Palestine: A Nation of Translators

MahmoudMonday, 26 January 2015
by Mahmoud Al-Hirthani

One field in which Palestinian intellectuals and writers have invested heavily, particularly since the Nakba in 1948, is translation.
Interestingly, translating from Russian preceded translation from English due to the early exposure of Palestinian intellectuals to Russian literature, disseminated in Palestine via Russian schools and missionaries during the 19th century. Translation from English started to flourish in the 1920s. While translating from Russian focused on fiction, with translators such as Khalil Baidas as pioneers, translation from English focused more on political works during the British Mandate (1920-1948), influenced by the Pan-Arab awakening against British rule throughout the region.
Translation from English intensified after the Nakba. A brief look at the translated titles published in the post-Nakba period reveals that translation into Arabic, particularly from English, falls into three categories, all somehow connected to Palestinian national aspirations:

  • Works from regions around the world that had similar experiences to that of Palestine, for example New Colonialism: The Last Phase of Imperialism (1966) and Guerrilla Warfare (1967), written by two famous anti colonial figures: Kwame Nkrumah and Moa Tse Tong, respectively. They also include The Diary of Anne Frank (1963). Here, the analogy the translation invites its readers to invoke concerns how the victims became the victimizers, a phenomenon that Edward Said always highlighted when he discussed Israeli war crimes against Palestinians.
  • Works promoting Palestine as a cause. These include works such as In defense of Palestine and Algeria (1961) and Palestine: A Crime and Defense (1961), both by Joseph Arnold Toynbee, and Troning Shene’s Resistance will Triumph(1970).
  • Works that explore Zionism and Israel, giving insight into the extent of the Zionist project in Palestine. Alfred M. Lilienthal’s What Price Israel? (1954), Alan Taylor’s History of the Zionist Movement 1897-1947 (1966) and Fayiz Sayigh’s Zionist Colonialism in Palestine (1971) are among the many works translated into Arabic that fall under this category.

The pace of translation into Arabic accelerated noticeably after the 1967 war, with more attention paid by Palestinian as well as other Arab intellectuals to the nature of Israel as a colonizing power, and the need to understand the Zionist project in order to address its negative impact on the region. Works on the nature and structure of Israeli institutions were now prioritized for translation, including Yigal Alon’s Establishing the Israeli Army (1971) and Israel Shahak’s From the Zionist Archive (1975), both written by Israelis and translated from Hebrew. Other works written by Israelis but translated from English (rather than Hebrew) in recent years include the The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappen (2006) and The General’s Son: An Israeli Journey in Palestine by Miko Peled (2012), the latter translated by myself. These and similar titles selected for translation since the turn of the century demonstrate a growing awareness among Palestinians and those who stand in solidarity with them of the importance of translation in supporting Palestinian national aspirations.

Dr Mahmoud Al-Hirthani is lecturer in Translation and Intercultural Studies at Alaqsa University in Gaza.