January 9th, 2024

Forum Chat
Amy Wilson interviews poet and translator Abdelrehim Youssef

AW: Thank you for sitting down with me this afternoon to discuss your work as a poet and translator. You are the author of seven books of poetry and have translated numerous works of literature. Let me begin by asking how you got your start as a translator?

AY: When I was still a student in the English Department, Faculty of Education in Alexandria University, translation was a subject among many others. Some of my friends from high school who were in other departments began asking me to help them in translating small texts from English, texts they had to study and keep by heart for their exams in English as an additional subject. Later, I began translating longer texts for post-graduate students. That was in the 1990s.

In 2004, I began working with an NGO in Alexandria as a volunteer, and part of my work was translating the proposals and releases of this association from Arabic to English. But I think my real start was in 2005, when I was thirty years old, and a teacher of English in poor governmental schools since 1998, and a member of the cultural scene in Alexandria since 1999. In 2005, the American poet Andrea Young and our friend Khaled Hegazy, an Egyptian poet living in the United States, had the idea of creating a bilingual periodical called Meena (which in Egyptian Arabic means a port and refers also to the name of the first Pharoah to unify the Upper and Lower Egypt). They both asked me to participate with poems and translations in the first issue of the magazine. This venture joined writers from the USA and the Arab World and was edited between Alexandria (Egypt) and New Orleans. When Andrea and Khaled came to Alexandria to work on the issue with us, they both chose me and my friend Samy Ismael as assistant editors. The meetings of the editing team were my real first lessons of translating creative writing. I was an assistant editor in the three issues that were published of Meena, in 2005, 2006, and 2009.

In 2012, I took another important step as a translator by working for about a year with Human Rights Watch office in Cairo. I learned a lot. And during the next two years, I translated some reports for the office of the UNESCO in Germany and the UNFPA in Cairo.

In the same year, 2012, I went to Frankfurt Book Fair where I met the publisher Mohamed El Baaly who gave me two books; he had bought the translation rights of them and asked me: “Which one would you like to translate?” I was a little overwhelmed by the direct offer and trust. I chose a collection of modern Irish stories and I worked on them from October 2012 to June 2014. It was published in September and was the first whole book to carry my name as a translator.           

AW: Who are some of your mentors and role models as a translator?

AY: I have a special respect for the efforts of the Egyptian professor and translator Mohamed Enani (1939) whose studies about translation are important; his translations of Shakespeare in particular were enlightening models to me. Also, I am a big fan of the works of the late Palestinian translator Saleh Almani (1949-2019), whose translations from Spanish are of great quality in Arabic. I like and wait always for the translations of Samir Grees from German. I have learned, too, from the work of my friend the poet, novelist, and translator Ahmed Shafie. There are also other names I enjoy and learn a lot from.

AW: What is your process or approach to translating fiction?

AY: I begin always with searching for any data about the writer and any review of the book. Then I read the first chapter to see if I can get the style of the writer, and see if I like the work at all! Ninety-five percent of the books I have translated were offered to me by publishers. Next, I begin working very slowly at the beginning, just two pages or three a day. I prefer not to read the whole work ahead, as I like to pretend to be the writer who doesn’t know the next step, or the reader who waits for the end to reveal itself! After I finish the whole book, I go through the whole translation draft from the beginning, revising the spelling and grammar mistakes, editing some sentences to be more accurate or beautiful. Then I send it to the publisher and I ask to have the PDF of the work before the printing to check it once more.

AW: What do you consider the most challenging aspect of translation?

AY: For me, every new translation has its own challenges, but mainly I try mostly to have as complete and thorough comprehension of the text as I can. This is not an easy task, especially with fiction and literature in general, with the different layers of meanings and cultural contexts. So, I search a lot behind every idiom and cultural reference. I remember that my first attempt to translate a novel was upon suggestion by the American poet and friend Andrea Young. She gave me a copy of The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, and told me that this novel should be translated into Arabic. I spent six months between 2009 and 2010 and I finished it, filling it with footnotes about songs, artists and films mentioned in the novel. Luckily, my translation of the novel was not published before 2017, as I got some more experience so could edit the draft and omit some of the footnotes.

Another challenge is to forge the translation into correct literary Arabic style, and to not betray the original text and at the same time allow the Arab reader to enjoy what he/she reads. 

AW: What were your two favorite stories in the collection you translated from English to Arabic, The Alexandria You Are Losing by Yasser El-Sayed?

AY: I fell in love with most of the collection, but I told Dr. Yasser that for me, A Winter for Longing is a masterpiece. I also liked a lot and enjoyed tremendously translating Magdalena by Evening.

AW: You are also a poet. How do you characterize your style of poetry and who are some of your influences on your own poetry?

AY: Well, I write poetry in Egyptian colloquial, or what they call Egyptian Arabic. I have already published seven books of poetry, six of them are mainly in the style of prose poetry. Naturally, my influences came from the classic Egyptian poets of the twentieth century: Bayram Al-Tunsi (1893-1961) Fouad Haddad (1927-1985) Salah Jahin (1930-1986) Abdelrahman Elabnoudi (1938-2015) and Sayed Hegab (1940-2017). But I am also open to the classic Arabic poetry, which has a long history, and the modern poetry whether in classic Arabic or in Egyptian colloquial.

While still in the faculty of Education, I was exposed also to English poetry. I fell in love with the works of John Donne, some of Eliot’s, Yeats, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath and many others.     

AW: What is on the horizon in terms of poetry and translations in the near future?

AY: I can say that I have had a writing block in poetry for more than two years now, and I find some condolence in translating literature. I do have two finished books of poetry in the drawer which I will try to publish next year. However, after the death of my father last May, I began writing a long poetic text about him. Perhaps this is point of returning to poetry.

Concerning translation, I was very glad to see the publication of The Alexandria You Are Losing by Yasser Elsayed. I am also waiting for publication of my translation of the novel Castillo by the Maltese writer Clare Azzopardi. I have recently finished translating an interesting book by the Indian journalist Taran Khan entitled Shadow City, A Woman Walks Kabul, and it is to be published soon by a Kuwaiti publishing house.

AW: Thank you so much for chatting today. You are certainly prolific and we all look forward to more and more of your poetry and works of translation.

About the author: Abdelrehim Youssef is an Egyptian poet and translator. Born in 1975 in Alexandria, he graduated from Alexandria University in 1997. He worked as a teacher of English for twenty years before retiring in 2018 and devoting his time to translation work. He has published seven books of poetry in Egyptian Arabic and has translated over twenty books. He received the Encouragement Award of the Egyptian State for translation in 2017 for his translation of Three Studies about Morals and Virtue by Bernard Mandeville. He is married to the Egyptian writer Omayma  Abdelshafy and they have one son, Yehia, who is 16 years old.

Abdelrehim Youssef