This paper examines Denys Johnson-Davies’s English rendition of Farahat’s Republic by Yusuf Idris (a famous Egyptian short story writer) in light of equivalence theories. The paper employs Eugene Nida’s “Principles of Correspondence” as a theoretical framework through which Davies’s rendition of Farahat’s Republic is approached. The paper also includes examples that illustrate how Denys Johnson-Davies’s translation of said text seems to have employed both “formal” and “dynamic” equivalences to preserve most of the source text’s features while it “transplanted” it into the target language context: British and British-educated readership. The paper concludes with a brief evaluation of Nida’s theory in terms of its adaptability to literary translation.
Born in Oklahoma City in 1914 and deceased in Madrid in 2011, Eugene Nida, is considered one of the most important Bible translators of the modern age. In addition to his role as a translator, he was also a linguist and a Baptist minister. He maintained that the Bible should be accessible to all people, irrespective of their decoding ability (“Principles of Correspondence” 143). In “Let the Words Be Written: The Lasting Influence of Eugene A. Nida,” Philip C. Stine praises Nida for making the Bible accessible to “millions of people speaking hundreds of languages” in an unprecedented manner (vii).
In “Principles of Correspondence,” Nida begins by asserting that given the fact that “no two languages are identical, either in the meanings given to corresponding symbols or in the ways in which symbols are arranged in phrases and sentences, it stands to reason that there can be no absolute correspondence between languages” (141). Subsequently, this renders the supposition of exact translation impossible. Hence, “the total impact of translation can be reasonably close to the original, but there can be no identity in detail” (ibid).
Nida lists three basic factors that contribute to the differences in translation: “(1) the nature of the message, (2) the purpose or purposes of the author, and by proxy, of the translator, and (3) the type of audience” (142). In addition, Nida sets the bar high for translators, for translators should not feel satisfied when their translations are “intelligible” to the receptors, but rather when their translations are meaningful to the receptors (143).
To this effect, Nida developed two basic approaches (orientations) that have significantly influenced the field of translation studies: formal equivalence (FE) and dynamic equivalence (DE). The difference between the two and the decision of which one to use are predicated on the purpose of the translation, which, in turn, is determined by the intent of the translator (143).
On one hand, FE focuses the attention on the message, where “the message in the receptor language should match as closely as possible the different elements in the source language. . . (gloss translation)” (144). As a result, a translation that employs the FE approach is inherently a source-oriented rendition that should strive to preserve and “reveal” much of the form and content of the source text (ST). This includes “grammatical units, consistency in word use, meanings in terms of the source context” (149). Translators should also bear in mind that “the reproduction of grammatical units may consist in: (a) translating nouns by nouns, verbs by verbs, etc., (b) keeping all phrases and sentences intact. . . and (c) preserving all formal indicators, e.g., marks of punctuation, paragraph breaks, and poetic indentation” (ibid).
On the other hand, DE is based on “the principle of equivalent effect.” In other words, “a translation of dynamic equivalence aims at complete naturalness of expression and tries to relate the receptor to modes of behavior relevant within the context of his own culture” (144). Subsequently, DE translation targets receptor response. Nida defines DE translation as “the closest natural equivalent to the source language message” (151). Further, he maintains that natural rendering “must fit” the receptor language and culture as a whole, the context of the particular message and the receptor language audience (ibid).
Nida deems that natural translation includes two “principal areas: grammar and lexicon” (ibid). Additionally, DE translation involves a number of FE adjustments in the areas of special literary forms, semantically exocentric expressions and intra-organismic meanings (154). Furthermore, Nida maintains that in any discussion about equivalents whether formal or dynamic, one must consider “three different types of relatedness as determined by the linguistic and cultural distance between the codes used to convey the message” (154). To Nida, these three different types are (1) closely related culture and language (e.g., translation from Frisian into English), (2) unrelated languages but paralleled cultures (e.g., translation from German into Hungarian) and (3) totally different culture and language (e.g., translation from English into Zulu) (ibid). Nonetheless, he states that “differences between cultures cause many more severe complications for the translator than do differences in language structure” (ibid). Agreeing, Nida quotes Tancock stating “when there is no happy compromise [between meaning and style (content and form)] meaning must have a priority over style” (148).
