Thursday, 24 October 2013

Annotated Aswany

Two people (out of several hundred who disagreed) said yesterday that Aswany had a point in his critique of my work. I've been over it very carefully, like a real nerd, and have prepared an annotated breakdown. It's not of great interest to non-specialists but it does bring up some interesting points. To be brutally honest, my conclusion is that there was one minor error ('once again' instead of 'one last time') and one minor omission - 'every time'). The rest of it is bunk. It's here:

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Why translators should give Dr Alaa Al Aswany and Knopf Doubleday a wide berth

For the sake of fellow translators who might find themselves caught up in similar circumstances and because I do not think that abuses should go unnoticed, I would like to lay out the facts surrounding the project to produce an English version of The Automobile Club of Egypt, the latest novel by well-known Egyptian writer Alaa el-Aswany. Firstly, I should say that I am not of an argumentative or litigious nature and have never before had any dispute with any of the authors or publishers of the eight of so books I have translated over the last few years. On the contrary, my experience of life is that, if you have a strong case and are willing to press it, your opponent usually gives way. That's because, to paraphrase Descartes, a sense of justice is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, since no one ever desired more of it than they already have.

     So when Aswany unilaterally and whimsically withdrew from an agreement arranged between me and his publishers, I assumed he would offer his apologies, honor his obligations and make speedy and generous compensation for the time and effort I had expended on his behalf. The more so since Dr Aswany and I are hardly strangers. I have met him many times, interviewed him on two occasions for television and he and his wife have visited me for lunches and dinners at home in Cairo and at my country house in Fayoum on two or three occasions. We had worked together since 2009 on his political writings, specifically the weekly columns he wrote for Egyptian newspapers, the English version of which I prepared for international syndication. He was always pleased with my work and I had great respect for the brave position he took against police brutality in the last years of the Mubarak regime, against plans to install Mubarak's son Gamal as his successor and then against the military rulers who ruled Egypt up to June 2012. I remember meeting him in Tahrir Square in February 2011 as he shouted in outrage that police snipers were shooting at the crowd from somewhere near the Interior Ministry. After the revolution, I worked on a volume of his articles, The State of Egypt, which won good reviews and sold well in the English-speaking world. When the literary elite belittled Aswany's novels, I always stood up for him, arguing that Egypt and the Arab world in general needed good story-tellers who put plot and character ahead of literary ostentation and obsessive self-analysis. I said there was room for everyone, and that Aswany filled a gaping hole.

     I can no longer feel the same way about Dr Aswany, especially in his private capacity as an individual with social obligations towards those around him. The least I can say is that he is not an honorable man. But let others be the judge, as I explain the origins of our dispute:

    In August 2012, I was approached by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, with whom I have an amicable working relationship dating back some years, to see if I would be interested in handling the English version of Aswany's novel, The Automobile Club of Egypt, which he was then planning to finish by the end of November. I said I would be pleased to take it on.

    I communicated with Dr Aswany about the book on and off between September 2012 and February 2013, mainly to get a clearer idea of when it would be ready. This was against the background of AUC Press telling me that they intended to recommend me as the translator, with Dr Aswany's knowledge and approval.

    On February 15, I sent Dr Aswany an email, saying, “Do let me know how you are progressing with The Automobile Club. I'm looking forward to seeing a copy and starting work on it.” He replied, “I finished already the novel I will send the Arabic version next week to my agent Andrew Wylie. He asked me to have the text first and then he will send it to the publishers. I think you will have the text through Wylie very soon.”

    On February 20, AUC Press sent me the complete Arabic text of the novel and asked me to prepare a 15 to 20-page sample for submission to the New York-based publishers Knopf Doubleday, saying they would need to approve the sample before we went ahead with the project.

    On February 27, I submitted an 8,600-word sample to AUC Press.

    On March 14, AUC Press sent me an email, saying that Knopf has studied the sample and had agreed to go ahead with the translation. It then laid out the basics of what would become our contract – payment, deadlines etc.

    On March 27, George Andreou, an editor at Knopf, sent me an email, saying, “I am writing to introduce myself as Dr Alaa’s editor at Knopf and to say how pleased I am that you have accepted the commission to translate his new book. I look forward to working with you on the editing of the English version. In the meanwhile, if I can answer any questions, please don’t hesitate to be in touch.” I said he could help by expediting the contract process.

    On April 11, I reminded Mr Andreou of the contract and he replied, “It has been ordered. Sorry for the delay. We’ll be back in touch shortly as to when you might expect it.” The same day Jahua Kim of Knopf emailed me, saying, “There is a backlog in the contracts department at the moment, but we should have your contract ready in about a week. Please feel free to reach me if you have further questions.”

