Egyptian linguist Hussein Mahmoud: ‘Translation is the best medium for dialogue between civilisations’

“Translation is like immigration but through literature," said Mahmoud.
Sunday 03/06/2018
Hussein Mahmoud Hamouda, professor of Italian literature and language at the College of Arts of Helwan University. (Al Arab)
Bridging the gaps. Hussein Mahmoud Hamouda, professor of Italian literature and language at the College of Arts of Helwan University. (Al Arab)

CAIRO - Hussein Mahmoud Hamouda is a professor of Italian literature and language at the College of Arts of Helwan University in Egypt and dean of the School of Linguistics and Translation at Badr University in Cairo.

He has published scholarly papers in Arabic and Italian about translation and literature, as well as translated works from Italian to Arabic and Arabic to Italian. He said he considers translation a major tool for cultural interaction and dialogue between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean.

Here he talks about his work and the effect of translation in an interview with The Arab Weekly.

The Arab Weekly (TAW): “Why did you decide to specialise in Italian language and literature?”

Hussein Mahmoud (HM): “The matter goes back 35 years ago. I was very fond of literature. Back then, choosing arts studies was the only way to study novels and drama. I chose the School of Linguistics for my university studies and they assigned me to the Italian department based on my high school grades and average.

“So we can say that I came to Italian by chance but I must say that after one week of studying Italian, I came to accept that bureaucratic decision and welcomed it as if it was my own.”

TAW: “How do you see the Arab-Islamic presence in Sicily today?”

HM: “That’s still a very intriguing question. For the Arabs, taking Sicily was the act of liberating the island but for the West it was an invasion and a colonisation. What is important, at least at the level of literature, is that the Arab presence in Sicily was very beneficial in all areas. A form of literature and poetry unknown to Europe was born there. It opened new horizons in science, art, architecture and technology.”

TAW: “How do you choose the works you translate?”

HM: “I translate what I like. I translate what I am commissioned to translate. I translate what I see useful from a scholarly point of view. I translate what I think is important to translate. I translate what other people see important to translate. I translate poetry because I love poetry and I translate for the sheer pleasure of language.”

TAW: “How does literature contribute to the civilisational dialogue between the shores of the Mediterranean?”

HM: “European orientalism was born at the beginning for religious purposes; Christian Europe wanted to study Islam and respond to it. Afterwards, orientalism was developed for colonisation purposes as everybody knows.

“Translation, however, is an excellent medium for dialogue. Through translation, one nation can form a better mental image of another nation. Translation is like immigration but through literature… It is physically impossible for Naguib Mahfouz to sit down with Lorca or Marquez or Tolstoy and agree on the universal human values they could treat in their works.

“Translation does that. It brings them together on the same library shelf and they do not fight each other or try to eliminate one another. I can claim that a single literary work from a foreign culture does a better job than the best official embassies and cultural missions.”

TAW: “You published a book with the title ‘Naguib Mahfouz’ in Italy. Do you think Mahfouz is still a hurdle for the spread abroad of works by the generations of writers who came after him?”

HM: “On the contrary, by winning the Nobel Prize in literature, Naguib Mahfouz opened the gates for Arabic literature to take its rightful place in the world. Before his Nobel Prize triumph [in 1988], only five literary works had been translated to Italian. After his win, however, hundreds of books by authors from different eras have been translated.”

TAW: “How would you rate the presence of Arabic literature in Italy?”

HM: “It is now much better and there are many reasons behind that. One of them is the West’s increased interest in Arabic literary production and intellectual output in general following the spread of the phenomenon of the so-called Islamic terrorism. The recent immigration waves from Arab countries and Arab writers garnering several distinguished international prizes are also part of it.”

TAW: “How is Italian orientalism different from other versions of European orientalism?”

HM: “Italian orientalists or Arabists had a different attitude from their European or American counterparts. Right from the beginning, they had a more conciliatory approach to the Arab world. Their colonial urges were much weaker than those of the Spaniards or the Portuguese for example, let alone those of the traditional major colonising powers like England and France. They were and still are more likely to side with Arab causes and to take an unbiased and objective approach in their critique and analysis of Arab thought.”

TAW: “Is it true that Dante [Alighieri]’s ‘Divine Comedy” was inspired by Abul’ala al-Ma’arri or that’s just chit-chat?

HM: “We have shown that [Giovanni] Boccaccio was influenced by “One Thousand and One Nights” and it’s possible to show that Dante too was influenced by Oriental sources.

“It’s not just Ma’arri’s ‘Risala’ but many other oriental sources were available in Latin in Dante’s time, like ‘Kitab Al-Miraj’ and other Sufi sources. There is no shame in one side borrowing from the other. On the contrary, the biggest shame is when each side refuses to borrow from the other.

“In Dante’s and Boccaccio’s times, the oriental sources were the basis for culture. It was inevitable they become influenced by those sources because they were both true artists. True writers and artists are those that can adapt to their times and there is no shame in absorbing some of the dominant cultures during those times.”