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5 July 2023

From Cairo: interview with Hussein Mahmoud, university professor and translator from Italian into Arabic

Davide Scalmani, Director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Cairo

Hussein Mahmoud is an eminent Egyptian Italianist, currently Dean of the Faculty of Languages and Translation at Badr University in Cairo. He taught Italian language and literature at leading Egyptian universities and has translated classic Italian literature into Arabic. A journalist and literary critic, he has written for various Arabic-language newspapers and periodicals.


How did you come to learn Italian?

First of all, I’d like to thank the Italian Cultural Institute in Cairo and its directors, starting with the most distinguished, the Arabist Umberto Rizzitano. I grew up within these walls and especially in this library where we are now, thanks also to the grants I received from the Institute. 

How did I come to learn Italian? I have to say that it happened by pure chance. In Egypt, we have a very peculiar system for enrolling at university, as students don’t have the opportunity to choose exactly the subject they want to study, or even the university they want to go to. 

After my secondary school leaving exam, I found out that I had been assigned to the Faculty of Science at Al Menia University, which is a long way from Cairo, almost 300 km. Fortunately, there was also the possibility of being assigned to one of the many language departments. I got the German department at the Al Alsun School of Languages. I would have preferred to study English, but I was refused a transfer. To avoid German, I was offered the option to choose Italian. So it was only by chance that I began to study Italian, and to love it, thanks to the teachers I had.


Did you go from loving Italian to loving teaching?

No, I didn’t start teaching Italian until twenty years after I graduated. During those twenty years, I worked as a journalist, editor, and translator, mainly using English as a lingua franca. However, I also worked at the Italian news agency ANSA for almost a year and did some work with Italian television. In 1999, when I left journalism, I was editorial director of October, an influential magazine published in Cairo and close to former president Sadat. I also worked in Saudi Arabia for several prestigious newspapers including Ashark al-Awsat and others. After obtaining a doctorate in Italian language and literature, I returned to academia and university work. I talked to my family and asked my children: “Would you prefer it if your father continues to work as a journalist or to teach at university?” They chose university. I obeyed, as all fathers obey their children. 


First journalist, then university professor. But you never stopped to work as a translator?

I translate every day. Even when I was a university student, I translated every day. And I still sit at my desk every evening translating.


The work of a translator is to be constantly challenged by a difficult task, by new problems emerging with every word, every sentence and every chapter. In my opinion, it’s a very tiring endeavour

I don’t see it as tiring. It’s like chess: if you like the game, it’s not difficult to play. It’s a game we play with words and their meanings. Meaning is always the most important thing in the translation process, as the ultimate goal is to transfer meaning from one side to the other. When you have to carry a heavy object from one place to another, sometimes you need help, but if the object is light, you can carry it without much difficulty. I don’t agree with those who say that the translation process is almost impossible. It’s not. It is always possible to translate, because the meanings you transfer from one code to another are universal. Of course, translating literary works takes practice.


For you, it’s daily practice that makes the difference. In chess, however, there is always one good solution, the winning solution, whereas in translation there is never just one solution. What’s more, a game of chess can be solved in the same way in any era, whereas a three-hundred year old translation is not necessarily still good today. That’s what I’ve experienced as a translator: I’ve never been satisfied with my choices because I’ve always had the impression that there could be a better, simpler, more elegant or more effective solution. How do you deal with translation problems, or perhaps they’re not problems for you at all?

I don’t just translate, I also teach translation. Traductology offers a great deal of help to today’s translators. I’m thinking, for example, of the contribution of a world-renowned specialist, Mona Baker, whose work is fundamental in the field of translation studies. These studies have helped me to find solutions that are as close as possible to the source text. Then there’s ‘machine translation’. My first experience of machine translation was with a simple programme produced by IBM. It was a ‘prehistoric’ tool, a programme that could not take context into account. But today, in machine translation, there is no longer any doubt about the contextualisation of different terms and different meanings. My advice to those who want to become translators is to immerse themselves in translation studies, which will help them find solutions that would otherwise be inaccessible from their personal knowledge alone. Of course, it all depends on the type of text. If you’re translating an instruction manual, there’s no room for manoeuvre; if, however, you’re translating a poetic text, there’s plenty of scope to produce a text that runs parallel to the original.


What is the current state of translation from Italian into Arabic? 