    On April 25, Dr Aswany sent me a message, saying he thanked me for my “efforts translating the Automobile Club” and asked if I had any questions. I replied that I was making good progress but I would prefer to ask my questions all at once at a later stage. His assistant replied, “Dr. Alaa is glad you are working on it currently … and he will be very willing to help anytime.”

    On May 1, William Shannon of Knopf finally sent me a contract (for text, ctrl-click here and here), with a covering note saying, “If the agreement looks in order please print out and sign three copies and return signed copies to Juhea Kim in George Andreou’s office.” I returned the copies as requested, both as signed and scanned JPEGs by email and as hard copy by mail.

    On May 11, I received an email from Dr Aswany's agent, Andrew Wylie, saying, “On further reflection . . . and in consultation with Dr Alaa and with Knopf, we are obliged to withdraw the request for you to translate the novel.” The message gave no substantial explanation. I replied that I had already signed a contract and done a large several months of work on the project. I said Dr Aswany was free to choose another translator but Knopf and/or Dr Aswany had an obligation to pay me for the work I had done and for the time I would have wasted.

    On May 12, Dr Aswany sent me an email, his only message ever on this matter, despite he long acquaintance and amicable relations. He said he wanted Mr X (his identity is irrelevant) to work on The Automobile Club. The explanation he offered for his decision was “I think you could understand that I feel comfortable to work with him.” He blamed AUC Press for what he called a misunderstanding and said he wasn't aware I was working on it (although we had in fact discussed it openly several times). At this stage Aswany had not seen the sample submitted to Knopf in February. But he now asked for a sample translation and, strangely, also proposed giving Mr X a role editing my translation. I sent him the 8,600-word sample that Knopf had approved.

    The next day, on May 13, Charles Buchan of the Wylie Agency sent me a message dictated by Andrew Wylie, saying, “Alaa Al Aswany has reviewed the opening pages of your translation of THE AUTOMOBILE CLUB, and he has found the translation unsatisfactory... The book will be translated by Mr X. I have notified AUC and Knopf accordingly.” Dr Aswany and his assistant had spent several hours overnight poring over the sample text, trying to identify aspects that they thought they might plausibly present as 'mistakes', apparently to justify retoractively their decision to withdraw from the contract. They were a little overenthusiastic and their efforts are risible. If anyone is interested in the details, the whole document is available here. The relevant Arabic text and the relevant part of the English version are available here and here.

     The document, which was circulated to several people, contains remarks that would be defamatory under British law. One of the most outrageous is Aswany's objection to the spelling Fatiha for the first chapter of the Quran. Fatiha is of course the standard transliteration favoured by most academics and publishers. He writes: Mr.Wright wrote 'Fatiha' instead of 'Fatha'. The 'Fatha' is the most famous Muslim prayer and the only explanation of this mistake is that Mr. Wright is not able to read this very famous word correctly in Arabic.” The document continues in similar vein. I particularly admired Aswany's ingenuity when he objected to 'I felt lonely' for the Arabic 'aHsastu bil-wiHsha'. He would prefer 'I felt solitude'. He insists on placing chalets rather than beach houses on the Mediterranean coast. No big deal, but it might give readers the impression they are in the Swiss Alps. The list goes on. But the bigger picture is that Aswany and his assistant appear to think that a translation must match the original word by word, with nouns replacing nouns and so on. Or perhaps they don't really think that: maybe they just thought it would be a good wheeze to avoid their financial obligations under an inconvenient agreement. If Hell exists, I assume it has a special corner for those who bear false witness against their colleagues for the sake of financial gain.

    To continue the story: on May 21, Mr Andreou, in a rare moment of honesty from Knopf in the course of various exchanges, wrote to me saying, “As you know, I was content with your sample. It is simply not feasible, however, for us, as Dr Aswany’s publisher, to proceed with an arrangement that displeases him: author's (sic) have their prerogatives.” In other words, his justification for withdrawing from the agreement was based on the decision of the author, which itself appears to have been based on a whim. He offered me a small amount in compensation, and I said his offer was inadequate.

     After a series of exchanges over the proportion of the work completed, Knopf has ignored my proposal, now about one month old, that we choose an independent arbiter to make an assessment - an idea that strikes me as eminently reasonable.

     Knopf has argued that we never had an agreement because I do not have a contract signed by them (they never sent me a signed copy), and that therefore their offer is ex gratia. My legal advice is that this argument is baseless and that all the elements of an agreement exist. The contract makes no provision for unilateral withdrawal and the only quality provision refers to a final text to be submitted in September 2013, which will never be completed. On October 15, Knopf tried a new approach, alleging that it never even approved the sample translation submitted in February. This is what in plain English we call a lie and, as I noted above, Mr Andreou said the opposite on May 21.

