Communication as it exists now, as it is offered and normalized in media, is the level of only offering the meaning of the words. But never everything that comes with the meaning and that forms the context of the words and also determine which meaning would come out as being dominant.… Anybody who works in translation knows how easily one can betray the meaning of the sentence just because of the lack of intonation that one does not hear. The lack of context—and I’m not saying the context of meaning but rather the context of how one says it.
We’ve got to realize we’re not even reading Sebald’s book [The Rings of Saturn]. We’re reading a book by Michael Hulse, who’s the translator. It was [Sebald’s] strategy that he doesn’t write directly into English; he writes in German, and then it’s translated. And he could perfectly well translate it himself, but he chooses not to. So you’ve got another version which is already filtered, and it’s not that different—I don’t think—from the reports that The Midsummer Murders—a sort of generic TV series set in a perfect English Village. By the time it’s translated into French, where it’s popular, it takes on a sort of existential gloss. It becomes something else. It’s much moodier and weirder.
Ever since then I have been inordinately fascinated by the sheer mechanism of languages, as I automatically shift in my mind among three possibilities. While speaking English, I hear and often articulate the Arabic or French equivalent, and while speaking Arabic I reach out for French and English analogues, strapping them onto my words like luggage on an overhead rack, there but somehow inert and encumbering. Only now that I’m over sixty can I feel more comfortable, not translating but speaking or writing directly in those languages, almost but never quite with the fluency of a native. Only now can I overcome my alienation from Arabic caused by education and exile and take pleasure in it.
More interesting for me as author was the sense I had of trying always to translate experiences that I had not only in a remote environment but also in a different language. Everyone lives life in a given language; everyone’s experiences therefore are had, absorbed, and recalled in that language. The basic split in my life was the one between Arabic, my native language, and English, the language of my education and subsequent expression as a scholar and teacher, and so trying to produce a narrative of one in the language of the other—to say nothing of the numerous ways in which the languages were mixed up for me and crossed over from one realm to the other—has been a complicated task. Thus it has been difficult to explain in English the actual verbal distinctions (as well as the rich associations) that Arabic uses to differentiate between, for example, maternal and paternal uncles; but since such nuances played a definite role in my early life I had to try to render them here.