It was only at the beginning of the last century, in the 20th century, that the translation of literary works from Italian into Arabic really began. Before that, it was very rare. Even in the 20th century, translations from Italian were few and far between, at least until the 1950s. But after 1956, when the “Al Alsun” school of language was founded and the Italian language department was inaugurated, translations from Italian into Arabic really began. At first, we translated about one book per year. Then, from the 1980s onwards, with the rising level of education in all Arab countries and a growing demand from the more educated classes, translations from Italian became more numerous. Alberto Moravia was one of the most famous and widely translated Italian writers in the Arab world, especially in the 1960s. Authors such as Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco went on to gain notoriety. Today, there is a widespread and significant demand for Italian translations, not only in Egypt, but also in different parts of the Arab world, such as Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, where there is a major Italian translation project called “Kalema” (“word” in Arabic). It’s a very ambitious project I’ve also collaborated with by translating two books.


You’ve also translated some classics, including Dante Alighieri. Do you have an interest in the classics of Italian literature, or do you only read them at university? 

Dante Alighieri occupies a very special place in the history of twentieth-century Arabic literature, especially since the 1930s, after the publication of Miguel Asín Palacios’s famous article on the influence of Arabic and Islamic sources on the Comedy. From the 1970s onwards, the works of philosophers such as Benedetto Croce and Antonio Gramsci were translated into Arabic. There is a strong interest in Italian non-fiction in a wide range of fields. For example, I have translated books on Christianity, such as Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth, and books on history, such as L’Islam visto dall’Occidente (Islam Seen from the West) or Venezia porta d’Oriente, (Venice, Gate to the East) both by Maria Pia Pedani.


Do you have any advice for a hypothetical Egyptian publisher? Which books should be translated today, in 2023?

A lot of students need texts in a wide range of fields, especially those that concern subjects which are studied at university, such as literature on emigration, which is a very contemporary topic. And then, of course, books on art history are very significant, because to Egyptians Italy is the land of art, design, and architecture. But the novel definitely remains the favourite genre or Egyptian readers, alongside poetry, which has a very ancient tradition in Egypt.


What translation projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently finishing a project I started nearly forty years ago: translating Boccaccio‘s Decameron. There are two Arabic translations of the Decameron, one from Spanish, which is a very good translation, and one from Italian, completed by two young graduates from the school of languages. While working on my doctorate, I did a comparative analysis of Boccaccio’s Decameron and The Thousand and One Nights, but there are things in Boccaccio’s book that I didn’t understand until recently. Furthermore, this work was written in an era that differs much from the present day, so it is necessary to find the right balance between the language of the 14th century, in which it was written, and the language of today. There are also other problems concerning Boccaccio’s narrative technique, an aspect that has perhaps escaped the attention of colleagues who tackled the translation of this work. I would like to leave to the next generation a translation of this great classic of Italian literature.


Dante wasn’t enough for you…

The translation of Dante’s The New Life was also a challenge, because for the first time the Arab public was made aware of the fact that Dante was not just the author of The Divine Comedy. The New Life also contains echoes of Arab culture, such as Ibn al-Hazm’s text on love. Finally, The New Life is significant because it marks the beginning of Dante’s poetic activity.


Let’s go back to technology. Earlier, you told us about the time when you used IBM software. 

What other tools have you used?

I’ve used all the tools that technology has produced to help translators, starting with what are known as CAT Tools, which stand for Computer Assisted Translation. These are programmes that create a memory that translators use to remember what they have already translated. In short, CAT Tools store your translation activity, your lexical choices and so on. They are therefore particularly useful for non-literary translation, in specific languages and sectors.


From a quantitative point of view, is the non-literary translation sector much more important?

Literary translation is marginal, time-consuming, and poorly paid. Technology plays a crucial role in the translation of sector languages, although machine translation into Arabic has not yet progressed as far as it has in European languages. Today, artificial intelligence threatens the very existence of the translator. For some years now, European translation agencies have been asking to check and edit texts that have already been translated automatically. In the years to come, editing will also be carried out by machine translation tools. All that will remain for human beings is to proofread the translation carried out by machines. However, it is not hard to predict that other artificial intelligence programmes will soon be able to check the quality of the translation produced by the machine. We are heading for a very bleak future in this area.


Would you now advise a young person who wants to become a translator to pursue this career?

 Yes, I would. And I would advise them to continue translating, even if machine translation threatens the survival of their profession. I would advise them based on my experience, because I can make use of a machine, but I can’t stop doing what I love.


I mean, it’s the feelings that are at the centre, the part that supports everything else or drives everything else… 

 Yes, it’s the feelings that count, even in the field of science and technology, because at the end of the day, all progress should be aimed towards a happier life.