     I did have one further exchange with Dr Aswany, when I informed him on May 22 that until our dispute was resolved I could no longer translate his political articles. His response illustrates his attitude to those he deals with. His only concern that my 'unprofessional' decision, which he didn't appear to expect, had disrupted the worldwide distribution of one short article. Under ordinary circumstances, he said, he would have withheld the money I was owed for previous articles – a total of about $600. “Despite all this, I will arrange to give you your money, because I believe I should behave well to the end,” he added.

     Thank you, Dr Aswany, you are very gracious, but you have not behaved well. In fact, your behavior has been despicable.

    Aswany can be contacted at
    The editor-in-chief at Knopf is  Sonny Mehta, contactable at
    I can be contacted at

Jonathan Wright
Oct 23, 2013

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Religion and Politics in Egypt

1.1 In the new Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are the targets of a broad and massively popular campaign of arrest, exclusion and vilification, it's fashionable to repeat the old mantra of the Egyptian security state that religion and politics either are or should be separate domains of human activity. Many of those who argue this case oppose the formation of political parties with overtly religious or sectarian agendas. The arguments in favour of this position include the following:

1.2.1 Religion and politics do not mix because religion is about a human being's relationship with God and with other human beings at the individual, personal level, and not about the way society at large or the formal state is structured and managed. God and/or the founders of Islam (or any other religion) never intended their ideas to be the blueprint for any political agenda.

1.2.2 Religion and politics do not mix because giving religion a place in politics empowers the traditional arbiters of religious orthodoxy, who are mostly a group of reactionary, misogynistic, intolerant and puritanical men out of touch with the 'modern' world and the needs and desires of ordinary people.

1.2.3 Religion and politics do not mix because giving religious hierarchies a political role could be undemocratic because they might intervene in political decisions or legislative deliberations on the basis of their understanding of God's will, in contravention of the popular will as expressed in elections or by other means.

1.2.4 Religion and politics do not mix because political parties that advocate policies based on religion (such as the imposition of some version of Islamic sharia, for example) are socially divisive. Such parties automatically exclude people of other faiths (in the Egyptian case, Christians, Jews, Baha'is, atheists and so on).

1.2.5 Religion and politics do not mix because those who use religious slogans, imagery and other references in their political campaigning have an unfair advantage over those who do not, because these references resonate powerfully with ignorant, ill-educated people (whose votes have the same weight as those of 'more rational' people)

2.1 At first sight, some of these arguments might appear persuasive. They have certainly been common currency in political discourse in Egypt and many other Muslim-majority countries for many decades. The arguments do however imply certain assumptions that advocates might not have thought out thoroughly or articulated in public. These probably include the following:

2.2.1 The assumption that God has no interest in public affairs, that God sees a qualitative difference between caring about those you know and caring about those members of the wider community that you do not know. The implication is that God wants you to be charitable to your neighbour, for example, but He doesn't think you should take a position on whether the state spends your tax money on health care or on palaces for the president. God wants you to settle your differences with your mother-in-law amicably but He doesn't care whether or not your state goes to war with a neighbouring state.

2.2.2. The assumption that the traditional religious hierarchy – monolithic and impervious to change - represents either, at best, an unrealistic ideal that no politician should even seek to attain or implement or, at worst, a misguided and distorted version of the true will of God, that religions make excessive demands on believers and for the sake of expediency it is best to ignore or overrule religious prescriptions that would complicate public life. The Muslim hierarchy condemns interest payments, for example, but the need to be part of a world economy that depends on interest overrides the ban that the hierarchy would like to impose.

2.2.3 The assumption that sectarian identities are rigid, with impermeable barriers, and that it is undesirable to debate differences of opinion on religious matters in public. Under this schema the religious hierarchy cannot be challenged directly: the dissident believer's only recourse is to opt out of the debate.

2.2.4 The assumption that political parties should meet a higher standard of inclusivity than religious groups, which may legitimately restrict their membership or their message to people favourable to a certain ideology.

2.2.5 The assumption that there is a qualitative difference between the political choices made by religious people and those made by non-religious people, and that emotional appeals to abstract non-religious principles or 'values' – such as nationalism, class interest, social justice, liberation from oppression, for example – are more acceptable than appeals to religious sensibility.

