمام عمر ألف سنة ثم [خُرب] [فأُقيم] موضعه بيعة للعبادة.

Here is a literal translated on the passage:

A Jewish man, when {he was excavating} the foundation of his home found a doll made of marble with an image {carved} on its chest with a pen. It read: "This is where a hammam stood for 1000 years, then [it was destroyed] and a shrine [was erected] in its place.

This example of the passive voice is pretty standard for English. Because we don't know who destroyed the hammam and constructed the shrine, we can't use the active voice, otherwise we'd be assigning the verbs subjects that the Source Text doesn't reveal to us.

In my translation, I didn't like the sound of two consecutive passive verbs, so I tweaked the last sentence a bit:
'In this site stood a hammam for 1000 years until it [was destroyed] and a shrine [built] in its place.'
Without a defined subject, "built" has the sense of the passive, but is less of a stylistic problem.

Here is a trickier passage from Paragraph 8:

{باقتباس} اسم هذه المدينة من "الفأس" الذي [عُثر] عليه  لما [شُرع] رسميا في حفر أساساتها...
Here is a literal translation:
The city's name {was borrowed} from 'Fa'as', the word for axe, because one [was stumbled upon by him] when the excavation of its foundations [were officially initiated].
It's obvious that this passage is much more complex than the first. The real problem is عُثر which doesn't translate very well into English. Literally, it means 'to come across' or 'to stumble upon', but is conjugated in the passive. I think this is because of the 'mythical' nature of the story.

The Arabic text doesn't want to reveal who or what made the axe available to be discovered by Imam Idriss, because its origins are unknown and should remain so to increase the sense of divine intervention in the tale.

And while it's acceptable to say "was stumbled upon by", it's awkward at best, especially along with the two other uses of the passive in the sentence.

I translated عُثر as 'appeared' because it avoids the passive, but also avoids assigning a contrived subject to the discovery of the axe. It retains the 'mythical' nature of the story, but also loses the sense of chance conveyed by 'stumbled upon'.

Sentence Stops

Traditionally, Arabic doesn't use punctuation. In its place, connecting words are used to separate and organize ideas. However, in English, this is unacceptable. It's the equivalent of always having run-on sentences where phrases are connected by "and" and "then".

Today, Modern Standard Arabic has adopted punctuation standards similar to what we use in English. You can see this in newspapers and in academic and semi-academic texts, like the History of Fes I used for my last translation.

Despite Modern Standard Arabic's adaptation to Western linguistic conventions, Arabic's sentence stops still don't directly correspond to what we use in English. We can see this in Paragraph 5's Arabic source text. The relevant Arabic connecting words are highlighted in [brackets]:
[و] تقول الرواية الثالثة إن قوما من الفرس الذين وفدوا على إدريس بن إدريس من بلاد العراق آنذاك حضروا معه تأسيس المدينة، [ف]سقط عليهم جرف [ف]أهلكهم [و] لم ينج منهم إلا القليل، [ف]سُميت مدينة "الفرس"، [و] خفف الناس الاسم [ف]قالوا مدينة "فارس"، [ثم] اختصروه باسقاط الراء [ف]قالوا مدينة "فاس".
Curiously, in the source, the Moroccan authors (or Editor) have chosen to use both Arabic and English/Western conventions for sentence stops and punctuation. This leads to a strange redundancy in discourse markers and an awkward literal translation of the source text:
The third story talks about a delegation of Persians who came to Idriss the Second from Iraq [and at the time] the were present with him at the city's founding, [then] a landslide struck them [and] destroyed them [and] few of them survived, [then] the city was named "Al-Faris", [and] the people lightened the name [and] said "Faris", [then] they shortened it be dropping the 'r' [then] saying "Fes".
Obviously, it's up to the translator to manage the competing necessities of producing a grammatically and stylistically appropriate English text, while preserving the coherence and continuity of ideas expressed by the Arabic's use of connecting words and traditional lack of punctuation.


In Anatomy of a Translation I discuss the decisions I made to produce my latest translation. As always, comments and discussion are welcome!