The Sudanese Translators Principal, Al-Sir Khidir

The Sudanese Translators Principal, Al-Sir Khidir

Al-Sir Khidir and Sudanow reporter


-I was the first one in the Arab world to translate for James Joyce

-The best translation is the one that is motivated by affection

-The translation is a medium for communicating our innovation to the world


KHARTOUM (SUDANOW)—Al-Sir Khidir is a distinguished Sudanese translator who has engaged in translation since the late 1960s and is a founder of the Gezira League for Literature and Arts. His Arabic-English-Arabic translations have been published on newspapers and magazines both inside and out of the Sudan. The latest work that was published for him was "Modern Sudanese Poetry (Anthology and Appraisal)" in English Language. Khidir has also written a number of dictionaries and he translated numerous short stories and dramatic works.

Khidir's first translation was a poem of American poet Conrad Aiken in 1968 when he was a student in the University of Khartoum and then his translations followed in succession. Late Sudanese story-teller and writer Ali al-Muck surnamed Khidir as the Sheikh (Doyen) of the Sudanese translators, describing him as a creative translator. Late renowned novelist Al-Tayeb Salih indicated the tremendous effort Khidir exerts in translating literary works such as the short story, poetry and drama. Salih said those translations provided Khidir with access to the outside world, pointing out that it was the translation of his novels in English alone that has introduced Salih to readers abroad. The Nigerian 1986 Arts Nobel winner Wole Soyinka said during a conversation with him that it was only through the translations of Al-Sir Khidir that he was acquainted with the Sudanese poetry.

Khidir is presently a university teacher of translation. SUDANOW met him during a ceremony for launching his latest book titled: "Modern Sudanese Poetry (Anthology and Appraisal)" in English Language that was published by the Ministry of Culture. In the following conversation he spoke on his experience and on issues of translation in the Arab countries and other questions:-

Q-Let's start with your experience of translation, when and how it commenced?       

-The first translation I made was a poem of the American poet Conrad Aiken which I translated from English to Arabic in 1968 when I was a student in the University of Khartoum. I admired that poet. Then I shifted to translating the African poetry, particularly the poets from west and southwest Africa, including South Africa. I always used to translate for the top poet of each country.

I benefitted a great deal from the English-language Encounter Magazine which used to publish works of the top poet in each country. I remember I translated for two famous poets, one of them a Czechoslovak. Then I began to translate English poetry, including a number of poems for James Joyce, the renowned Irish poet for whom I believe I was the first one in the Arab world to translate. This poet used to write in English language with some Irish dialect words I managed to conjecture their meanings. 

After that, I translated for the French poet Baudelaire, and then I shifted to the Black American poets and translated for 17 of them from 17 states, besides numerous poets from different countries.

Those translations were published in Sudan and abroad while the BBC used to broadcast, in the 1970s and 1980s, some of my translations from the African poetry. 

Poet Conrad Aiken
James Joyce

Q-Which is more difficult to you, translation from English to Arabic or vice versa?

A-To me it is easier to translate from English to Arabic because Arabic is my mother's tongue and I believe that a person cannot fully master the rhetoric of a foreign language, however his command of this language is, and for this reason it is more difficult to translate from Arabic into English.


Q-How do you take the famous phrase: "Translator, traitor", especially in the field of poetry?

A-This phrase was pronounced by a character in one of the plays of William Shakespeare but he did not say it for himself as a poet. Imam Ghazali said the person who translates poetry destroys the essence of poetry because he believes that poetry is an abstract and spiritual work that expresses feelings and passions and allows no adequate space for the mind to move.    

In that phrase, Shakespeare implies that the translator, through his work, cannot deliver the message fully. Basically, the translation is a message for conveying the meaning and there are translators who are capable of delivering the intended meaning, while there are others who commit mistakes like the French translators. The translator is not a traitor as long as he does not spoil the essence of the poem and the French are overwhelmed by the emotion rather than the mind.

There is another phrase that is harsher and more brutal than the one which was pronounced by Shakespeare's character attributed to someone who said: "If the translator was a dog I would kill him," which means that the translator cannot translate precisely. This is an emotional rather than an intellectual onslaught.


Q-How do you select a text for translation?

A-A relationship of affection and love existed between me and the text I have translated, a relationship that surprises me while I am reading the text, sort of an interaction and the tendency for translation is dictated by this affection. Al-Tayeb Salih once said the best criticism comes as a result of love. The best translation, likewise, is motivated by love.


Q-It is noticed that some of the poets you have translated for were from the pioneer generation. Is there a poem in your selections for a poet from recent generations?