3.1 I'm an agnostic, so I cannot rule on the validity of, for example, assumption 2.2.1 (that God has no interest in public affairs) or assumption 2.2.2 (that the religious hierarchy is misguided). But when large numbers of people accept these assumptions it has important implications for the health and smooth functioning of society as a whole, in the following ways:

3.2.1 (in response to assumption 2.2.1) Quietism, the belief that God wants us to withdraw from public life and devote ourselves to prayer and meditation in seclusion, has a place in most religions, certainly Islam and Christianity. But it is the exception rather than the rule. When people in open societies debate public issues with a moral dimension – abortion, for example, or the death penalty, even taxation and national security – their religious beliefs are bound to be factors in the debate. If people choose to take their guidance on these matters from their religious leaders, they should be free to do so. Even if their religious beliefs, as formulated by those leaders, are the sole determinant in the political decisions they take – for example, to vote against easy abortion or stem cell research – they should not feel compelled to 'invent' other, non-religious justifications for their decisions. “The Pope says so” is a good enough reason. People often make political decisions on grounds that might seem trivial or thoughtless to others. In a free society where significant numbers of people hold religious beliefs there is no practical alternative to this approach. To argue that people must put their religious beliefs aside when they take political decisions is an absurdity. 

3.2.2 (in response to assumption 2.2.2) The possibility that religious hierarchies will make unrealistic demands on the political choices of believers is real and can lead to tensions in the public sphere. But in practice, even where religious leaders have been given formal roles, in the constitution for example, they have rarely dared to assert themselves politically beyond what the public and politicians will bear. Religious leaders who are also political actors tend to be acutely tuned to the level of public support they can muster. If levels of religious belief decline in society as a whole, religious leaders find it hard to resist making doctrinal concessions designed to keep waverers within their flock. In the end, it is believers who empower religious leaders, not religious leaders who unilaterally impose orthodoxy. If citizens disagree with religious leaders, they must have the courage to speak out, not seek devious ways to silence or marginalize the religious leaders.

3.2.3 (in response to argument 1.2.3) The argument that religious leaders should not be allowed to overrule the will of the people is a strong one, the best of all the reasons cited above. But this represents an extreme case of religious activism in the political sphere. It is in effect an argument against giving religious leaders a veto over political decisions, not an argument for denying them or their followers any voice in political debate.

3.2.4 (in response to assumption 2.2.3) Very few governments continue to impose sectarian identities on their citizens. The governments of majority-Muslim countries are unique in this regard, as far as I am aware. The practice whereby Muslim citizens remain Muslim for life and their children inherit their Muslimness is an outrageous violation of the rights of citizens and should be abolished as soon as possible. Those who advocate maintaining this system while simultaneously advocating the exclusion of religion from politics are hypocrites and/or cowards. Abolition of this system, a vestige of the Ottoman millet system, will automatically make the religious hierarchies more responsive to the beliefs of their followers, who would no longer be a captive audience. It would go some way towards creating a free market-place of ideas, where religions and other ideologies could compete for adherents on a level playing field.

3.2.5 (in response to assumption 2.2.4) There are no objectively valid grounds for discriminating between political parties with religious agendas and those with wholly secular agendas. So many gradations between the two are possible that any conceivable legislation that attempts to discriminate must open the field to subjective and whimsical interpretations of the law, which tend to bring the judicial system into disrepute. Egypt's attempts in this area over the last three years illustrate the impossibility of the task. Some Egyptian advocates of excluding religion from politics continue nonetheless to favour maintaining Islam as the country's state religion. This contradiction undermines their case from the start. For political purposes, religion is just another ideology. If religious rivals want to take their disputes into the political arena they should be free to do so, provided they refrain from violence or incitement to violence, as in any country where the rule of law prevails. In practice, political parties rarely choose to adopt exclusively sectarian agendas, for the reason that they want to win as many votes as possible.

3.2.6 (in response to assumption 2.2.5) Similarly, attempts to exclude religious references from political discourse are doomed to failure and will bring the judicial system into disrepute. To take the simplest example, the old National Democratic Party of Hosni Mubarak, although never actively Islamist, always arranged that its candidates had the crescent moon as their symbol on ballot papers. NDP organizers knew this gave them extra votes because of the positive Islamic associations of the crescent moon. Enforcing a ban on such religious references would require thorough monitoring of all campaign literature and all campaign speeches by all candidates – an unrealistic proposal. Besides, as we discussed in 3.2.1, religious belief is a legitimate factor in political decision-making.

4.1 In conclusion, the proposal to exclude religion from politics is misguided and impractical. Many of those who advocate this approach are likely to be people of vaguely deistic beliefs who want to use the political system and the security state to dilute the power of the religious hierarchies and reduce the electoral impact of the political forces that advocate obedience to those hierarchies. Even if one sympathizes with their long-term goals, one must find fault with their approach, which looks like a quick fix that seeks to achieve their objectives while conveniently avoiding open confrontation with the views they oppose.