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 dralaa57@yahoo.com
    The editor-in-chief at Knopf is  Sonny Mehta, contactable at smehta@randomhouse.com
    I can be contacted at jnthnwrght@gmail.com


Jonathan Wright
Oct 23, 2013
 


32 comments:

  1. I am sorry you've been through this mess. But I say good riddance. The novel in question is also sub par, and not worth reading anyway.

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    1. Thanks, Ahmad. I'm going to steer clear of any literary critique of the work for the moment! I'll just concentrate on Aswany's behaviour

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  2. I missed the air that immediately captures and enthralls Assuany's readers after the first lines.. All due respect, but Aswany has a point.-

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    1. I've been a translator for 49 years; and I know that only night musk has an air that "captures and enthralls". A sensational writer can only hope to entertain and "make money". I also know that those criticisms of the translation are nothing but bad faith.

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    2. miskelayla, Jonathan identified himself as a translator not a novel writer, even though his writing style is the most proper to highlight facts not emotions, I've read his post from start to end, and I doubt he is lying in any part of it, in my opinion he has the right to for an apology and compensation,

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  3. Despicable, indeed. His list of complaints is utter nonsense.

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. What would you expect from an opportunistic writer?!

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  6. Hi Jonathan! I completely understand your frustration and disappointment. Aswany could have handled this differently and in a way that honors you, your work and, of course, the friendship (I have managed projects for years and have been put in similar situations with similar disputes and it is never easy). However, my advice to you is to never work on a project before you sign the contract. Never. They emailed you to cancel the contract 10 days after it was signed. It may seem untrusting to the other party, unpleasant, too rigid... Call it what you may. Don't do it. Business is business and friendship is a whole other story. That said, I think both AUC P and Knopf are to be professionally blamed for this. The fact that they are using Aswany as an excuse only demonstrates lack of professionalism. The contract is with them, not Aswany, and so, it is their responsibility to resolve any problems that arise with you. Aswany could have demonstrated integrity; he could have stood up for you, for a smooth exit out of this mess; he did have leverage but when all is said and done, your problem is with the publisher and you should never work on a project before you sign a contract.

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    1. No. AUC Press is completely blameless in this. They acted openly and honestly throughout. In fact, they are also an aggrieved party but I won't go into that. Aswany is the main culprit and his behavior was disgusting. Knopf merely followed because they think they can make money out of him and they don't want to lose him. Lastly, you are right when you say it is unwise to work until you have a signed contract but that's a risk I took. It doesn't affect my rights. If you hire someone to paint your house and he finishes half of it in one day, you can't change your mind and say you won't pay half because he worked too fast. Interestingly, Knopf never even made that case. I have worked on projects where we never signed and the work was wasted, and I never complained. Win some, lose some, that's my business.

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  7. Aswany has a very controversial position with regard to the Egyptian coup, totally incongruous with his career as a writer. Recently he was whisked away from a lecture in the Arab World Institute in Paris before being attacked by audience angry because of his support of the bloody coup.
    From a literary perspective, Aswany is a literary phenomena. He came to prominence with very few works that have nothing exceptional. He is rather the making of publishing industry in Egypt and abroad. But the real merit of his work is very much indeed in question. Of course his behavior with regard to the book is not proper particularly as a person engaged in art and creativity, and so Knopf.

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  8. An 8,600 word sample?!!! If translators like you are going to be so generous, I'm going to have to look for a new career!

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    1. What about the full book as sample? :)

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    2. I agree with Heather.8000 words should be paid about $2000, if you work for half-decent employers.

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    3. It's not just 8,000 words. It's many times more. I started work when they said they were preparing a contract. That might have been risky but that's my business.

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  9. Thank you for this detailed account, which sounds to me sadly familiar and unfortunately shows the widely shared misgivings about translation work. It seems to me that trying to justify this by assessing your translation is simply beside the point (even if the list of "mistakes" unearthed is indeed laughable). Your sample had been accepted by Knopf and a contract sent. Fullstop. A publisher with self-respect should be able to stand against authors' capricious attitudes, especially when a contract has been signed (even if "technically" not returned signed by them). The author's prerogatives do not go beyond expressing a preference beforehand for a particular translator, and do not include the right to impose anyone, let alone to break an existing contract.

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  10. The so called list of mistakes is indeed laughable.

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    1. They are nothing but cheap shots. And as I said in another comment, they are nothing but bad faith.

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  11. Wylie has a track record of 'issues' with translators. He killed off the excellent di Giovanni translations of Borges for new versions that many people feel are not as good. The fact that Borges had offered di Giovanni a high royalty had nothing to do with this decision, of course!