A-If you peruse the poems contained in the book, you can see that my selection was open, that is, I translated, for instance, for Mohamed Abdul Hay, Mohamed Al-Makky Ibrahim, Fidaily Jamma'a, Mohamed Mohi al-Dinn and others and I have translated the best of their poetry. The objective was to underscore the single homeland, the Sudan of all colors. I do not translate for a specific category or a limited affiliation. What shall I do towards all this beauty other than love and translate it? The Sudan is spacious enough to accommodate all the Sudanese people and I am committed to the human issues and to the emotion alike. I am not concerned with the affiliation of this or that one; it is not an issue of translation nor is it mine, I am a neutral translator governed only by the love to the text.


Mohamed Abdul Hay
Fidaily Jamma'a

Q-You have made translations of the classic Arab poetry, though others have preceded you in this field, do you think the classic Arabic poetry befits reading in a European language at the present time?

A-I have translated some poems for Arab poets like Abu Firas al-Hamdani and Al-Mutanaby in addition to parts of poems of other Arab poets. I think the important thing is the content of the poem. I am at present trying to select the most exquisite work by such Arab poets as Ibn Al-Romy, Al-Mutanaby, Al-Nabiqah, Al-Hamdani and others to translate, not the complete poems, but only the most beautiful parts.

I believe the classic Arab poetry can now be enjoyed in the European languages because it is the content that matters while the human being is the same anywhere, anytime. Life in Britain is the same in Lagos, Khartoum or the Gulf; all people can assemble around one and the same poem.


Q-You have previously translated the "Return to Sennar" collection of poems of late Mohamed Abdul Hay during his lifetime and he commended your translation. Why are you planning to translate it once again?

A-I made that translation when I was young but now my vision has widened and now I can understand what I could not grasp then. And I believe in the beautiful proverb that says: "An antiquated violin emits a captivating tune". In other words, my vision of this text has now reached maturity and I may come nearer to what the poet meant and, moreover, I have become more in command of the translation language and all this will undoubtedly be in the interest of the text.


Q-The poetry of Mohamed Abdul Hay is known to be full of obscure symbols and of a refined language. Is there a difficulty in dealing with his vocabulary?

A-There is no language difficulty. My translations for Mohamed Abdul Hay were not limited to "the Return to Sennar". I have translated for him another divan and I am now in the middle of translating a third one in addition to a number of poems not included in those books.

Al-Sir Khidir


Q-The absence of refined translations of the Arab poetry prevented the Arab poets from reaching international levels and from winning major awards, like Nobel, for instance, which was not won by any Arab poet in spite of the existence of a number of renowned names, why?

A-This is attributed to the fact that those innovations have not been translated into the language of the people who give this prize. We do not expect those people to learn Arabic, read our poets and accord us the prize. We have to translate those texts into their own language. If they do not find the Arab work translated in their language, they will turn to other non-Arabic texts which are translated in their language; they will turn to the French and Germans, not to the Arabs. It is better for us to translate our literature in other different languages. I believe the translation is a medium and is not the sole condition; there are also the amelioration and innovation. The language is the medium for communication of the product while the translation is only the intermediary conveyor. The prize is not awarded for the translation but for the quality and content of the text. For example, the Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to the great Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka who writes in English and if he wrote in his home Hausa language they could not recognize him and would not give the prize.       


Q-The translation, in the previous century played an important role in linking the Arab readers and intellectuals with the international literature. What role can the present generation of translators play?

A-The translation today is of a weak standard and I believe that there are numerous works for translation but the problem is that there are no distinguished and competent translators. The standard of both the English and Arabic in the Arab countries is also low, despite a tremendous epistemic explosion in the internet and in books of medicine, economics and culture. A true and qualified translator can transmit this human knowledge to all parts of the Arab countries. The translators can also transfer the cultures of different nations to their own countries, and vice versa, in a way that the translation plays its full role of conveying the Arab knowledge to the West as the world has become sort of a village.


Q- Do you think the shift to Arabic (Arabicization) as a teaching media in the schools and universities in a number of Arab countries was the reason for the decline in commanding the European languages?

A-This is one reason but not the main one for the decline of those languages in the Arab countries. Take, for example, the Arabicization of medicine in Syria, and regardless of whether it succeeded there or not, was it applied in other Arab countries? Some Arab universities teach medicine in English because the advanced medical accomplishments are available in that language, whether in the form of a book or in the internet. For this reason, the people seek to ameliorate their knowledge of English language. This applies to the Sudan where medicine is taught in English.


Q-Does this imply the failure of the Arabicization process?

