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A translator who found his fortune in Arabic literature

Carmona's first translation was Abu Nuwas' classic al-Khamariyaat [Al-Araby]

Date of publication: 9 March, 2015

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Literature: A Spanish translator talks to al-Araby al-Jadeed about his personal mission to educate Spanish readers about Arabic literature, past and present.

"We do not know that Arab writers have any imagination outside One Thousand and One Nights, and that they are able to tell their stories about everything," young Spanish translator Jaume Ferrer Carmona explains in an interview with al-Araby al-Jadeed.

It is fortunate that Carmona has patience and a good sense of humour, or his life could have turned out very differently. Carmona, born in 1972, has chosen a profession that he had passion for but never estimated its challenges. His profession is translating Arabic literature, which he picked up after studying Arabic at the University of Barcelona.

From Abu Nuwas to contemporary Arabic literature

Abu Nawas was a poet interested in personal freedoms. His voice needs to be heard again.
- Carmona

Today, his passion has forced him to work full-time, but without making a decent living, as it is the case for many translators. I met him on a rainy day, at the house of a Catalan friend. He was carrying copies of his books, and I knew then he was the one who translated al-Khamariyaat by Abu Nawas. This classic book was the first work he translated into Spanish in 2002 in collaboration with Anna Gil.

Recounting this experience he said: "We started to translate al-Khamariyaat while we were at the university. At first, it was part of our academic study, and then we got the opportunity to publish it through a publishing house that was looking to disseminate the treasures of classic world literature. I think the treasures of Arabic literature are still buried, and we need to remove the layers of dust from it in Europe."

He added: "Do not forget Abu Nawas was a poet interested in personal freedoms. His voice needs to be heard again."

After poetry, Carmona moved to translating novels, where he introduced to the Spanish and Catalan languages Arabic novels such as The Gate of the Sun and Yalo by Elias Khoury. He also translated the novel Voyeur by Ibrahim Nasrallah into Catalan, and My Master, My Darling by Hoda Barakat into Spanish.

Carmona describes the translation experience as: "reliving and interpreting, meaning that I would read the text, relive it, and then interpret it into my language. I try to understand the role of the characters, then I try to translate the text as if I'm acting the role."

Translators, according to Carmona, have a "great responsibility" as they are the "link between the mind of the author and the mind of the reader."

As for the Arabic books market in the Spanish publishing world, Carmona pointed out that "the big publishing houses are interested in selling, and this is normal, according to market law. The small publishing houses are also interested in selling, but they are more daring, adventurous and unique than the big ones, and they publish in Catalan, Spanish or both."

He added: "In any case, for the translator there is not much to choose from. There is a publishing movement and many publishing houses, but the problem is that there is no connection or coordination between them. This is like fishing in the ocean, you can't hug it. The interest of publishing houses in translation from Arabic is exceptional. Maybe everything that has to do with books is exceptional!"

The interest in Arabic in the book industry is a political interest, so you would be asked about the Arab Spring. 

As for the stereotypes of the Arabic novel in the Western mind, Carmona said it is still linked to One Thousand and One Nights. "There is a fictional theory in the literary world, which is that everything goes. But Western readers have not exceeded the One Thousand and One Nights stage yet. There is not widespread awareness about other possibilities."

As for the reasons for lack of interest in translating Arabic literature by European Publishing houses in general, he explained "the main reason is ignorance about the main format of the Arabic language. People in Spain, for example, think that Pakistanis are Arabs. The interest in Arabic in the book industry is a political interest in the first place, so you would be asked about the Arab Spring, and not about your business as a translator."

There has been some "exotic" work that has been translated only for this reason, he added pointing out that "Only I can say: Let's welcome all translations. There is a common saying that 'watching is free of charge', but this is not the case here. Clearly, we don't want to know a lot about the Arabic culture because we want the Arabs to be made out of one mould. There is a kind of cultural racism, and breaking it and crafting an alternative takes time. I hope that [through our work], we have taken enough time to do that."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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