Farahat’s Republic is a short story, written by Yusuf Idris, set in an Egyptian metropolitan police station at night, sometime between 1945 and 1952. It was first published in Arabic (as Jumhuriyat Farahat) in 1956. Denys Johnson-Davies translated it into English in 1967(Encyclopedia.com). The story revolves around Sergeant Farahat relating a movie scenario to an unnamed arrestee (he did not know that his interlocutor was an arrestee at the time). Meanwhile, he is constantly interrupted by complainants and arrested citizens. His interactions with them accentuate salient social features of poor, everyday Egyptian people.
Born in 1927 in Al-Bayrum Village, Egypt, Yusuf Idris moved to Cairo in 1945 to join the College of Medicine at Fouad I University (Cairo University currently). In college, Idris joined the nationalist movement against the British. This caused him to be jailed multiple times on political charges. As a physician, Idris worked in impoverished areas where he became more entrenched with the poor and their lives. His literature portrays a wide range of their human experiences. Idris gained prominence as a journalist, novelist, playwright, and particularly as a short-story writer. Idris’s nationalist and socialist subscriptions put him on a collision course with the Egyptian regimes during the British occupation and during the early years of Nasser’s rule. When Nasser’s rule shifted toward socialism, Idris became a fervent supporter of Nasser and his regime.
Not only did Idris write about the poor Egyptian people, but he also wrote to them. They were his primary target audience. Subsequently, the language of his works issued as a creative mix of simple formal Arabic and Egyptian colloquialism. Essentially, he used the former in the descriptive accounts in his works, whereas he used the latter in the dialogues, which are rich in Egyptian folklore. Idris elaborated on his writing approach in three essays entitled “Toward the New Arabic Theatre” (Encyclopedia Britannica).
Born on 21 June 1922, in Vancouver, Canada, Denys Johnson-Davies, the son of lawyer-teacher father, spent his childhood in Canada, Cairo, Uganda and Sudan. At the age of 12, Denys traveled to England to be formally educated. Four years later, he joined St. Catharine College, Cambridge to read Arabic. In 1946, he traveled to Egypt to occupy a position at the British Council Cultural Centre, where he became friends with many prominent Arab writers. Over a seven-decade period, Denys translated works by Mahfouz (a Nobel Laureate), Idris, Teymour and Al-Hakim, to mention a few. According to Edward Said, “of all the major world literatures, Arabic remain[ed] relatively unknown and unread in the west… the position of Arabic literature in English translation was transformed…due to the contribution made, more than anyone else, by Denys Johnson-Davies” (The Guardian).
As mentioned above, Denys translated Farahat’s Republic in 1967, the year in which Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Palestine lost the Seven-Day War to Israel, which expanded its occupation of Arab land into the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, Golan Heights in Syria, and into the West Bank in Palestine. It was the time that Nasser’s Pan-Arab bubble (movement) was burst and the Egyptians were put to the test of reality. Denys’s target text (TT) aimed to continue to introduce the works of prominent Egyptian literary figures to the English-speaking world, particularly the British.
The two excerpts and their translations below are examples of how Denys’s rendition compares to the source text (ST). Although my comparative analysis between the English text and the Arabic text attempts to show how much, or whether at all, Denys applied the FE and/or DE approaches in his rendition, I make no assumption that Denys benefited from Nida’s theory or was even aware of it. One way to look at this process is to test the aptness of Nida’s theory and how it is naturally incorporated in translators’ minds as they proceed to translate a given text. Since the text of Farahat’s Republic includes descriptive narratives and dialogues, the first excerpt stands as an example of the former variety, whereas the second primarily stands for the latter.
