A Cautionary Tale

Here’s an open letter from Jonathan Wright about some shit that went down with Knopf and Dr. Alaa Al Aswany, the author of The Yacoubian Building. If nothing else, you MUST check out this set of corrections from Al Aswany. It is things. And something I’m using in my classes from now until forever . . . Anyway, the letter:

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, click here), with a cover 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 retroactively 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.2

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 or in London on +447586244484

Jonathan Wright
Oct 23, 2013

1 Holy shitsnacks is all of this document insane. It’s the worst sort of authorial interference in a translator’s work, and is both rude and pretty lame.

One example: From the column entitled, “Mr. Wright’s wrong translation” (wow. WOW.), “My wife realized I needed some time alone.”

In the “The Correct accurate meaning of the word” column: “My wife understood my need for the solitude.”

The fuck? Seriously? Not only is the “Wright’s wrong” a terrible pun and really over-the-top, but “Correct accurate meaning” is redundant and sounds like someone who doesn’t understand English. That and “my need for the solitude.” Oh boy, oh boy.

And it goes on and on and on. “Like a bewitched city” to be replaced by “as if.” “I had a good look” versus “I had a look.” This reads like a hack job done by someone who wanted to create cause to get rid of Jonathan Wright as the translator.

2 This is a clause included in every single Open Letter contract. If we think a translation is awful, there is a system for sending it to three outside judges who evaluate it. No matter what, the translator gets 2/3 of the agreed to payment.

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