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/feb/19/jorge-luis-borges-di-giovanni

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  12. Isn't it funny that an Arabic man does not know that the correct word is Al-Fatiha and not Al-Fatha?!!!

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  13. Good luck Jonathan , I hope you will get your rights from Aswany. He has the right to cancel the contract, but should have indeed compensated you fully for your work. It seems that those who support the coup; like Aswany, think they can do anything under their crazy revolution code! If Aswany sees a clear coup as a revolution, no wonder he insists that the pristine Arabic word Fatiha is worng and the Egyptian slang word Fatha is right!

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    1. "He has the right to cancel the contract"?
      He's not even party to the contract.

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  14. Respect!
    Thank you for confirming for those of us who are not sure about Mr. Aswany's morals, that they are not alone.
    I think we can confidently say that Mr. Aswany is a man of principles as long as those principles serve his interests well, but not one bit further.
    I was personally shocked by him the first time, prior to the vote on Egypt new constitution when he called to confiscate the right of illiterate people to vote.
    From someone who defends democracy and human rights, you should expect that him to defend that basic right.
    Then his fierce support of a military regime and defending a military coup that overthrow the democratic dream of a whole nation. This is all beyond political opinion disagreement.
    it is very enlightening to know what kind of a man he is on the personal and professional level.
    Forgive me if I cannot hide my pleasure that the world was deprived from yet another one of his mouthpieces, I certainly wish you all the best in your professional career, with real decent Arab writers, however rare that might be.
    Lastly about that certain corner in hell for those who give false witness, let me say: Amen.

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  15. That with Al Fatiha is hilarious I will never forget that :D

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  16. Mr Jonathan Wright
    I am so sorry that you have to go through all this. But I am not at all surprise from the behaviour of Dr Aswany. I am following the situation in Egypt since a while, and I was totaly shocked from the huge change in Dr Aswany's position to the revolution, before he was totaly for it and now he is absolutly against it and for the Military coup. Such a person is not to be trusted he can't be normal, I can even think he is an Opportunist and not an honorable man at all.

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  17. Are you teasing me Mr.Jonathan !! What are you expecting from a man cheated his home, his country, his partners in Tahrir Square ? you know Mr.Jonathan ? i may understand if a whore said i haven,t any other choice but i never ever forgive those who call themselves elite or preachers

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  18. aswany is not a respected man to me. he is opportunist and double-faced. his political views are totally absurd. Good luck Mr. Jonathan, you are a diligent man.

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  19. In Arabic it is (( Al-Fatiha or Al-Fateha )) not (( Al-Fatha ))
    Alaa Al-Aswany has a shit personality

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  20. dear jonathan, in solidarity with u, i post the link of an old article on aswany that i have written about 3 years ago.
    https://www.facebook.com/notes/mona-prince/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%83%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%B9%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%85%D9%81%D8%AA%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AB%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%88%D8%B7%D9%86%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%85%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%84-%D9%85%D9%86%D9%89-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%86%D8%B3-%D8%A3%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7/469335907742

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  21. I know that the working arrangements for translators vary from place to place, but working for hire and on spec (that is, before I have a signed contract) is something I assiduously avoid. It can lead to problems even when all parties have the most honorable intentions.

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  22. non-conformist


    Mr. Wright:

    I would like to say that I am appalled that you had to go through such a horrible experience, especially with a person like Mr. Aswany, who claims that he fights for people's rights. Also, I am pleased that you did not keep quiet about such an unethical behavior and decided to stand for rights. I totally support your position on this issue.

    I did not look at all the errors Mr. Aswany claimed to have identified in the translation sample you provided for his novel. However, the one concerning 'Fatiha' is an interesting one. First of all, you are absolutely right, the Arabic word 'فاتحة' should be spelt 'Fatiha'. I am sure you know the difference between the way the word 'فاتحة' is pronounced and written in standard or classical Arabic and the colloquial Egyptian Arabic 'فتحة', but "Dr. Aswany" does not. The spelling he provided for the word 'فاتحة' is correct in the Egyptian dialect. Had "Dr. Aswany" been smart enough, he could have said that he wanted the word to be spelt the way it is pronounced 'فتحة' in the Egyptian dialect and written 'Fatha' instead of the standard one 'Fatiah'!

    Anyway, please do not give up and teach him a lesson to remember for the rest of his life. This will set a good example for other translators so that they know how to fight for their rights ethically and professionally. I am sure one day they will approach you and beg for some kind of settlement to your satisfaction; they will try their best to avoid bad publicity.

    I liked the way you documented all your correspondence with all the involved parties to provide evidence for your case against them and reveal their malpractices in the best possible way.

    I have other things to say about this issue, but I will email them directly to you, for I do not want to make them for public use yet.

    Good luck!

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