ولكني حين هدأت قليلا واعتدت على المكان، وتأملت كيف وضع “الكاب” فوق رأسه في وقار مخيف وزرر معطفه الضابطي – على غير العادة – إلى آخر زرار فيه، وشد جلد وجهه في تزمت صارم فاختفى كل ما فيه من تجاعيد وأصبح أملس كجدل الطبلة المشدود، وأضفى على نظرات عينيه بريقا تحس معه أنه لا ينظر بهما إلى الناس بقد ينقر ويلسع وحمل صوته ما لا يطيق وهو يشخط ويهدر بكلمات غير مفهومة كأصوات الرصاص.
. . . but when I had calmed down a bit and got used to the place, I observed how he wore his cap at a most dignified yet fearsome angle, how his officer-type overcoat was buttoned right the way up—contrary to the usual practice—and how the skin of his face was drawn back so tautly, with such severity, that all wrinkles in it disappeared and it became as smooth as the stretched skin of a drum. There was an intenseness about his gaze that made one feel that he not so much looked at people as pecked and stung them; his voice, required to perform feats of which it was incapable, snarled and roared, staccato as bullet shots, with unintelligible words.
Although the excerpt above was lifted from a paragraph in the TT, it stood as a separate paragraph in the ST. Further, despite the fact that the TT attempts to mimic the ST’s punctuation, particularly in terms of using commas and dashes, to reproduce the ST’s cadence, it seems to impose a considerable stretch on the TT’s punctuation conventions. Additionally, although the TT seems to adhere, to an extent, to the form and content of the ST, it veers off it at times. For instance, the sentence “and how the skin of his face was drawn back so tautly…” is rendered in the passive voice in the TT, whereas it is set in the active voice in the ST (وشد جلد وجهه في تزمت صارم: and he tightened up the skin of his face. . .). Furthermore, the last sentence in the paragraph seems to represent Nida’s DE. Initially, although the sentence stands as a separate sentence in the TT, it stands as a conjunctive clause in the ST. Also, the translator seems to have taken some free hand to the sentence where he replaced “and added to the look of his eyes a spark: وأضفى على نظرات عينيه بريقا” with “intenseness about his gaze” and “imposed on his voice what it could not bear: وحمل صوته ما لا يطيق” with “his voice, required to perform feats of which it was incapable” and finally “unintelligible words like the sound of bullets: بكلمات غير مفهومة كأصوات الرصاص” with “staccato as bullet shots, with unintelligible words.”
وكانت “البت” امرأة واقفة ضمن الواقفين ترتدي ثوبا كان أسود ثم أحاله ساحر الحاجة إلى رمادي. وتتعصب بمنديل كالح لا يخفي إلا القليل من شعرها البني الأكرت القصير وقد تلوثت نهاياته وتنافرت. وكان وجهها غامقا أسمر. وفي عينيها كحل أفسدته الدموع…
وردت تقول في ذلة:
- أم سكينة والبت عيوشة وبنت أختها نبوية والود…
- مالهم؟ مالهم؟
- اتلموا على وضربوني في بطني.. آه يانا…
- وفي ومضة خاطفة كانت في حالة بكاء تام. وأضافت والدموع والشهقات تختلط في حلقها…
- وأم سكينة.. عضتني.. هنا.. في كتفي… وزغدتني في بطني… والبنت عيوشة قلعتني الحلق.
وقهقه الصول وخشخش صوته وقال:
شايف يا أستاذ شايف؟ مش قلتلك؟
كل وحياتك كدب …نصب واحتيال.. بقى بذمتك دي حيلتها البلى الأزرق؟ حلق أيه يابت اللي خدوه؟ حلق حوش؟
The ‘girl’ was one of those standing in front of him. She was wearing a black dress which the magician of poverty had changed to a drab grayish color; round her head she had wound a faded handkerchief which had but little of her short coffee-colored, kinky hair, the ends of which were twisted and ragged. Her face was a dark brown and the kohl on her eyes had been smeared by tears. ‘Umm Sakeena,’ she said meekly, ‘and the girl Ayyousha, her niece Nabawiyya and the boy—’
‘What of them? What of them?’
‘They attacked me and hit me in the stomach,’ and she began sobbing.
In a flash she was in full flood. Her voice choked with tears, she added, ‘And Umm Sakeena. . .. She bit me. . .here. . .in the shoulder. . . and gave me a poke in the stomach. The girl Ayyousha pinched my earrings.’
