‘Translation is Science and Art combined’

Interview with Muhammad Fatih Ghareeb:

Muhammad Fatih Ghareeb

Muhammad Fatih Ghareeb

Interviewed by Aras Ahmed Mhamad 

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

MF: There are various definitions. Most of them are known to students of translation and translators. Here, I would like to define it from a day-to-day life of translators. I would say: they understand you, you understand them. That is very simply put what translation is. I mean: it is via translation that you, who do not speak a particular language, can understand others and the other way around.

Translation is not converting a text or a file in a computer program; hence, translators are not conversion software. Translation is science and art combined. That is why machine translation is still primitive. Once I saw Bing has translated “اللهم لا تجعل الدنیا اکبر همنا و لا مبلغ علمنا” as “Oh God, don’t make yourself greater minimum amount we know no matter.” You see how meaningless and mistakenly it translated it.

In addition to that, I like polyglots Ioannis Ikonomou saying that, “Translation is about commuting between languages – and this is like magic to me: you stand alone facing a text which few people would understand without your acting as an intermediary. You start working with a document, you transform it, you breathe new life into it by giving it meaning in another language and tah dah! – you come up with a new text, a product of your knowledge, intelligence and sensitivity.”

Nowadays translation is one of the keys, sometimes the most important one, to the success of many businesses. Especially when going global. Imagine a giant successful company from Spain wants to sell a merchandize in Kurdistan. They are already successful in the field they work in. The product is suitable for Kurdish consumers. How will the profit be if they just send it over here and sell it in the Spanish language, comparing to how much they will make if they translated everything about the product to Kurdish language; including adverts, leaflets, and flyers. The difference is clear.

In addition to this, having some products or technological items only in a foreign language could be harmful and not just to profit. A friend of mine, who is a veterinarian, said to me: “There is a make of milk where the ingredients are not up to standards. The carton clearly lists ingredients; sadly people buy it because they do not understand what is written”. This is a very common issue.

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

MF:  It is both. Translation is a job because it involves working hard and it pays off. It is an art because when you give one text to two different translators, you will have two different translations, both could equally be valid. Each translator has his unique way of doing the job. The importance here is not to lose the meaning of the text. You must say what the author said. You are not responsible for what is said rather for what or how you translate. The touch of a translator on a translated text is the art part of it.

What is the bedrock? For this, translators and language experts have various points of view. Sofer, in The Translator’s Handbook thinks, “Speed is the most important thing in translation besides language proficiency.” It is generally agreed that knowledge of the languages is crucial. I have to agree that just speaking a language does not make you a translator. You have to gather knowledge. I would suggest two things as critical in translating: Knowledge of both the languages, and not over estimating your ability.

The first is clear what it means. The second one will keep you safe and professional if you consider it and will bring you trouble if you do not. There are many examples of this. In their book ‘Found in Translation’ Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche give examples of botched, sometimes financially-costly or death-causing translation stories. A rebranding campaign of HSBC bank’s catchphrase cost them 10 million USD. The catchphrase was supposed to say “Assume Nothing” but it was mis-translated in many countries saying “Do Nothing”. This was in 2009. My point is mastering the languages you translate from and to is vital.

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

MF:  Conveying meaning is the soul of translation. When it is lost there will be no point in having a translator. Companies and agencies hire you to communicate what they want the targeted people to know. If you failed doing that, you lose credibility as a translator and it may cost you the job.

As a translator myself, that can be burdensome at times. When you translate you have the source text. If you forget the audience, who do not have access to the source text, it will result in a poor translation that could possibly backfire. An example in recent days is when Iranian President Hassan Rohani was interviewed by CNN’s Christian Amanpuor. The Iranian news agency Fars had objections to the translation of Mr. Rohani’s answer to a question by Amanpour. She asked him whether he “accepts” what the Holocaust was, and he replied, according to the interview’s translator, “I have said before that I am not a historian. And that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust it is the historians that should reflect on it.”

Fars news agency had objection on the use of word “Holocaust”, which they said was not said by Mr. Rohani. CNN denied this. Wall Street opinionators, later on, jumped in to back the objections of Fars. They said Mr. Rohani said “historical event” not “Holocaust. Here, I do not speak politics. Whether there was intention of alteration or not – that does not concern me. I want you see how just one word could make problems or even tension in countries’ relationships. You can find many cases like this throughout history.

If translators were to look for something in a text, they should look for the meaning. Good handling of the meaning makes you a good translator, if not among the best.

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

MF: Most of the times it depends. Although literal translation sometimes is viewed as “not good” there will be times you need to consider it. As I pointed out in the previous question, meaning is what translators should aim for. Sense of what is being said matters a lot. You must know what the meaning of the word or phrase used is. I do not mean the dictionary meaning, I mean what is the used word or expression in the target language for the word or the expression in the source language.

English people may express an idea using words that, if you translate them as they are, you are going to end up with a very poor translation and sometimes a funny one. You need to know what the equivalent for used expressions and words are in the Kurdish language to have a clear translation for Kurdish readers. Take Piramerd’s Kamanchazhan as an example. He translated it to Kurdish from Turkish. If you read it once you want to read it again. Piramerd never lost the funny and joyful sense of the text in the translation.

