On Translation: Interview with Azad Berzinji

Interview by Aras Ahmed:

Azad Berzinji

Azad Berzinji

Azad Berzinji writes and translates in English, Farsi, Arabic and Kurdish. To date he has translated more than 35 books.

AA: How would you define translation? What’s the importance of translation in this commercial and technological world?

AB: Translation in its general meaning is the process of changing a text from a language to another language while taking into consideration the cultural and linguistic aspects of the source language and the target language, and also whether the text is a philosophical or scientific text, the concepts and significances must be transferred clearly as they are in the source  language, and the translator should be conscious of these terms, because each philosopher or thinker has his own terminology.

But in the case of literary text, like a novel or a poem, the translator should recreate that text in the target language and keep the author or poet’s style and mould aesthetic dimensions of the text, because translation isn’t a mechanical transformation.

Translation is a bridge which acquaints the cultures, and ties them with each other. This is where the importance of translation emerges in the modern world, and from the view that the true essence of any society and the identity of a nation exist in its culture, so translation acquaints those identities with each other in a world where boundaries are liable to fade due to globalization and technology.

It has a great role in establishing a common humanistic discourse which each nation takes a part in to build a common destiny for humanity.

AA: Is translation a job or an art? What is the bedrock for the act of translation?

AB: Like any other literary and cultural activity, translation requires some factors and preconditions. Translation isn’t only the ability to know two languages, but also the translator should own talent and skill and artistic taste. So, translation requires both cultural knowledge and aesthetic sense.

Translation is simultaneously a job and an art. It’s a job because the translator should know the principles related to the technique of translation, and practise them, and it’s art because, if the translator lacks the talent and the artistic spirit, he cannot produce a vivid work.

Hence, every good translator should own these preconditions:

  • Linguistic knowledge in both the source language and target language.
  • Knowing the principles of semantics, syntax and the use of idioms and proverbs.
  • The usage of terms.
  • To be familiar with cultures.
  • A sense of enjoyment.
  • Experience.

AA: Meaning is often lost in translation. How does that make you feel as a translator?

AB: Due to the cultural and linguistic differences, sometimes significance can’t be transferred to the target language as they are in the source language, especially in the case of poetic texts or texts that have been written in an intensive rhetorical language and also in some philosophical texts.

A part of this problem belongs to the structure of the original text and the language and culture of that text. Another part is related to the translator: his understanding, his education and his skill. We know that, most of the time, when three translators translate the same text, we get three different texts, but maybe one of them is a step closer to the original text.

But if we agree on the point that translation isn’t a mechanical transformation from a language to another, so we should admit that translation is a sort of reading of that text in another culture and another linguistic system, and it’s a kind of interpretation, and this is why each translation will be different, and this is an ordinary process, because the translator is not a postman, he is a creator in his field.

AA: Which one is preferable; sense-to-sense or literal translation? Do you think a holy book like the Quran can accept free translation?

AB: Literal translation is a mechanical and lifeless translation, because it cannot read what lies beyond the sentences, it neglects the context, so the core of the text is lost. Also in literary works it kills the beauty of a creative and aesthetic piece of work. Finally, we get corpses instead of lively texts.

Of course, sense-to-sense translation can convey the meanings and transmit the message of the text better than literary translation. But even in this kind of translation, the translator should take care of the rhythm, music, images and the style of the author in literary texts. In other words, he shouldn’t neglect the form for the sake of meaning. Generally, in the case of translating philosophical and scientific works, the priority is for the meaning, concepts, terms and ideas.

But in the case of literary works like novels, stories, plays, poetry and prose, the meanings and form are important. However, the translator should pay more attention to the aesthetic dimensions of the text.

Concerning the translation of the Quran, I would like to say that, because its language is rhetoric language, and depends on rhymed prose, and the verses have their rhythm, the text takes more than one interpretation, so it’s impossible to keep all its characteristics in the target language. But in any case, it should be translated into other languages, even though I don’t prefer free translation because it cannot preserve the rhetoric and aesthetic aspects of the Holy Quran.

AA: What are the most obvious problems that translators encounter during translating a text from source language into target language?

AB: There are problems, such as cultural differences.  For example, the owl in some cultures is an evil omen, while it may be a symbol of fortune in other cultures. Therefore, the translator should cautiously deal with these cultural characteristics and clarify the difficulties in the text.

Another problem is when a translator translates a text written in old language or dialect, because in this case it is not easy to keep the authors’ style and properties.  For example, when  a Kurdish  translator translates a play from Shakespeare, the  first problem he encounters  is  the  old  English  of the Elizabethan age which  differs even from modern  English, and  also the prosody that Shakespeare uses in his plays.

Another problem is the problem of terms, especially philosophical and scientific terms because, in Kurdish culture, there is no philosophical and scientific heritage and tradition, so we lack such terms and the translator is obliged to coin them in order to find equivalents.

Azad Berzinji was born in 1963 in Sulaimaniya. He has two degrees – a Diploma in Theatre and a BA in English Language and Literature. He writes and translates in English, Farsi, Arabic and Kurdish and has published more than 35 books in several fields, including philosophy, thought, fiction and critical researches. Most of them are translated from English, Farsi and Arabic. He also writes for several magazines. He is a member of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the Syndicate of Kurdistan Journalists and the Union of Kurdish Writers. 

Aras Ahmed Mhamad is a freelance writer and translator. He is the Founder and Deputy Editor of SMART magazine, an independent English magazine that focuses on ‘Literature, Language, Society’. He is the Top Student of College of Languages at the Department of English/ University of Human Development, 2012.

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