The Sergeant-Major’s voice was thick and guttural from the guffaws of laughter he gave vent to. ‘See what I mean, sir?’ he said. ‘D’you see? Didn’t I tell you? I swear to you it is all a pack of lies, and absolute fraud. I ask you, can you imagine her owning so much as a brass button? What earring are these, my girl, they’ve taken? The crown jewels?’
Aside from the first sentence in the descriptive paragraph that precedes the exchange between the Sergeant-Major and the girl, the rendition of the paragraph and the following dialogue, to a great extent, follows the FE approach. Not only is this represented in replicating most of the grammatical units, observing the consistency in word use and preserving meanings in terms of the source context but also in the sequence and the length of the sentences. This facilitated the conservation of many ST’s salient features. Nonetheless, the English translation still came out interlaced with a few DE renditions. For instance, “in a state of complete weeping: في حالة بكاء تام” was idiomatically (and artistically) replaced with “in full flood,” “the interjectional “O my…: آه يانا…” was declaratively rendered as “and she began sobbing,” and “does she even own blue dye: دي حيلتها البلى الأزرق” was rendered “can you imagine her owning so much as a brass button” and the play-on-word exclamation “draw a ring: حلق حوش؟” (usually uttered in the context of chasing a thief or making a public arrest) with “The crown jewels?”
Definitions of proper or successful translations are numerous and varied. In “Principles of Correspondence,” Nida quotes Prochazka’s definition of proper translation: “The translation should make the same resultant impression on the reader as the original does on the reader” (148). He further stipulates that the translation must meet four requirements: “(1) making sense, (2) conveying the spirit and manner of the original, (3) having a natural and easy form of expression and (4) producing similar response” (ibid).
Using the expectations above as benchmarks against which the success, or properness, of Denys’s rendition of the Arabic text is measured reveals a few findings. In terms of “making sense,” the translation is clear and does not include any ambiguity, let alone the slightest confusion. It does make sense. As for “conveying the spirit and manner of the original,” one must realize that the translator had a daunting task at hand. Idris’s work is immersed in Egyptian folklore: a deeply seated cultural layer that raises many hurdles for a translator to cross. Egyptian colloquialism is so symbolic and metaphorical. Nearly every word signifies a tale or evokes an allegory. There is a story behind every expression that only an Egyptian from this particular sociocultural stratum can unlock the full treasure of its meaning. Not only did Denys’s translation manifest his superb knowledge of this type of Egyptian socio-dialect, but it also displayed his artistic competence in overcoming untranslatability.
Evidently, Denys preferred to use FE, or so to speak, to preserve as much as possible of the ST’s features. Nonetheless, Denys went through many situations where reconciling the form with the content constituted “no happy compromise,” if it did not become altogether impossible (see examples above). This is where he seemed to have used the DE approach. He took license to alter “idioms, vernaculars, slangs, colloquialism, and onomatopoeic expressions in accordance with the culture of the target language” (Venuti 2000: 137-138 as quoted in Dohun 62). However, as an Egyptian who studied Idris during my undergraduate coursework and read all his works later on, I at times felt as if I were reading the original text. Subsequently, to me, this also satisfies the ever-unmeasurable expectation of “producing similar response.”
Regarding the expectation of “having a natural and easy form of expression,” I believe that the TT flowed untrammeled overall. At times, it may have come out overloaded with commas (see above) or included some British expressions. Nonetheless, I must admit that my assessment is not totally free from bias or self-reference. Having read the ST and being bilingually familiar with British English—the form of English taught in the Middle East—may have largely contributed to the facility with which I read and enjoyed Denys’s English rendition of Farahat’s Republic.
Despite the fact that Nida’s work focused on translating the Bible, “his ideas and approach have been applied to the translation of almost all genres” (Dohun 61). In fact, Nida’s definition of DE has been “widely accepted and cited by translation scholars and practitioners regardless of their religious faith or academic/practical interests” (ibid). Not only did DE shift the focus from the message to the receptor, but it also “moved away from the debates over literal translation versus free translation and guided us to the brave new world of receptor-oriented translation (64).
