Hisham Fahmy / “We need more Arab translators who are passionate about pop fiction”

Literary Translator Hisham Fahmy talks to us about translating the Game of Thrones series and the importance of pop fiction in the Arab world

Hisham Fahmy is a literary translator based in Cairo, Egypt. He has published a number of books translated from English into Arabic, including the Game of Thrones series.

By Maán Jalal

Culture 21 January 2019

If you’re absolutely obsessed with Game of Thrones then you were one of the 16 million people that watched the trailer for season eight released earlier last week. And what a trailer it was!

With the new season confirmed to be airing on April 14, most fans are re-watching the series from season one. But if you’re a die-hard fan you’re probably going to re-read the novels.

George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy novels have been captivating readers and breaking boundaries in the fantasy world since the first novel was released in 1991. The novels and the TV show have garnered a massive and universal audience – including a massive fan base in the Arab world.

Literary Translator Hisham Fahmy has translated A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords into Arabic. The translated versions have proven extremely popular probing an important question – is the Arab world hungry for more translated pop culture?

So far in his career Hisham Fahmy has made it his mission to introduce readers to classical and contemporary sci-fi and fantasy from the western world. His translated works include Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, Survivor and Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Arab Edition spoke to Hisham about how important it is to translate sci-fi and fantasy into Arabic and what a massive undertaking Game of Thrones really was for him.

George RR Martin holding his novels in Arabic as translated by Hisham Fahmy

What was the first book you translated from English to Arabic?
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. I fell in love immediately with Tolkien’s Middle-earth when I watched the first movie from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. After that I read the books and other works connected to them. Then I began reading everything I could find about Tolkien. Later on, there was a project to translate the book trilogy, in addition to The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, into Arabic, though only The Hobbit was published because of copyright issues. It was a joint effort between myself and a colleague. We were completely in sync and managed to learn a lot from the experience. It’s a rich world, full of wondrous creatures and artifacts and it really is a great exercise for your translation muscles.

What’s your method of translation? Do you tackle bit by bit or all in one go or does it all depend on the book?
It all depends on the book. Every book is its own beast. It also depends on the length of chapters or how hard some words or expressions are, let alone my own mood and energy.

When translating, do you take yourself out of the equation by reproducing the authors style in Arabic? Or does some of you seep in?
I do my best to reproduce the author’s style, but there are variables, which make it, always, an incomplete job. Some of me has to seep in. For what am I if not a collection of all the things I’ve learned from reading and research over the years? If it feels naturally applicable to the text and doesn’t feel forced, sometimes I’ll use an expression I like from this book or that movie or even from a song. Sometimes I’ll do a little tweaking for it to suit the text.

What’s the hardest thing about translating from English to Arabic?
Sometimes there are words that were never translated into Arabic. You can’t find a meaning or definition in a single dictionary, especially scientific terms or ones that date back to medieval times, so you either have to transliterate it and explain in a footnote or coin an Arabic equivalent. Also, depending on the culture, there are very national or local expressions that can’t be translated literally or they lose all meaning, and it gets worse when it’s a play on words, like “break a leg” or some words don’t mean exactly the same thing in Arabic, like “nostalgia” and “adaptation.”

Some of the books you’ve translated contain made up languages and words. How difficult is that to translate?
Not difficult at all. There are dictionaries for these made-up languages. I used a Quenya-English dictionaries when I translated Tolkien, and now I use dictionaries for Dothraki and Valyrian languages in A Song of Ice and Fire.

I’ve always loved fantasy and sci-fi, horror and adventure, espionage and crime. And there are many great works in these genres that deserve the attention of Arab translators,” Hisham Fahmy

How long does it take to translate a book, on average?
It depends on the book. I’d say 4-6 months for an average book. Unless it’s a huge book.

Was it intimidating when you first started to translate Game of Thrones given the large fan base for both the books and the TV show?
It wasn’t intimidating to me because I sought out to translate the series and pitched the notion to my publisher. I knew I was capable of facing the challenge, but I approached it with a certain sense of responsibility, out of respect for the amazing writing in George RR Martin’s book and for the Arabic audience who loved the TV adaptation. By the time I started the show it had already diverted largely from the books, but despite my respect for the huge TV fandom who would be the translated books’ number one readers, my intent from the very beginning was to focus on what’s best for the books.

You have a preference for translating English books in the sci-fi and fantasy genre into Arabic. Is this because of your own tastes or do you feel that there might be something lacking in the Arabic reading in terms of these genres?
It’s a taste thing, first and foremost. I’ve always loved fantasy and sci-fi, horror and adventure, espionage and crime. And there are many great works in these genres that deserve the attention of Arab translators. They are popular everywhere in the world, including the Arab world, but there is a lack of quantity, and sometimes quality, in such Arabic writings, and translation is the best way to fill the gap.

Are there enough translators in the Arab world translating English to Arabic and vice versa or do we need more?
We need more Arab translators who are passionate about pop fiction in order for us to keep up with what people are reading all around the world, and we need as many translators who would translate great Arabic works into different languages.

What advice do you have for aspiring translators?
Read a lot in your own language as much as in the one you’re translating from. Learn the common mistakes in your language and try to avoid them. Take special care of grammar punctuation and diacritics. Try different phrasings of the same translation and see what feels best to you. Most important of all, keep learning. The minute you believe you’re a great translator who doesn’t need to learn any more, you’ve failed.

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