A-The Arabicization policy is appropriate and successful, but the West is advanced in medicine and its branches and inventions and the Arab world still needs the West. Medicine was brought into Europe in the Greek and Latin languages. The first book of the great Arab physician Avicenna was found in the French Sorbonne University and the West translated it in their languages. Therefore we were the source of the European medicine which was returned to us, but in an advanced form.


Q-In view of accusations of the Muslims with extremism and terrorism, do the "Islam and globalization" book you have translated and other books that discuss the position of the religion at the present time offer a better understanding of Islam by other people?

A-This book was written by Ustaz Al-Tayeb Ali Abdul Rahman in which he demonstrated the moderate viewpoint of Islam. The author presents this Islamic viewpoint about what is nowadays going on, underlining that Islam is a religion of tolerance and moderateness and is against extremism and terrorism. He says: "We are moderate Muslims."


Q-Questions are frequently raised about the motives of orientalism and its relationship with politics. What is the role of the Arab translator in transmitting a true image of our societies and our ideas?

A-There are two sides for orientalism, one side is that of enlightened translators, which is beneficial, and the other side, an evil one, hides behind it motives which are harmful to Islam and are harbored by certain Western religious circles, particularly the Jews and their supporters and the Christians and their supporters. For this reason we have to be careful about this issue.  

The Arab translator must play a positive role for reflecting the true image of Islam and I think we have translators who are competent enough for transmitting the full and true image of this sound religion.

Likewise, there are numerous Westerners who are acquainted with Islam and are aware that the current phenomenon of terrorism and extremism is not part of Islam in any way. And this poses a question of why the American writer Michael Hart has placed Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) among the list of the world's most famous personalities. This implies that Heart, a Christian, considers Prophet Mohammad the greatest leader in history and that the Holy Koran that was revealed to Prophet Mohammad who, in turn, delivered it to the people, was of a tremendous effect and that the impact that was made by Prophet Mohammad on Islam was greater than the impact that was made by Jesus Christ (PBUH) on Christianity.

Hart also wrote that Prophet Mohammad dealt in trade, grazed sheep, fought wars, wounded in fighting, got ill and died like any human being and, still, he was a messenger and a prophet. This was a testimony by Hart to our Prophet.


Q-Could you please speak to us on your experience of translating short stories?

A-I have translated a collection of short stories for author Eissa al-Hilo who I believe was distinguished among the Arab intellectuals and story-writers, even among the African and the international writers as well. He possesses high narration techniques with a wide imagination and attractive flashback and those are the tools for writing the modern story. Hilo chooses his characters from real life and he weaves an excellent and captivating plot.

When I translated for him, I used to believe that the Sudanese story in his time and before him was more advanced than the African story which suffered a poor structure and so on. I believe that the Sudan is now ahead of the African and Arab story as well.


Q-How do you explain this?

A-Look at the novels of al-Tayeb Salih, Ali Al-Muck, Ibn Khaldoun, al-Tayeb Zarrouq and those who followed like Bushra al-Fadil, Ahmed Al-Fadul and others. Those represent a shift in the short story in its modern form in the Arab countries. Bushra Al-Fadil has recently won the British Kane Prize. Last year, a young man appeared to write a short story unparalleled even in the West but he has not been read properly. He resides in the United Arab Emirates; he is a poet named Mahfouz Bushra; I expect he will make a row and will upset the balance of the short story.


Q-Speaking about your present project of translating Arabic poetry and prose, what is the extent of the support offered to you and to other translators by the Arab ministries of culture and the concerned bodies of the Arab League Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ALESCO), for instance?

A-There is no support at all; it is a personal effort, we pay and write, thanks to God.


Q-Finally, the introduction you have written in your book "Modern Sudanese Poetry (Anthology and Appraisal)" contained a criticism of the Sudanese poetry. What is the relationship between the translator and the criticism of poetry?

A-I am actually engaged in all kinds of literature. I teach translation in Ahlia University of Wad Medani, I teach English Language and translation in the Faculty of Arts, English Language Section. I teach the students different programmes in the English Language, like the English poetry, including the romantic poetry, the African poetry and the literary taste. I also teach them the analytical criticism. And I wondered why we do not teach the Sudanese poetry in our universities. At this point I wrote the introduction to explain my viewpoint of why we do not teach the Sudanese literature in our universities in English and also in the universities of South Sudan. This at least may bridge the gap between the two parts of Sudan.

The translation is a dynamic vehicle for establishing firm bonds of culture between the North and the South through that vehicle.

The study that was contained in the divan of the Sudanese poetry, covering 20 Sudanese poets, reflects the importance of the Sudanese poetry from a critical analytic standpoint for delivering this to the others.





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