Translator finds in Arabic tool to transmit other cultures

Khaled al-Jubeili is known as one of the most prolific translators to Arabic, given the volume and extent of his work.
Sunday 30/09/2018
Translator Khaled al-Jubeili. (Khaled al-Jubeili’s Facebook page)
A passion for literature. Translator Khaled al-Jubeili. (Khaled al-Jubeili’s Facebook page)

Arabs were among the first to realise the importance of translation and made great contributions to knowledge thanks to their efforts in adapting works in one language to another.

During the Middle Ages, Arabs played a major role in transmitting ancient Greek philosophy and sciences to the Middle East, then to Europe where translations of Arab manuscripts helped kick-start the Renaissance. Such efforts practically died out during the centuries of decline but there has been a strong comeback of translation activities, particularly in literature.

Khaled al-Jubeili, considered one of the most prolific translators to Arabic, keeps this legacy alive. He began his translation career after graduation from the University of Aleppo in Syria with a bachelor’s degree in English. He obtained a degree from the London School of Linguistics and worked as a specialised translator with international bodies. His career as a translator at the Department of Arabic at the United Nations lasted for about 20 years.

Jubeili has not limited himself to specialised translation. He said he loves literature and loves translating it. Along with his career at the United Nations, he has translated more than 65 other works, including short stories, novels, studies and historical books.

“I worked as a specialised translator for a long time: 17 years at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and about 20 years at the United Nations in New York,” Jubeili said. “I often got bored translating technical texts so I would turn to translating literary texts because I enjoyed that tremendously and because literature is full of life in addition to being more challenging for translators.”

Among his translations into Arabic is “The Piano Teacher” by Nobel Literature Laureate Elfriede Jelinek but Jubeili said that he doesn’t really care about famous names in literature. What he is constantly pursuing are exceptionally brilliant works. He translated “Intimacy” and “The Body” by Hanif Kureish, who is British of Pakistani descent but largely unknown to Arab readers.

Jubeili also translated “The Prisoner’s Wife: A Memoir” by African-American poet and author Asha Bandele, “Rumi: The Fire of Love” by Iranian writer Nahal Tajadod and “The Bastard of Istanbul” and “The Forty Rules of Love” by Turkish novelist Elif Shafak. “There isn’t a single work I regretted translating,” Jubeili said.

There are works that became famous because of the translator’s skills or because of the choice of the target language.

“Here, of course, the translator’s capacity and skill in understanding the original text combined with his excellent command of both the original language and the target language — Arabic, in our case — are the essential factors behind a successful translation and its acceptance by the reader.”

Jubeili said there are no programmes or well-defined policies in the Arab world regarding translation and publishing. “I do not object to translating again some of the major classical works that had already been translated 20 or 30 years ago, on the condition that the new translation brings something new either in understanding or the language or the style and so on,” he said.

Jubeili has made special contributions on specific topics, such as Sufi poet Jalal ad-din Rumi, by translating several works about the poet or in which he plays a major part. “I loved Rumi’s words and poetry and I liked his call for love and open-mindedness,” Jubeili explained.

Jubeili says Arabic is a “beautiful language, with a rich vocabulary and flexible enough to easily transmit other cultures to us.”

That doesn’t mean that translating into Arabic is an easy task. Like all translators, Jubeili comes across phrases or terminologies that do not exist in Arabic. His inventive solutions to those difficulties enrich Arabic.

“All I care about is producing an easy flowing literary text that readers won’t find difficult to understand,” he said.