According to Dohun, “Nida’s (1969) model back-transforms Chomsky’s transformational generative grammar to present a three-phased model of translation” (66). These three phases are: analysis, transfer and restructuring. In a nutshell, Chomsky maintains that languages have deep structures (kernels) and surface structures (phraseology). Kernels contain the core meaning of the message, which in turn informs the phraseology according to a multiplicity of moods and modes (Khalil 1986). Nida’s DE employed Chomsky’s model in reverse. In other words, when employing the DE approach, translators should dive through the phraseology of the text and arrive at its core message, which they are expected to rephrase (restructure) in a manner that would have a similar effect on the TT’s reader like that the ST had on its reader—”receptor response.”
Given the fact that Nida’s theory was initially developed around translating the Bible—a literary text per se—Nida’s theory inherently proves adaptible to literary translation at large. To many translation scholars, “Nida’s theory moved translation studies into the realm of science by formulating a linguistic theory of translation for researchers and offering a practical manual of translation for translators” (Dohun72).
Conversely, Meschonnic (1986: 77 as quoted in Dohun 65) compares Nida’s approach to “automatic behaviorism that authorizes untrammeled manipulation, and protests that translation will turn into adaptation, with Dynamic Equivalence as its good conscience.” Further, to Dohun “the considerations during the transfer and restructuring phase are anecdotal, rather than systematic” (71). In his Contemporary Translation Theories, Gentzler attacks both the motive and the basis of Nida’s theory. He maintains that Nida’s religious beliefs (i.e., spreading the Baptist understanding of the Bible) tend to be instrumental in the formulation of his scientific approach (3, 59, 57). He also holds that “every “phantasm of sameness” between languages and every linguistic theory built on a presumption of universals must be judged unscientific” (146).
Despite its multiple contributions to the field of translation studies, Nida’s theory is, after all, a human endeavor. It is not flawless. This comes with the territory of its being a theory and not a universal fact. Nonetheless, basing the DE’s effectiveness on the response of the receptor remains, at least to me, one of its salient downfalls. Readers’ responses to texts are individualistic and based on a multitude of factors (e.g., the academic, cultural and economic background of the readers, their psychological inclination, political subscription, sexual orientation, etc.). Additionally, the unmeasurability of receptor response “blurs the distinction between translation and communication” (Nichos ii). However, Nida’s DE must be credited for providing translators with a license to be used, at their well-informed discretion, to garb and even tailor the ST’s message to fit the TT’s cultural and linguistic context.
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Gentzler, Edwin. Contemporary Translation Theories. London and New York, Routledge, 1993, p. 3-59.
Idris, Yusuf. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica inc., 28 July 2018, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Yusuf-Idris/. Accessed 29 Jan. 2019.
Idris, Yusuf. Gomhooryyat Farahat. Dar Es-Shorooq, Cairo, 1999.
Idris, Yusuf. “Farahat’s Republic.” The Essential Yusuf Idris, edited and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, The American University in Cairo Press, 2009, p. 224-267.
Johnson-Davies, Denys. The Guardian. 18 June 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/18/denys-johnson-davies-obituary/. Accessed 29 Jan. 2019.
Khalil, Helmy, Lectures on Chomsky. Alexandria University, Spring 1986. Unpublished.
Kim, Dohun. “Dynamic Equivalence: Nida’s Perspective and Beyond.” SKASE Journal of Translation and Interpretation, vol. 8, 2015, www.skase.sk/Volumes/JTI09/. Accessed16 Oct. 2018.
Nichols, Anthony. Translating the Bible: A Critical Analysis of E.A. NIDA’S Theory of Dynamic Equivalence and its Impact Upon Recent Bible Translations. Department of Biblical Studies of the University of Sheffield, 1996, p. i-83.
Nida, Eugene. “Principles of Correspondence.” The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, Routledge, 2012, p. 141-155.
Nida, Eugene and Taber, Charles. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden, 1982.
Stine, Philip C. Let the Words Be Written: The Lasting Influence of Eugene A. Nida. Society of
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