If it were not for the people and names of places you might think it is a Kurdish writing. He really understood the sense in the Turkish text. On the other hand, you have the translation of The Simpsons movie. One of the characters, Ralph Wiggum, says, “I like men, now” I saw it was translated “من لە پیاو ئەچم”(I am like men) instead of “حەزم لە پیاوە”. I do not know why the translator translated it like that. He has the movie at his disposal, or at least that is what I think should be the case, so how did he make such a mistake! The scene tells you even without the character saying a word.

When it comes to translating Qur’an Al-Kareem, or any scriptures for that matter, we have to be very careful. The Qur’an is not like any other text on the earth. At least that is the view of those who accept it as a holy book from God. It contains instructions for people’s lives, both here and hereafter. Translating it requires, besides a huge knowledge of the languages, a lot of knowledge of the religion’s doctrine and its history. And still one is cautious about translating it. That is why it is recommended to read it in the original language, which is Arabic. The Arabic language is so rich sometimes you need a sentence or maybe even more to translate a word or a phrase. Its words generally have several meanings. Take the first ayah that was revealed, from surah Al-Alaq. In Arabic it reads:

اقْرَ‌أْ بِاسْمِ رَ‌بِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ ﴿١﴾ خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ ﴿٢﴾

The very first word “اقْرَ‌أْ” in English means “Read”, “Recite”and also “Proclaim”. The Arabic word “رَ‌بِّ” as in “رَ‌بِّكَ”besides meaning “Lord”, also means “Sustainer”“Cherisher” and “Provider”. The word “خَلَقَ” could mean “to create from nothing” or “to create from pre-existing material”and “خَلَقَ” can also mean “to plan”, “to program” or “to make smooth”.

In the second ayah, the Arabic word “عَلَق” means “Congealed of blood”, “Something which clings”, “Aleechlike substance”, “Embryos”, or “Clots”. So if you want to translate these two ayahs into English language, you will say: Read, recite, proclaim in the name of you Lord, Sustainer, Cherisher and Provider(1) Who created, who planned, who programed man from something which clings, a leechlike substance, embryos, clots.(2).

This would be very difficult, because the Arabic words carry messages in very short words. The language is very rich. At my disposal I have a copy of translation of the meanings of Qur’an by Dr. Muhammad Mahmud Ghali. When translating, he was cautious. With words like the ones we mentioned, he made sure to have footnotes and gave the literal meaning of them. For instance; in translation of “بَعْضُكُمْ لِبَعْضٍ عَدُوٌّ” in surah 2 ayah 36, he wrote, “each of you is an enemy of the other.” And in the footnote he wrote: “Literally: some of you an enemy of some.”

You notice how much careful he was. Moreover; translators, in translating Qur’an Al-Kareem, face words that there is no English equivalence for them. For example you have theArabic word “عَدَلَ” which means “he did justice” and “ظَلَمَ”which you need to express it as “he did injustice”. So, you see how huge a job it is and a responsibility to translate Qur’an Al-Kareem. You need to be absolutely prepared and very knowledgeable.

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

MF: Here, I would like to speak as an English-Kurdish-English translator, because I do not know much about other languages. Kurdish speaking translators’ problems vary from one to another. Some problems are common for every translator, regardless of the language he works with. Some are more specific to some languages. It is something common that translating jokes and witticisms is amongst the hardest things to translate.

For me, as Kurdish translators, scientific texts are challenging. Kurdish libraries are in need of those texts, which is the reason I want to focus on translating scientific books and articles. The terminology of those texts is difficult to find in Kurdish. Sometimes you have to make or coin new words. I admire those writers who come-up with new words. The Kurdish language needs it.

AAM: The funniest joke in the English language may be a tasteless joke when translated, for example, into Kurdish. Can this also be true for idioms, songs, poems, and proverbs?

MF: It is how you translate that decides whether it is tasteless or not. Without doubt, jokes are difficult to translate, as I mentioned previously. It happens in the life of almost all translators, when you tell a joke, they do not laugh or if they do it is out of politeness, and you say “It is much funnier in my language.” There are two reasons why this problem arises: first, is a cultural reference; second, is wordplay.

Some experienced translators think “you need a bit of luck. ”Translating idioms and proverbs are also treacherous. If you could find equivalence in the target language that is ideal, and if you do not you have to very carefully give an explanation. This sometimes could result in blunders, especially for interpreters who do not have the luxury of time and resources. For poems, and songs also, you need to be very creative. CK Williams, the poet, says, “You don’t translate French poetry into English but into poetry” That means poetry need more than superficial translation of words and structures, it is very deep.

It really is a hard work, I believe. I have always admired the translation of the Khayyam’s quarters from Farsi to Kurdish: the one done by Shekh Salam. Nevertheless, we have Piramerd’s intralanguage translation of Mawlawy’s poems. Piramerd is behind the popularity of some of them to the Sorani-speaking people.

