The Rich Layers of Arabic: Megan Barstow interviews Mohamed Hassan

Mohamed El-Sawi Hassan is a Senior Lecturer in the Dept. of Asian Languages and Civilizations at Amherst College and Director of the Five College Arabic Language Initiative.  His field of research is Applied Linguistics and Translation Studies. He is a contributing editor of Metamorphoses, the Journal of the Five college Faculty Seminar on Literary Translation. His recent translations were published in The Common literary journal in Amherst, and in Wasla magazine in Egypt. He is the co-translator of African Folklore: An Encyclopedia into Arabic. His forthcoming book chapter is “Reshaping Social Practice in Post-Arab Spring in Egypt: Expression of Identity and Affiliation in New Media,” in Cultural Production and Social Movements After the Arab Spring: Nationalism, Politics and Transnational Identity, published by I. B. Tauris.

How did you come to do translations?

My field of study and research is applied linguistics. I studied both Arabic language and English language and it was sort of natural to me to get interested in how translation from one language to the other would work, how to analyze the structure and how to be faithful to the source and target language in a way that would apply to linguistics in general.

What are some of your recent translation projects or your favorite projects?

I’m thinking of a translation project that I was part of. It was an African folklore encyclopedia and it was a team of translators who translated this from English into Arabic for the Arabic reader. The encyclopedia was published in Egypt and it was an interesting journey to get to know about African folklore in the first place, and get to transfer this to the Arabic reader in reader-friendly Arabic language. The cultural parts were very rich and even the English original had a lot of transliterated words from the original African sources so it was particularly interesting to translate. 

Another work was a short story I translated for “The Common,” an open access online journal    based at Amherst College ( The interesting part about this translation from Arabic into English was that the Arabic had many rich layers of the colloquial and the standard and it was really a challenge to reflect this kind of discrepancy and functionality when translating this into English.

Given that Arabic has these two registers– the colloquial and the formal–how did you attempt to represent that in English?

Well, the functions between the colloquial and the standard in Arabic are different than those that exist in English. This is one of the areas that unfortunately gets somehow lost in the translation because the effect that this code switching has on the reader has to be transferred into the English somehow, and the language levels are not readily transferable. So it’s a challenge and there is a loss in translation in this area, I would assume. So the writer in this short story specifically made use of these colloquial phrases, colloquial allusions, references, et cetera, as opposed to using the standard Arabic, and I did my best. I’m hoping that the general meaning was communicated but there will still be some challenges. 

How do you decide to take on a translation project?

I usually am interested in translations that would be challenging or that would be interesting to the reader: either the Arabic reader or the English reader. There is also the practical consideration of time, whether I would have the time to finish that [project] or not. I also care about acknowledging the work of the translator: if the book would be published, if the translator’s work would be acknowledged as part of the process. So these are things I care for and I decide based on these reasons. 

In your translation projects, have you ever gotten the chance to actually work with the original author through your translation?

Yes. Generally I would have an idea about the author: if the author is around, I would be in touch with them and get a general sense of the work – but I wouldn’t go into showering them with questions or asking them what they mean. I do my homework in researching the translation and I probably send them the final draft to get their sense about how it generally looks. Generally, yes, that’s a privilege for the translator if the author is willing to be part of the process, but to a certain extent.

That makes sense. Looking more specifically at Arabic and the uniqueness of translating between Arabic and English, what words do you leave in the original language when you’re translating and how do you make those decisions?

I do not leave  words out  because there are certain techniques to handle words. So by leaving words out, do you mean  not translating something?

I guess. For instance, last semester I read “Men in the Sun” by Ghassan Khanafani. One character is called “Abu Khuzairan”. In Arabic, this has the meaning of “Father Khuzairan”, because “abu” means “father”. But in the English translation, the name is simply written as “Abu Khuzairan”. For an English reader who doesn’t have a sense of Arabic, they would just assume that “Abu” is the first name. But in knowing Arabic, it’s more than that. “Abu” is a title as well. I was wondering if you’ve come across situations with similar challenges and you transliterated a name but it lost some of its meaning as a result.

