What is your rating of Arabic literature

Günther Orth in an interview
"Arabic metaphors don't work in German"

Günther Orth; © Abderrahmane Ammar

Mediator between the worlds: Günther Orth translates Arabic literature into German. A conversation about the challenges of language and the subtleties of the sentence “I want”.

Mr. Orth, you interpret for politicians, scientists and artists from the Arab world. Also the German version of the novel “God's bloody heaven” by Fawwaz Haddad comes from you. You are currently working on the broadcast of “The Messiah of Darfur” by Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin. How does someone from Franconia find their way to the Arab world?

I have no Arab ancestry and no orientalists in my family. The first thing I saw from the Middle East was the Arab oil embargo against the West in 1974. I was a little boy at the time - what I got through the media was that the Arabs wanted to make life difficult for us. Later two things worked together: I hadn't seen much of the world; As a large family from Franconia, we only had a limited travel radius on vacation. Perhaps that is why I was attracted to the world with all its exotic cultures. On the other hand, language learning was easy for me, and I knew a student in Erlangen who regularly traveled to China on scholarships. I found that inspiring. So after graduating from high school, I looked at Sinology. The Faculty of Oriental Studies and Islamic Studies was on the same floor. Since Sinology seemed overrun to me, I decided to try Islamic Studies. The pace was quite brisk, and so after a week we were still 20 students, at the end of the semester five.

Even many Arabs find it difficult to learn Standard Arabic, especially grammar. How was the beginning for you?

Difficult. Everything is unfamiliar and difficult to compare with European languages. But if you torment yourself with the classic method right from the start and always learn the correct endings -un, -in, -an, you can build on it later. As you joke: the first five years are the hardest, then it goes.

An erosion of classical Arabic

They learned standard Arabic - but in the Arab countries the residents speak different dialects. Did that irritate you on your first trips?

Learning Arabic is about as time-consuming as four to five European languages. It is very confusing when simple things like "I want" are called depending on the dialect: ayiz, beddi, brid, dayir, ashti, bghiti, bhibb or-, abi. In high-level language it says uridu, but that seems pretty out of place in everyday life. A truly frustrating experience for someone who has laboriously learned classical Arabic and then travels to an Arab country and has to ask for directions. When I was studying, many Arabs could still speak and write correct standard Arabic. For about two decades it has been observed that this has become a rare specialist knowledge. Even writers make grammatical mistakes, which I notice because we were bullied with the subtleties of syntax and declensions at the beginning of our studies and at the language institute in Damascus. Apparently this no longer takes place in Arab schools. The result is a veritable erosion of classical Arabic.

You work as an interpreter, but also translate Arabic literature. What criteria do you use to make your selection?

If I choose myself, then it depends on whether I like the texts and whether they remain strong texts in the German translation. When I am commissioned with a translation, the first thing I do is convince myself that I consider it valuable. Texts should be presented to the public that testify to the vitality and creativity of Arabic literature. Literature should not only be translated for financial reasons. But it happens far too seldom that one is commissioned to translate Arabic literature. Most of the time I discover something interesting and would like to translate it, but can't find a publisher. We lack curiosity about the work of Arab writers.

When torment turns into pleasure

What difficulties do the translations of Arabic literature pose?

Essentially the same as translators of other languages: You have to get creative to translate literary artifacts as elegantly and accurately as possible without it sounding forced or strange in the target language. A lot of metaphors don't work in German, so I have to rephrase them. It's a process of almost endless decision making. It is only with practice that such torment becomes a pleasurable affair and one understands where one should stylistically dampen or sharpen, where one should smooth, stretch or restructure, in short: how to express "basically the same, but in different words", as Umberto Eco does called. What is difficult about Arabic literature is that it only alludes to many religious and everyday cultural aspects. In German they have to be elaborated so that everyone can understand them.
Günther Orth, Born in 1963 in Ansbach, studied Islamic studies, geography and sociology and did his doctorate on the subject of modern literature in Yemen. He lives in Berlin.


Abderrahmane Ammar asked the questions. He was born in Morocco in 1982, studied in Marrakech and Bamberg and is an Islamic scholar and freelance journalist.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet editorial office
December 2015

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