AAM: Civilization, the translator’s ideology, history of the source and target languages, and the psychology of the translator play a significant role in translation. How would you comment on that?

 MF: In the past it was thought that translators are just replacing words from one language to another. Their job was of no creativity and they have no choice but to follow authors. After deep analysis and questioning this has changed. There is an argument that says: behind every one of the translator’s selections of words to add or to leave out, words to choose and the way of placing them “there is a voluntary act that reveals his history and the socio-political milieu that surrounds him; in other words, his own culture and ideology” (Alvarez and Vidal, 1996).

Effects of translators’ ideology and culture or civilization can be seen on texts throughout the history. So many times it is not intentional that you want to leave that mark on the translated text. The work is your production so it will reflect you in one way or another. And it is not always a bad thing. As far as the meaning is not lost you are free to have your use of words and equivalences. If your background or psychology made your translation say something which is not in the original text, then you will have a big problem and you lose credibility and you have not been truthful.

AAM: Translation is always connected to language. How fundamental is language for translation?

 MF: Knowing the language you translate from is fundamental. I do not mean just speaking it. You need to be academically certified. You need to know about the culture and some things about the history of the language. If possible, you know the person, or the author, I mean if you are familiar with his or her way of writing and speaking that is even better and would be ideal. It helps you produce a better translation.

Generally, it is recommended that you should translate to your mother tongue because you know about it more than any other languages you speak. So, translation is there because we have language barriers. Without it communication would be very difficult and, at times, impossible.

AAM: Literary, scientific, political, philosophical books have different contents and styles. What do you think is the best approach in translating, for instance, a literary text?

 MF: Each type of text requires a special approach. Translators need to be specialized, or at least have some knowledge of the field. If you do not know about oil, for example, do not translate for oil companies. Read, and then do translation, this is true for all different fields. You need to know that Obama is from the Democratic Party, not the Republican, as very basic information to translate his speech.

To do a good translation of scientific texts, knowledge of the vocabulary of the field is very vital, especially in the Kurdish language. We do not have a big vocabulary for the scientific fields. We usually had used Arabic words in past and English in the recent years. Sometimes you see some people, just to sound smarter, using foreign words in their speaking or writing. When this comes to translation I think it is far more dangerous because, if it happens when a translated text is for the first time published, readers will pick up the new vocabularies in it and other writers, also.

If the translator does not make enough effort to translate the new words and just leaves them as they are, we will end up using more of foreign languages. In some fields like politics and philosophy, we already started doing this mistake.

Literary texts are full of life. It is a world created by the authors’ imagination. Figurative language is used a lot, if not all the time. You need to enjoy literary text to produce a good translation.

AAM: Taxi, ideology, pizza, philosophy: these words have been universalized and the world is getting smaller. What is your expectation for the future of translation?

MF: Borrowing words among languages has been there since the dawn of history. Like what you see in the English language. Many of its words are loan words from Latin, Greek, French and Arabic. Personally, I would like to use as many pure Kurdish words as possible, but we all know it is not possible all the time. I am somewhat in the middle when it comes to this discussion. For me it is fine to use borrowed words with our pronunciation, but that does not justify, to me, when people use awkward foreign words just to sound smarter. I do not say the Kurdish language is poor; it is just that we have not been working on it, plus the history of oppression we have been through.

Translation will always be needed, I believe. It will be there until the end of time. Just some words, or even hundreds or thousands of them, becoming universal does not mean the need for translation will fade away. Just look up the list of Arabic words in the English language – you may be surprised, but that did not make English people needless for translation of Arabic language and the other way around.


Report; European Day of Languages, September 26.2008.

Morry, S. (2008) The Translator’s Handbook, Schreiber Publishing

Nataly K., Jost Z. (2011) Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World, Penguin Group US

M.M Ghali, Phd. (2008) Towards Understanding The Ever-Glorious Qura’n, Dar An-Nashr Lijami’at

Román Álvarez, M. Carmen Africa Vidal (1996)Translation, Power, Subversion: Multilingual Matters

Muhammad Fatih Ghareeb graduated from Slemani University/Iraq, English Language Department and holds BA in English language and literature. He currently works as a translator/interpreter for an international NGO called STEP. ‌He is passionate about translation. He Thinks Kurds are in need of translated works especially scientific books. He has published translated articles on the web. He is also a blogger: http://muhammadfatihghareeb.blogspot.com/

Aras Ahmed Mhamad is a freelancer. 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. He is a columnist for the Kurdistan Tribune and a contributing writer for the ekurd.net and doznews.com. He is the Cultural Analyst at the Kurdish Review Newspaper, the only Kurdish-American newspaper in print. He is also the Editor in Chief of the Sorani section at the doznews.com

Copyright © 2013 Kurdistantribune.com

One Response to ‘Translation is Science and Art combined’
  1. Interveiw with a Kurdish Translator
    August 7, 2015 | 07:30

    […] This interview was first published on The Kurdistan Tribune  Nov […]

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