Hatif Janabi: translation is a gesture of my gratitude to Poland

Hatif Janabi, winner of the 2023 Transatlantyk Award, talks about his mission to promote Polish literature and culture in the Arab world, what causes the greatest problems in translation into Arabic, as well as his translation plans and dreams.

First of all, congratulations. What does this laurel mean to you?

Awards are divided into important, less important, and not important at all. This award is different, has a different flavour, a different weight, and it is an annual state award. What's more, I was honoured by a jury of eminent Polish and foreign translators, critics, and academics - and unanimously so. Some say I should have received this award a long time ago, and I say: better late than never. Now it is high time for the Ministry of Culture and other state institutions to keep people like me in mind. I am not only a translator, but a promoter and spiritual ambassador of Polish literature and culture abroad. In addition to my work as a translator, I have written extensively on Polish literature and culture.

Polish literature deserves to be popularised abroad, and without the support of people like me, it will never be popular. Through culture, literature, and the patience to promote them, Poland will be more visible internationally. In order to make progress in this very important area, we need to move culture and literature away from everyday politics and a short-sighted, stereotypical understanding of the world. By promoting literature and culture, the economic and even political position of any country can be strengthened, while ignoring such a civilisation and geographical area as the Arab world is a sin and will be detrimental to Polish strategic interests. This is precisely the spirit in which I work, that is, with attention to Poland's position in the world through the popularisation of its culture and literature.   

How did it happen that you ended up in Poland and became a translator of our literature into Arabic?

I did not choose Poland, nor did Poland choose me. It so happened that I arrived in Poland through Zebrzydowice, around two o'clock in the morning of 23/24 August 1976. I received a master's and doctoral scholarship from the Polish State. Until the overthrow of the Iraqi regime in 2003, I could not return to Iraq. As a graduate in Arabic Studies at Baghdad University and a young poet and critic, I was directed to the Polish Studies Department, where the Theatre and Film Studies Department was located.

Translation cannot be alien to the poet and the writer. It was something I had a predisposition for. I've always enjoyed doing something interesting and different. The translation, in a way, is a gesture of my gratitude to Poland. Poland gave me, and a little later my family, shelter and spiritual help. There was a shortage of translators from Polish into Arabic, and this also sparked me into action. Furthermore, through translating Polish literature, I discover myself. Translation does not limit itself to the text; for me, the contacts and relationships with poets, writers, and scholars were and are important. I find great satisfaction in passing on their work to a foreign reader. Finally, I also wanted to fill the gap caused by the lack of reliable translations from Polish literature in Arabic.

What causes the biggest problems in translating into Arabic? Cultural background?

Cultural background plays an important role here. Although numerous translations into various languages and cultures foreign to Poles have been produced. In my case, the main problems are rather due to the different peculiarities of the two languages, Polish and Arabic. For example, Arabic does not have specific letters, such as p, ż, ź, cz, and rz. Consequently, they need to be expressed in approximate terms. There are also historical events and figures, place and person names, and folk and customary references that need to be explained in footnotes. Sometimes it is necessary to break up a Polish sentence when translating into Arabic.

One thing is certain: it is much easier to translate Polish literature into European languages than into languages from completely different cultures and continents. A translator using the Latin alphabet can allow themselves to retain, for example, names, terminology etc. in their native language. But linguistic and cultural challenges are quite something! Oh, how I love artistic and literary challenges!

Your oeuvre includes almost all the giants of 20th century Polish literature. Which one posed the most problems for you?

It depends on the era or period in which the author in question lived, and whether they used extensive metaphors or 'foreign seasoning' in their work. The texts are sometimes complex on different levels, whether stylistically, rhythmically, imaginatively, or metaphorically. These are more difficult, because you have to work on them longer than usual to ensure that the original makes sense in a foreign language. I guess Leśmian's poetry had this kind of dimension, it doesn't yield easily to the translator. Miron Białoszewski was not easy either, nor was Jozef Czechowicz or Tymoteusz Karpowicz. Of the prose writers, some of Wiesław Myśliwski's works, such as Traktat o łuskaniu fasoli (“Treatise On Shelling Beans”), proved problematic for me. 

In addition to your translation work, you have been tirelessly promoting Polish literature in the Arab world for years.

That’s correct. It seems to me that one cannot settle for just translating literature but must promote it and write about it and its culture. I am also active in this area through my essays, articles, live reports, as well as speeches abroad and addressing Polish issues in general. This is a very important part of my activities to popularise Polish literature and culture in the Arab cultural circle. I have published more than two hundred texts on Polish literature and culture in Arabic in the press and on the Internet.

Do you have any translation dream, authors you would absolutely like to translate?

Probably yes. I'm making intensive plans and working in that direction. This year, I should complete the translation of Zbigniew Herbert's Labirynt nad morzem (“The Labyrinth on the Sea”), and next year, I should submit Bruno Schulz's prose for publication. Afterwards, I will be returning to poetry and to the next part of the anthology of Polish poetry!

Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by Justyna Lowe