Yes, that happens almost all of the time with references and differentialities in general. There is the  “Stealth Gloss” technique to use to help the reader understand what this word would mean as part of the target language. Footnotes are the last resort because they interrupt the flow of reading for the reader. It’s not the preferred technique but sometimes you have to explain the specifics of a time period or what a proper name refers to in particular. Incorporating what you want to say in the text by explanations, that’s also a technique. But you don’t generally leave out something from the original text in the translation. There is more than one way to handle this type of difficulty. But yeah, definitely, some things if they have been transliterated as they are, they wouldn’t mean anything to the reader in the target language.

Leading on from that, what topics or words have you found to be most difficult to translate between English and Arabic?

Generally poetry would be the most challenging because it has more than one level of meaning. It has logical levels, syntactic, semantic and pragmatic, so it’s generally poetry. Also religious translations would be challenging. Not specific words, but generally culturally related words would be the hardest to transfer, because the concept itself might not be shared between the target language and the source language. So you’re not just transferring the word, you’re also trying to transfer the entire concept behind this word.

In translating from Arabic to English, to what extent can you domesticate the translation? Being that the culture is so foreign to many English readers, especially in America.

I do my best to domesticate the target language to the reader, because they wouldn’t be familiar with the source. That is my concept of translation.  I confer with bilingual editors and sometimes monolingual editors or readers or sometimes monolingual friends to just go over the text and see how it makes sense to them, or not. So I make an effort to make it domesticated to the reader, unless there is a compelling reason to glaringly foreignize some aspect of it, which could be the case in translating jokes or slogans. The punchline, the rhyme, etc, these are elements that sometimes you need to highlight as foreign, but domestication would be the end goal.

At least in my view, there’s not been the same volume of Arabic translations into English in recent times as with other languages, especially western European languages, that have a lot more flow across their languages. Do you think this impacts the number of translations done between Arabic and English? Are there any genres or authors/writers whose voices are not being heard beyond/outside of Arabic audiences?

I would say definitely, yes. I was just reading a statement that says that roughly 3% of books published in the United States every year are works of translation, and of that 3%, only 4.3% are translations from Arabic.  [Interviewer’s Note: This means that 0.13 % of all books published in the United States each year are translations from Arabic. Arabic ranks as the 5th most spoken language in the world, with 422 million speakers. Comparatively, French ranks 10th with only 229 million speakers. However, French is the most popular source language for translated English books published in the United States, by a wide margin. Arabic lands as 10th in that ranking.]


So it’s a very small percentage. 4.3 percent OF 3 percent. And that gives you an idea about how little this is. There is a huge cultural production in the Arab countries, among Arabic speakers (over 300 million people and 22 countries) and very little gets translated. There are reasons for that: some would be just that they might  not sell; another is  the vision of what to translate, and then there’s  the focus on some stereotypes that are related to the Middle East and the thought of not going beyond those stereotypes. So these might be reasons for the limited number of translations we see of works from Arabic into English.

So you’re speaking of the consumer market, as in would the works sell?

Yeah, that’s one reason. I’m not sure if it’s the market or the publishers or the readers who decide which Middle East they want to present through the translation and which voices they want to reflect or transfer.

An interesting phenomenon that I’ve seen is that a lot of the works that we ARE seeing in English translated from Arabic relate to war and crisis. It’s an interesting pattern, and I wonder: Is the vast majority of works produced in the Arab world on that topic, or is that just one genre that we see especially translated, whereas other, happier topics might be lost in translation?

That’s exactly the fact. What you’re saying is, yes, it does not represent the proportion or percentage of what’s being published in the Arabic language. What we see translated in English is kind of misrepresenting the actual proportion of, the landscape of, writings in Arabic. So, you get an inaccurate idea about the genre or even the topic of what’s being translated.

Thank you so much for your time. 

 Megan Barstow is a current student at Smith College in the class of 2020. She is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and a Concentration in Translation Studies, in which she is focused on translating between Arabic and English. She is based in Haverhill, MA.




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